Barry Salzman Artist Statement
It Never Rained on Rhodes is about loss. It explores the loss of place, heritage, history, community, family and cultural identity. Through the lens of the last surviving Rhodesli 1 Jews, including some who survived Auschwitz, and their descendants, I consider fragmentation of life and community. The project is a multi-part installation that explores collective narrative and the impact of a society’s destruction on memory and nostalgia. By using text, objects, photographs, video and audio in documentary, narrative and abstract ways, I hope to encourage viewers to draw connections between the fragmented memories and emotions of others and those of their own, to make history more personally resonant. Throughout the project, I avoid specific geographic, demographic and historic references, in order to transform the story of the Rhodesli Jews into a vehicle that emotionally engages the audience in broad notions of loss and the significance of history, both personal and collective.
I began the project as a personal inquiry into an aspect of my own heritage, specifically with a view to better understanding the extent to which it influenced my sense of identity and belonging. I was always aware that my maternal grandparents were born on Rhodes, but for most of my life I maintained barely a tangential affiliation with their heritage. I recently became more aware of that heritage disappearing with the last surviving Rhodesli Jews passing away and decided I wanted to explore that loss. All my life I was aware that many of my grandparents’ relatives, friends and neighbors perished in Auschwitz. I thought I knew that story. And so when I set out to explore issues of heritage and identity by examining the community my grandparents grew up in, I intended to ignore the deportation to Auschwitz.
In 2013 I traveled to ten cities in five countries and shot 100 hours of video footage and 300 photographic portraits of Rhodesli Jews and their descendants. Based on my research there were approximately 45 Rhodeslis still alive worldwide at the time and 25 of them are represented in my project. As I began to work with them it quickly became clear that, despite their or my original intentions, my subjects were going to talk about the deportation from Rhodes and the horror of Auschwitz. People found it impossible to talk about their life on Rhodes more than 70 years ago without the weight of their trauma and loss shaping, guiding, and often overtaking their memories.
As my project evolved, Auschwitz and the deportation became integral elements. I decided, however, not to mention them by name because I wanted to mitigate against the pre-programmed responses of so many people towards those historical events which have been so broadly addressed. I did not want to give my audience permission to disengage because they think they know that story. Hearing the emotional memories of these survivors, I felt like I was hearing about the Holocaust for the first time. I quickly acknowledged that I really did not know that story. I also believe that the majority of my audience does not actually know the story they think they know so well. We have taken the warning that “history repeats itself” and relegated it to the realm of cliché, and in so doing, have made cruel mockery of our social protestations of “never again.”
It was important to me to explore ways to re-engage my audience with content we all think we know. To achieve this, I chose not to anchor the project in historical or geographic specifics as a device to make the emotions of my subjects more transferable. I used contemporary color imagery providing life-like detail and clarity to explore the past through the lens of the present, in contrast with the archival black and white imagery we are accustomed to seeing in representations of the Second World War. In the video installation I included extended moments of silence, both to represent the failure of language to describe the experiences of the victims and also to give the viewer space for personal contemplation. Throughout the project, I fused the discourse of the historian with that of the artist to challenge the audience in factual, imaginative and emotional ways to get them to engage with content they think they know in new and different ways.
In working on It Never Rained on Rhodes, I reclaimed what small part of my heritage I could by digitally reconstituting the community that disappeared and inserting myself into it. The themes of aging and death are prevalent throughout the project. I explore loss of place, history and community in relation to the loss of life -- both for my own edification and also in the hopes of reminding my audience of the tenuous and transient nature of our personal and collective histories, and of our duty to participate in their preservation. To highlight the fragility of the heritage we receive, I punctuate the video piece with the voice of a descendant who declares, “and all that was left in the end was the food.”
With the passage of time we run the risk of the lived experience becoming a book, and then a chapter in a book and then a paragraph in a chapter and then a footnote in the chapter, before it is forever lost. Or perhaps the lived experience takes up the domain of myth or fairytale, losing all semblances of reality and the lessons that it carried. This project is just one person’s voice against allowing that to happen.
1“Rhodesli” is the name given to people born on the Aegean island of Rhodes, but is most typically used to refer to the Sephardic Jews that were born on Rhodes.