It Never Rained on Rhodes
A Project by Barry Salzman
“In order to know we must imagine for ourselves. Let us not invoke the unimaginable. Let us not shelter ourselves by saying that we cannot, that we could not by any means, imagine it to the very end. We are obliged to that oppressive imaginable.”
Images in Spite of All , Georges Didi-Huberman
Introduction and Context
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. It is a multi-part installation project 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. In 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 history.
As the son of a Sephardic mother and an Ashkenazi father, I was raised as a non-observant Sephardic Jew. My maternal grandparents were born on Rhodes Island. By all accounts, the Jewish population on Rhodes lived an idyllic and largely carefree life for almost 500 years after seeking refuge from the Spanish Inquisition. On July 23, 1944, 1,673 Jews were shipped to Auschwitz from Rhodes -- the farthest place the Nazis reached in their deportation of Jews. Upon arrival at Auschwitz they stood in the selection lines before Dr. Josef Mengele. Those placed to the left were killed immediately. Those on the right were deemed useful to the Third Reich in some way. Six months later when Auschwitz was liberated, there were only 151 Rhodesli survivors. None went back to live on Rhodes.
All my life I had known 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 Holocaust. That was the deal I struck with my subjects, which secured their participation in the project because several had never talked about the Holocaust before -- not even to their own families -- but all were committed to preserving the stories of life on Rhodes in the short time they had left. I decided to meet as many as possible of the remaining Rhodeslis, who are now in their 80s or 90s and are scattered around the world. They and I realized little time remained. I wanted them to tell me their stories and to know what life was like on Rhodes in as much detail as they could remember. I was especially interested in the signifiers of heritage and identity that they were able to pass to future generations, in contrast with those that were forever lost with the loss of place. I planned to end my project with the day they left Rhodes, however and whenever that was -- specifically to exclude the Holocaust. I was more interested in investigating the relationship between heritage and identity, particularly as a way to better understand the extent to which my own heritage influenced my adult identity. Further, I did not think I had anything to add to the extensive work by artists, writers, academics, filmmakers, historians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and so many others on the concentration camps of the Second World War. And anyway, I already knew that story.
During the summer of 2013 I traveled to ten cities in five countries and shot 100 hours of video footage and 300 photographic portraits of Rhodeslis and their descendants. Based on my research there are approximately 45 Rhodeslis still alive worldwide 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 seventy years ago without the weight of their trauma and loss shaping, guiding, and often overtaking their memories. Several found it difficult to recall a time of normalcy prior to the deportation, and often normalcy eluded them for the rest of their lives. After all, their entire community had been deported. Each person was impacted directly by the events of the Second World War. Even if they themselves had left Rhodes prior to the deportation, often their parents or siblings had not. Consequently, I make no distinction in my project between the Rhodeslis who were deported and those that managed to leave the island prior to 1940, after which Jewish immigration was prohibited.
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.” And so I began to focus my project on re-engaging my audience with content we all think we know. This imperative took on an increased sense of urgency after two of my subjects passed away within weeks of shooting. The remaining original Rhodeslis are in the evening of their lives, heightening the responsibility I feel to engage with the past through their present memories, and by so doing, to bring their past into our present.
The principle of exploring the past through the lens of the present became my point of departure from the work of Christian Boltanski, one of the contemporary artists most often associated with the Holocaust. Whereas Boltanski’s primary source material is the archive, I wanted my content to embody the present in contrast with the archival black and white imagery we are accustomed to seeing in representations of the Second World War. I therefore use contemporary color imagery -- both still and moving. The still images are high-resolution medium format and the video imagery is full high-definition. Both provide life-like detail and clarity, a shift from the more common trope of the still image representing the past and the moving image carrying with it an energy and vitality that references the present. I also use scale at life-size and larger, with both the still and moving imagery, to empower my subjects with a physical presence, forcing the viewer to respond to them in the present as real living people.
While the overarching foundation of the entire project remains my original theme of loss, the unplanned introduction of Holocaust-related content obliged me to engage with the debate on modes of representation of the Holocaust and to situate my work in that context. But first, I needed to better understand why we all think we know the story of the Holocaust and the testimonies of survivors. In Caught By History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature and Theory, Ernst Van Alphen (2-3) claims that we stop hearing Holocaust narratives because they rarely allow for a personal response since the appropriate response is “already culturally prescribed or narratively programmed.” He argues against “the unassailable axiom in Holocaust studies that historical discourse, such as documentary is much more effective in teaching about the Holocaust than imaginative discourse," framing the debate between the approach of the historian and that of the artist.
In Conversation with Art and the Holocaust
Christian Boltanksi addresses this issue by anchoring his practice in the very historical mode imposed upon representations of the Holocaust. He re-photographs and enlarges archival images, often until they are no longer identifiable as specific individuals. By highlighting similarities like unfocused faces and black sockets for eyes, Boltanksi transforms the individuality typical of portraiture into anonymity. Doing so, he re-enacts one of the defining principles of the Holocaust -- the dehumanization of the individual by making him or her anonymous, while subverting the evidentiary truth often attributed to photography.
Barbie Zeller in Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera’s Eye (141) warns, “For those who thought the world would not forget what happened, it became alarmingly clear that the photos [the historical atrocity photographs of the liberation of the concentration camps] might reach a point at which they would no longer work as carriers of that memory.” Her warning challenges us to supplement the archive with additional means of maintaining those memories. In my work, I confront the viewer with enough space to formulate a personal response, by fusing documentary and imaginative or fictitious treatments of the material, by not identifying specifics of time or place, and by creating extended moments of silence for contemplation. The project’s title, It Never Rained on Rhodes, suggests the fiction of idealized memories, as do the references in the video piece to the “bluest sea”, the watermelons that were “the best in the world” or the “huge lemons”. I also rely on the imaginative discourse in my photographic murals, which reimagine the lost community. By compositing 300 life-size portraits of Rhodeslis and three generations of their descendants from across the diaspora into one continuous piece, I have created the community that may have existed today in a mural that completely envelopes the viewer. It temporarily transposes the experience of being a minority from the imagined Rhodesli community onto the viewer, who is both outsized and outnumbered by the community represented in the murals.
In Imagine You Must | You Must Imagine, the three-channel video installation that is the cornerstone of It Never Rained on Rhodes, I use interview footage that directly references the documentary genre and the approach of the historian or archivist. However, borrowing from video artist Omer Fast, I also subvert documentary’s maxims of objectivity and the invisible hand of the filmmaker by manipulating the English text I use to translate from Ladino 2 to shift time and meaning. In addition, my edit is aggressively non-linear, often juxtaposing discontinuous times, subjects and meanings. This editing style moves my work away from historical discourse and into the realm of the imaginative. I am also unambiguous about shifting away from documentary when I penetrate the fourth-wall by personally coming into the frame twice in the piece. I use these interruptions as a device to remind the viewer that we are all impacted, directly or indirectly, by history. I want the audience to reflect on the responsibility we have to further interject ourselves into historical narratives by asking, listening, remembering, preserving and imagining the lived experiences of others.
It would be remiss of me to utilize interview footage of Holocaust survivors without addressing Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. My video is characterized by the differences from his approach not the similarities. Shoah is very explicitly about the Holocaust. My piece is not. Lanzmann tries to recreate specifics of the Holocaust experience, often by returning to exact locations or recreating them in an effort to trigger situation-specific emotional responses from his subjects. I, on the other hand, try to abstract from the specifics as much as possible to make the emotions of my subjects more transferable. Lanzmann primarily takes the approach of the archivist by collecting memories and presenting them to the audience without adopting a narrative structure. He is convinced of the inability of narrative to do justice to the facts and, consequently, does not try to represent the event. Like Lanzmann I too avoid narrative. However, unlike Shoah, despite my exclusive use of interview footage, my video piece moves back and forth between the domain of the archivist and that of the imagination.
Herman Dirk van Dodeweerd, a Dutch artist and writer known as Armando, places the Second World War at the center of his work, but without using historical or geographical identifiers. It is based on his childhood experience in central Holland, during the German occupation, when he lived near a concentration camp where the systematic maltreatment of prisoners was well known within the local community. However, his work is not “historical” in the traditional sense since he explicitly avoids specificity of time or place -- a device that I too use. Like Boltanski, Armando does not address the Holocaust directly, but relies on oblique references that focus on symbol and metaphor. Van Alphen (35) comments that Armando’s “violent strategy of ‘annexation and isolation’ represents a history without narrative plot, without beginning, development, or end, without a clear distribution of roles.” The landscape is an important symbol in Armando’s work. In pieces like The Tree, Forest Outskirts, and Guilty Landscape, he implicates the trees, particularly those at the edge of the forest, as guilty parties to the War’s atrocities. They passively stood by and witnessed events, and further were complicit in covering up crimes as they continued to grow and bear flowers. Van Alphen (35) writes that Armando’s work “is paradoxically antinarrative, actively fighting against the meaningful continuity produced by emplotment. This is so because the mechanisms of narration constitute a coherence, a sense of development and continuity, that is radically alien to the reality of history.”
Van Alphen’s conception of the “reality of history” rings true, at least to the reality represented by the memories of the Rhodeslis who survived Auschwitz. The logic of continuous linear narrative was destroyed for Holocaust survivors since the liberation of the camps did not mark the end of one phase of life and the start of another. In fact for many, the experiences of the Holocaust became intensified post-liberation. When I interviewed my subjects, I frequently tried to bring the discussion back to life on Rhodes and away from the trauma of the deportation and war. However, the logical and chronological structure of my line of enquiry in no way reflected their remembered reality. For this reason the notion of the “antinarrative” refined my conceptual commitment to the non-linear structure of my video piece. I chose a non-linear approach because I was not creating a documentary piece or telling a specific story, but instead was exploring conceptual themes through the fragmented memories of others. I used fragmentation and non-linearity in my editing literally to reflect the experiences and memories of my subjects.
By using Holocaust material in my project, I am, consciously, situating my work within the debate on whether it is in fact possible to represent the Holocaust. One of the most frequently cited statements on Holocaust representation is Theodor Adorno’s dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”3. This statement addresses not only poetry, but more generally the tension between ethics and aesthetics inherent in any artwork that reproduces the cultural values that generated the Holocaust. Additionally, many feel that the Holocaust is unspeakable -- that the symbolic domain of mimetic language is uniquely inadequate to describe it and that its historical reality is beyond comprehension. Van Alphen contends that the problem Holocaust survivors encounter is “precisely that the lived events could not be experienced because language did not provide the terms with which to experience them. The Holocaust has had a traumatic impact for many because it could not be experienced, because a distance from it in language or representation was not possible.” To show this, I use several moments of silence in the video piece when people look into the camera unable to speak along with other moments where they stumble on words that are simply inadequate to describe the events they lived.
Critics often warn that representing the Holocaust is not only impossible, but also undesirable, since it threatens to desensitize us to history. But as Van Alphen says, such caution does not mean that the Holocaust cannot or should not be represented. Rather, we should continue to transmit knowledge of it by seeking new and alternative ways to represent it that preserve contact with its extreme history. The imaginative discourse of art and literature, as a complement or supplement to the historical discourse, offers such possibilities.
In It Never Rained on Rhodes, I consciously avoid specific identifiers like “Auschwitz”, “Nazi”, “Jew”, “Hitler”, “Germany” or “Poland,” adapting a tactic utilized by Armando and others. In fact, other than in the project’s title, I do not identify the lost place of the Rhodeslis idealized past as the island of Rhodes. I decouple the memories and emotions of my subjects from their historical moments locked in time and place to make those emotions relevant to a broader audience. I do this to help create the space for a personal response and not to prescribe one for the viewer. At a screening of the video a middle-aged man was noticeably moved and I asked why. He explained that when he heard the woman in the video say “I am the voice of the dead,” for him it referenced the long time survivor guilt associated with the AIDS epidemic, which was his holocaust and the one that he engaged with while watching the piece. For that person, the video achieved what I set out to accomplish.
The final installation form of It Never Rained on Rhodes is comprised of text, objects, photographs, video and audio installed across three separate but inter-connected rooms. The pieces previously mentioned in this paper, that is, the three-channel video piece and the composited photographic murals are the focus of the project, and will ultimately be shown in Room Two and Room Three respectively. Room One is designed to raise the thematic issues of loss and fragmentation that I address in the project, including the collective complacency we have developed about the cautions of history repeating itself. I have designed the installation to be viewed sequentially from Room One through to Room Three.
I have made multiple pieces to curate from for Room One, depending on the specific site for the installation. They include still and video portraits, portrait fragments, text pieces, a collection of books, and an audio piece.
For the purposes of the installation plan in this paper, Room One includes the following three pieces:
- The Imagine You Must | You Must Imagine photographic diptych, which is a two panel piece, each 72” x 24”. The first is a larger than life size full-length portrait of a recently deceased Rhodesli man. The companion panel continuously repeats the title of the piece hundreds of times with a gradient of white to black from bottom to top. As the text reaches the top of the image, in alignment with the head of the portrait in the second panel, the viewer only sees black, the words no longer visible, thus forcing the viewer to imagine. This piece references the quote I used at the opening of this paper from Images in Spite of All by Georges Didi-Huberman (3) about not “invoking the unimaginable,” but instead forcing ourselves to imagine to the very end.
- The portrait fragments that include, for example, cropped images of feet, mouths and eyes. These reference the project’s recurrent theme of fragmentation in both form and substance (including the editing style of the video piece). Further, the images of feet and shoes reference the writings of Primo Levi and others about the criticality of footwear in the concentration camps to help some prisoners work and hence survive. They also allude to the historical images etched in our memory of piles of shoes that were confiscated from victims on their arrival at the camps. Cropped images of Rhodeslis’ mouths and eyes refer to bearing witness to history and also to the act of speaking or not speaking about the past.
- The book collection, 11 Million Histories, is a seemingly random collection of books, old and new, on genres including history, fiction, children’s books, religion, and politics. Upon closer inspection, it is clear they are carefully curated with titles that comment on the themes in my project. In every book, I have replaced the original pages with pages that repeat the text “history repeats itself and the rest is history.” The final collection will have approximately 50 books in total containing the word “history” 11 million times, each representing a person intentionally murdered by the Nazi regime5. The book collection addresses how our society has become increasingly ahistorical, as the elderly have gone from being revered community members and carriers of heritage and tradition to social burdens often banished to old age homes. At the same time the warnings and lessons of history have become clichéd and entered the domain of pop culture with the words having lost their significance. Sample book titles include:
- You Have Been Warned, Tides of Fortune 1945-1955, The Child’s Story of the Human Race, The Story of Mankind, Official History of the Second World War, Witness to the Truth, The Negro in Minnesota, Left Out, A Problem From Hell, Nothing But the Truth, and Pass it On.
Room Two is the three channel video installation of Imagine You Must | You Must Imagine. Each channel has a dedicated projection surface approximately 4 by 5 feet and has dedicated audio. In addition, two separate audio channels play voice only tracks, which I use at times to surround the viewer with a community of background voices.
I have specified projectors to render high quality images that achieve a tactile and realistic aesthetic to help establish an emotional connection between viewer and subject. The video installation room is painted charcoal grey, acoustically balanced and has a light trap entry and exit.
Room Three contains the composited photographic murals recreating the idealized Rhodesli community that may have existed if not for the loss, fragmentation and destruction it experienced. The murals comprise full-length life-size portraits of approximately 300 Rhodeslis and their descendants and completely surround the viewer on all four walls. I shot all the portraits with an 80-megapixel medium format digital back, which enables clarity of detail in the prints, even when printed six feet tall. When viewing the work, the audience must simultaneously process vast scale and precise detail, including protruding veins, fading Auschwitz number tattoos, deteriorating skin conditions and other symptoms of old age, sometimes seen in sharp juxtaposition with the youthful vitality of descendants. Further, the murals challenge the classic conventions of portraiture, which emphasize the individual’s subjectivity as defined in terms of their uniqueness and originality over their social connections. My murals emphasize both the individual and the community.
I began the journey that evolved into It Never Rained on Rhodes 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 have been aware of my family’s connection to Rhodes Island all my life. However, for most of that time I maintained barely a tangential affiliation with it. As I became more aware of that heritage disappearing with the last surviving Rhodeslis passing away, I wanted to explore that loss. I reclaimed what small part of it I could by reconstituting the community and metaphorically 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.”
I sat with my subjects through their silence and stammering as language failed them in their efforts to articulate the pain of loss inflicted on the living. In the words of one of my subjects, Stella Levi, “I don’t wish to anyone, to experience that kind of feeling. It’s as if you don’t belong here, you don’t belong in this world. It’s not death, because you are alive to feel that. When you are dead you don’t feel anything anymore.”
1“Rhodesli” is the name given to people born on the island of Rhodes, but is most typically used to refer to the Sephardic Jews that were born on Rhodes.
2Also called “Judeo-Spanish,” it is the Romance language of Sephardic Jews, based on Old Spanish. The Rhodesli community had developed their own dialect of Ladino over the 500 years they lived on Rhodes.
3The dictum was first written in 1949 for a festschrift and published in "An Essay on Cultural Criticism and Society," in Prisms, p.34, 1955, MIT Press. Reprinted London, 1967. Source: http://www.marcuse.org/herbert/people/adorno/AdornoPoetryAuschwitzQuote.htm, accessed March 2014.
4The piece 11 Million Histories references a book by Phil Chernofsky, And Every Single One Was Someone, in which the word ‘Jew’ is printed 6 million times.
Adorno, Theodor W. Can One Live After Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. by Tiedemann, Rolf, Cultural Memory in the Present Series. 1997. Trans. by Rodney Livingstone et al, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
Didi Huberbman, Georges. Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs From Auschwitz. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Van Alphen, Ernst. Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature and Theory. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1977.
Zeller, Barbie. Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera’s Eye. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.