Jason Francisco, Tanais memorial, Koum Kapi beach, Chania, Crete, 2023

The 9th of June 2024 marks the eightieth anniversary of the sinking of the Tanais, a Greek-owned German-requisitioned cargo ship sunk by a British torpedo while carrying approximately 500 captives being transported to German camps, most likely Mauthausen and Auschwitz.  Those lost included members of the Cretan resistance, Italian prisoners of war, and the last of Crete’s Jews—losses which have rippled forward in meaning over the decades.  The Tanais can be likened to a prism:  it both splits apart and synthesizes Crete’s wartime experiences, depending on which way we look into it.
As part of the history of the Holocaust, the Tanais has come to stand for the genocidal destruction of Cretan Jewry, one of the oldest diaspora Jewish communities in the world, extending at least to the time of Alexander the Great.  The Tanais is, just as much, a signal tragedy in the story of Cretan resistance against German occupation.  The Italian victims were, one might say, casualties of the fog of war itself—they fought alongside the Germans until the Armistice of Cassibile, signed a few months before the Tanais’ sinking, made Italy a German enemy.  
In contemporary Chania, a small sculpture outside the old city gates at Koum Kapi beach was dedicated in 2013 to the victims of the Tanais.  Beside the sculpture is a tiny plaque installed at toe-level, which mentions the loss of the three groups in the briefest of acknowledgments.  While something is better than nothing, this sculpture is, to put it graciously, a dead memorial.  It sustains no meaningful reflection, and provides no depth of information.  Passers-by learn nothing about the ship itself, or about the peoples and communities lost.  And in this connection, the sculpture is in keeping with the dearth of public history on the intercultural world of pre-twentieth century Chania.  The best that can be said for the sculpture at Koum Kapi is that it does function as a gathering point for an intercommunal ceremony of remembrance each June on the anniversary of the Tanais’s sinking.  
Last year, I designed an exhibition to create a meaningful engagement with the legacy of the Tanais through contemporary art.  In works that respond to all three groups of victims, the exhibition aimed to provide an opportunity for remembrance that emboldens imagination for historical loss, inviting the open-spirited mourning by which cultures mature.
The proposed exhibition was to have been organized in two parts.  The first part featured works by contemporary artists whose pieces contemplate some aspect of the Tanais’ prismatic character.  These artists were to have been drawn from across the communal spectrum, including Jews from Greece and beyond, Christian Cretans, and Italians.  These artists included Artemis Alcalay, Konstantinos Fischer, Mafalda Rakoš, George Sfougaras, Joshua Unikel, Evangelia Vandoulaki, and me.  The second part collected ideas from an open call for what a Tanais memorial could hypothetically be, a compendium of possible remembrances.  Attending programming included a lecture series, workshops for local schools, guided tours, and artist’s talks.  Proposed speakers included Giorgos Antoniou (on the Holocaust in Crete), Konstantinos Mamalakis (on Cretan resistance and the Tanais), and others on the remembrance of the Italian victims, and on the creation of public memorial culture.  The exhibition was to have been accompanied by a catalogue, featuring reproductions of works plus short texts by academics and by the artists themselves.  The curator for the whole project was the Chania-based museologist and art historian Myrto Kontomitaki.  
The proposed exhibition was to have been held at the Dimotiki Pinakothiki, the Municipal Art Gallery of Chania, the city’s most important venue for culture.  The venue alone would have indicated that the Tanais belongs to all of Chania equally, and is not merely a parochial concern of the Jewish community.  The exhibition's appearance there would have signaled the city's willingness to take on subjects of difficult history, and indeed to recognize historical consciousness as a central part of the development of contemporary culture in the city.  At the same time, the exhibition would effectively have recognized the importance of the Jewish community in collective memory, and specifically the value of Etz Hayyim in the city’s cultural landscape, since the synagogue’s rededication in 1999.  The exhibition itself was based on Etz Hayyim’s values of reconciliation, remembrance, and repair, and its spirit of welcome, openness, and hospitality (φιλοξενία).
The city of Chania did not accept the proposal.  In a replay of the hedging, dodging, dissimulating, and bad faith that marked his handling of my proposed exhibition remembering the 1923 Greek-Turkish Population Exchange, the vice-mayor for culture Giannis Giannakakis strung the proposal along for months, until finally claiming it could not happen due to pre-existing commitments from the Covid era.  The lie was transparent.  With it, Giannakakis confirmed a specific vision of the identity of Chania:  a tourist resort whose local culture is light and easy for visitors, deep and guarded for residents.  Giannakakis represents those citizens of Chania attached to an aggressively parochial account of their own history, offering beautiful food and hospitality to outsiders as a way of keeping them dumb, and firmly in the position of outsiders.  It is, to me, a vision shot through with pathos, but it is ultimately pathetic.  Chania deserves better.

Jason Francisco, stills from the two-channel video work, "Tanais," 2023

From Iossif Ventura, "Τάναϊς," bilingual edition, trans. Elizabeth Arseniou, Red Heifer Press, 2015.

My own work for the exhibition was to have been “Tanais,” a image-sound installation designed to induce an experience of contemplative immersion.  The imagistic dimension of the project was a two-channel durational filmwork projected floor to ceiling on opposing walls, each wall a looped visual statement of the movement of the sea, filmed at Chania’s seafront.  The slow pace and monumental size of the images were meant to calm the mind and create a state of open receptivity, a visual field for the sonic element of the piece.  Accompanying the double film would have been a reading in Greek and English of Iossif Ventura’s poem cycle “Tanaïs.”  Ventura himself provided the Greek reading and I recorded the English.  Ventura is a Greek Jew born in Chania in 1938, a child survivor of the Holocaust, and a prominent poet and translator.  This work was to have been installed at the St. Rocco gallery on the 1821 square in Chania, a city-run space that is an auxiliary to the Dimotiki Pinakothiki.  This webpage is, effectively, the work's tombstone.

Jason Francisco, spring 2024