With one eye on the past
After the war this group of people did not feel like speaking very much. “You know, the ones who had numbers,” says Heinz Kounio and points to his own upper arm. Mr. Kounio was one of 40,000 Jews from Thessaloniki who were deported to concentration camps in 1943. Only 2000 of them survived the Holocaust and returned to the northern Greek city. And it is only recently that people here have started to really acknowledge that for centuries the city was a centre of Jewish life.
Return to Europe uncovers this Jewish heritage, portraying Thessaloniki as a city that lost its identity in the 20th century. The people here lived through the traumatic population exchange in 1923, when hundreds of thousands of Greeks and Turks were forced to leave their homes. Who was allowed to live where depended on their religious affiliations.
The film analyses the impact this has had on Greek identity to this day. In Greece, the Church quite naturally gets involved in politics. Loyalty to the Orthodox Church goes so far that during the Bosnian War most Greek politicians even supported Slobodan Milošević und Radovan Karadžić. The film points out how Greece was the only Balkan country to translate the idea of an ethnic homogenous nation state into reality after World War I, and one cannot help but think about the recent wars in the Balkans, where the lance of nationalism was taken up once more, resulting in the disaster of ethnic cleansing.
In Return to Europe, journalist Takis Michas explains that many Greeks compared the war in Bosnia to their own history in the 20th century: interpreting it as a necessary attempt to establish a nation state. Today, Greece itself is a multi-ethnic state once again, particularly since large numbers of Albanian refugees reached its shores in overcrowded boats in the 1990s. Return to Europe points out that Greece has not only mastered the integration of these new citizens, but that relations with its former archenemy Turkey have also been progressing nicely since the late 1990s.
Despite its Western orientation during the second half of the 20th century, under the surface Greece is still trying to address its role under the Ottoman Empire and the changes brought about by its demise, just as the other Balkan nations are doing. Following the population exchange of 1923, the expulsion of Turks from Greece and the expulsion of Greeks from Turkey, five hundred years of Ottoman culture in Thessaloniki were destroyed, and the majority of the mosques were demolished.
Today’s filmmakers have attempted to address the tension between Greece and Turkey in movies like “A Touch of Spice”. In its film about Greece, Return to Europe shows how the Greeks are slowly building up self-confidence – partly a result of the country’s economic success – but that this confidence is still missing in the country’s dealings with its neighbour Macedonia, whose very name many Greeks are apparently still afraid of. Fortunately, Return to Europe also encounters people like Yiannis Boutaris who make fun of this nationalism and point out that, first of all, Alexander the Great died three thousand years ago and, secondly, he was an internationalist. (Adelheid Wölfl)
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