Luigi Toscano’s lack of Holocaust education inspired his project “Lest We Forget.”
“When I was 18, I was in school but didn’t have a good history teacher,” said the German-Italian photographer. “I had so many questions. I decided to travel alone to Auschwitz. I was very naive, thinking there was someone there that could give me answers to the questions I had, but there was no one. I remember standing in front of a mountain of shoes. That experience stayed with me a long time.”
As the political climate in Germany and Europe changed, Toscano decided to do something to fight what he viewed as a growing sense of hate from the right.
“In the beginning, it was very hard for me. Everyone said, ‘This was so long ago, forget it.’”
Toscano persevered, and with a small amount of initial funding from the city where he lived, traveled to Austria, Israel, Ukraine, the United States and throughout Germany photographing Holocaust survivors.
Those portraits have been exhibited in large public spaces, including outside of the United Nations in New York City, at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., and at Kansas City’s Memorial Courtyard at the National WWI Museum and Memorial.
The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh is bringing “Lest We Forget” to the University of Pittsburgh beginning Oct. 17 to commemorate the Oct. 27 shooting at the Tree of Life building. Unique to Pittsburgh will be 16 never-before-seen portraits of local Holocaust survivors, including two who recently died, Sam Gottesman and Herman Snyder.
“The Holocaust Center’s good friend, Hal Waldman, shared information about the exhibit from his brother, who saw it in Boston,” said Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh Director Lauren Bairnsfather. “I was blown away by it.”
Bairnsfather didn’t believe, however, that they could bring the exhibit to Pittsburgh as it had previously only been shown in larger cities. The Holocaust Center decided to reach out to Toscano “after our city witnessed the terror of Oct. 27, 2018.” The artist “agreed immediately.”
Toscano and his work are no strangers to anti-Semitism. His exhibit was targeted by vandals while on display in Vienna. Swastikas were spray-painted on several of the photographs along with phrases including “1 Jesus=6 million Jews.” Ten of the pictures were slashed with a knife.
The photographer said he believes this sort of behavior has the opposite of the intended effect. “After my pictures were attacked, many more people came, and they were very interested. The younger generation came out. There were many children and we spent so much time explaining things to them.”
Toscano believes his portraits can spark important debate and change ill-informed opinions. He recalled an experience in Austria when several people told him the Holocaust was a lie. “This isn’t true,” I said. “Six million Jews were killed, 2 million children. Do you see the people in these photos? They are survivors.”
As a result, Toscano said, “Do you know what happened? One of the people changed their mind.”
The exhibit will be displayed on the pathway from the Cathedral of Learning to the Heinz Memorial Chapel. It will feature 60 life-size portraits of Holocaust survivors. The location is an outgrowth of a conversation between Bairnsfather and the university’s Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement and Secretary of the Board of Trustees Kathy Humphry.
“We envisioned an exhibit that would start a conversation about the dangers of violence, hatred and intolerance,” Bairnsfather said. “With ‘Lest We Forget’ we found the perfect opportunity to make our shared vision a reality.”
Humphrey added that she hoped the art installation would spur dialogue and promote acceptance and inclusion. “Coming a year after the Tree of Life tragedy, the faces of Holocaust survivors can remind us all of the need for constant vigilance against hatred and bigotry of all kinds,” she said. “Our students, faculty, and staff — along with visitors from around the city and the world — will benefit from the presence of this powerful statement.”
The exhibit is sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh; Hal and Diane Waldman and Kelly, Katharine and Andy Waldman; the Allegheny Regional Asset District; Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry; The Shear Family Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
Toscano believes his mission is simple. “I remember a woman said to me, ‘If we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it.’ I think it is necessary to stand against hate. I hope my work is a powerful and emotional tool engaging people to do that.” pjc
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@