LEST WE FORGET
Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, the time to recall the atrocity of the six million Jews killed in one of history’s worst chapters. As Rabbi Serena Eisenberg said yesterday at San Francisco City Hall, we can remember but it is still hard to imagine.
Yet Luigi Toscano, an Italian-German photographer and film-maker, helps us recall the horror of the history through an outdoor exhibition titled “Lest We Forget” of 78 up-close portraits of weathered, wrinkled, and wise faces of Holocaust survivors. All of the photographs are displayed outside in between the trees of San Francisco’s City Hall’s main square, in two rows facing each other. Sixteen of the portraits were shot in San Francisco.
The photos are haunting, hypnotizing and magnetic in their authenticity. You can almost smell Oma’s talcum-powdered hair or Opa’s minty aftershave. Each photograph is printed on two transparent screens, back to back in a sort of translucent lithograph, each the size, more or less, of a telephone booth panel. Each Holocaust survivor featured dares the viewer to stare straight into their eyes that reflect the windows of their souls. In-your-face, up-close and raw, the images feature mostly octogenarians whose open faces yearn to reach out like a soft, padded palm cupping a cheek of the listener.
When Toscano first had the idea for this project, he struggled to find Holocaust survivors through his efforts in contacting museums, libraries and universities. Few believed his project would work. Until one day, one survivor stepped forward and expressed interest in sitting in front of Toscano’s camera. In lending his face, he revealed his story, and the project was born.
This man told a friend who told a friend who told a friend, and, gradually, Toscano has formed an expanding photo archive of Holocaust survivors, which now consists of nearly 300 people. Many of his subjects, he explained yesterday at San Francisco’s commemoration of the Holocaust Remembrance day, opened up to him in ways that they had never even spoken to their family. They felt validated by their portraits.
On one occasion, in curating one of his shows around the world, Toscano reunited two friends by coincidentally placing their individual portraits next to each other, which led one to recognize the other. Neither knew the other was alive but Toscano brought them back to each other after 60 years in which they each thought the other had perished.
Toscano’s first American exhibition was held in 2018 at the United Nations in New York, followed by another in Washington, DC along the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool. A similar exhibition has been travelling throughout Europe since 2015 from Germany to the Ukraine. Plans are underway for it to travel to Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Vienna.
In the four years we lived in Israel, I will never forget this day of remembrance in which, for two minutes, everyone stops and takes a moment to remember those who died in the Holocaust. Cars grind to a halt on highways and drivers stand beside their open car doors, cashiers step away from their counter, doctors take pause in hospitals, and life stops. The silence throughout the country is deafening while a siren wails.
At our children’s preschool in the outskirts of Tel Aviv, each child was told to stand quietly while holding a balloon. Once the two minutes were up, they released their balloon to the sky. Their teachers told them that they were to remember 1.5 million children who had been brave and courageous in a difficult chapter of history.
We move too fast these days. We don’t take enough time to digest what we’re doing in our maniacal madness of racing through life. We read with sadness about another act of violence, bigotry or anti-Semitism, and we rush off to work, shaking away the discomfort.
Yesterday, I stood still as I listened to stories of Holocaust survivors, and was challenged to a staring contest into history through Toscano’s gorgeous portraits. I blinked and I wept.
The open-air exhibition is free and runs until May 19. Take a moment to walk down to San Francisco’s city center’s main piazza and confront the faces of our past. It will make you reflect upon your future.