By Thomas Siurkus
Seventy-two years ago, on January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated a camp near the Polish village of Oswiecim, called Auschwitz-Birkenau. They discovered that thousands had died, and they encountered many men and women that were undernourished, wounded and just barely surviving their persecution by the Nazi regime. For many years now people all over the world remember the millions of victims of the Holocaust and listen to the testimonies of the survivors that are still among us. Their number is decreasing and the world is looking for opportunities to save their stories for many generations to come.
It’s a cold day in December and snow is falling from the sky while I’m walking through the streets of Washington, DC. I’m about to meet with Luigi Toscano, a photographer from Germany who is in the Unites States to present his latest project “Lest We Forget”, an attempt to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.
I enter the lobby of a hotel near Dupont Circle and walk toward the café section, where a middle-aged man is sitting with his colleague. I greet him in our native language—we´re both from Germany—and introduce myself. Toscano is a stocky man with black hair tied back in a ponytail. Over coffee he tells me about himself. Growing up in Germany, he learned about the country’s culture and history, and he visited Auschwitz as a teenager. Going through the barracks and the terrain of the destruction plant left him horrified and moved. How can people do something like this? He couldn’t get the question out of his mind.
A History of Remembrance
Long before the United Nations declared January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2006, Germans remembered the atrocities of the Nazi regime every year at the end of January. After a period of silence after the war, Germany started to process its dark past, and remembering the Holocaust became one of its core principles. Memorial sites appeared all over the country, and for many years, almost every student visited one of these sites.
But in recent years, resistance rose up against remembrance culture. People started talking about a “Schlussstrich,” demanding to put an end to the remembrance of the Holocaust after more than 70 years. These voices got louder with the rise of right-wing parties all over Europe. In January, Björn Höcke, a right-wing German politician, demanded a complete change in the politics of remembrance and called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a “memorial of disgrace.” The party he belongs to, the far-right Alternative for Germany, proposed to cut the funding for memorial sites in one of Germany´s 16 state parliaments.
For years now, Toscano has tried to fight these voices, more recently through art, though his path to become a photographer wasn’t straightforward. Toscano worked as a roofer, doorman and window cleaner before dedicating his time to photography. “Lest We Forget” began with an encounter with a refugee on the street, who Toscano asked for fire to light his cigarette. A conversation led to a visit, then to a friendship and finally to a photo project, bringing attention to the sometimes poor living situation of refugees. On the facade of an old fire brigade in his hometown of Mannheim, Toscano displayed portraits of refugees, making their fate visible to everyone passing by. The exhibition was a success, and soon after, Toscano felt he was ready to deal with the topic that had occupied him since his visit to Auschwitz as a teenager. In September 2014, Toscano and his team decided to visit and photograph survivors of the Shoah and present their portraits to the public on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. At first Toscano encountered a lot of closed doors. Nobody believed in his vision—until he got an unexpected invitation.
Protagonist No. 1
Sometimes history can be found closer than one might think. Near Toscano’s hometown of Mannheim is the Sandhofen Concentration Camp, where thousands of forced laborers worked from September 1944 on until the camp’s liberation. The memorial site invited Toscano to meet five survivors who would return to Germany for a commemoration ceremony. Two hours after meeting the survivors, they were sitting in front of his camera. Toscano stood behind the lens, focused on Edward Majewski, protagonist No.1, and pressed the shutter button:
An old man sits in front of a black background. He looks grimy. His bushy eyebrows are lifted and show his frowning. Majewski’s white-blue striped cap cover his hair, but you can still see some grey strands. The white-blue striped uniform reminds one of his times in the Concentration Camp, but the Polish-German friendship pin that he wears brings one back to the present and the long road of reconciliation.
Majewski was the first protagonist of “Lest We Forget,” and with him and the other four survivors the project finally gained momentum. The artist sent out a proposal to the organizations that had rejected Toscano suddenly began offering him support. He began meeting with more and more survivors all over Germany and Eastern Europe.
The Journey Begins
When he went on a trip, Toscano never knew who he would meet. People would back out and new people would show interest. That was fine with the artist. He wasn’t just looking for pictures; he was looking for meaningful conversations with survivors and witnesses. Every encounter was unique. Sometimes Toscano brought groceries and other goods to the meetings, and then he and the survivor sat down at their kitchen table and talked. The ordinary moments felt special. The survivors were happy to have someone that they could make sandwiches for, someone who came so far to listen to their stories. Toscano listened to many stories and encountered a lot of survivors: One of them was Anna.
Toscano met Anna on his trip through the Ukraine. Sitting at a table in her small apartment, Anna told him about her experience during the Holocaust. Her family was sent to Auschwitz, and right after the arrival they were separated. Her parents were killed, and she was sent to the children’s camp, becoming one of the test subjects of the infamous Dr. Mengele. He drew large amounts of blood from her many times to see how long she could survive. After the war, she was sent to live with foster parents, who wanted her to forget the Holocaust and never talked about it, as was usual in the Soviet Union after the war. They even scratched out her tattooed number from Auschwitz. Anna told Toscano that she was afraid of doctors after the war. Then she patted his hand and said: “Do you know how I overcame my anxiety? I become a doctor myself.” She showed the artist around her apartment like a friend and went with him through her collection of decorations for medical accomplishments and competence. Toscano felt proud of Anna, and after many hours he asked her the critical question: “Can I portray you?”
Anna agreed, and Luigi got out his camera, focused on her and pushed the release:
It is as if Anna is looking into the eyes of the viewer. Her blue eyes are filled with light and her face holds a cautious smile. Brown hair is hanging in her face; she has a short haircut and in the background you can see her gold earrings sparkle.
Work With an Impact
Through his conversations and portraits, Toscano was building a connection to the survivors. The experience felt rewarding, but it was also very challenging. At one point, having trouble coping with the experience, he suffered hearing loss and other health problems. He briefly thought about giving up; he had become too emotionally attached to the topic. But over time, he learned to cope with his experience, and he started talking about it openly.
Toscano’s project brought him through parts of Germany, Eastern Europe and Israel. Before he presented it to the public, he made a final stop in the U.S. In the nation’s capital, the artist met with 15 survivors in one day, listened to their stories and photographed each of them at the Holocaust Museum.
After listening to each of the survivor’s stories, Luigi walked the steps to the museum’s Hall of Remembrance. The walls of the hexagonal room encircle an eternal flame and are inscribed with the names of concentration and death camps. Standing in the middle of the hall was a moving experience for Toscano, as he connected the names with faces and stories he encountered over the last few months.
Back in Germany, Toscano prepared himself for his first exhibition. Like with his last project, he wanted to display the portraits on the façade of the old fire brigade in his hometown Mannheim. The façade didn’t have space for the 200-plus portraits, so he had to make a decision—which was the toughest part of the project. He was so attached to the stories and portraits of the survivors, and it took him a week and many sleepless nights to come to a decision. It took him two days to hang up the pictures. When he attached the last picture, all the memories of the last few months began floating through his mind.
The faces of 135 survivors looked out on the people that passed by the brigade. Toscano stood in front of the exhibition, observing the people going by. One day, a young mother with a stroller recognized the artist. She told him that, for the past six weeks, she’s passed the brigade every day. Her daughter used to ask her about the portraits, and every day she told her daughter a bit more about the Holocaust.
“Lest We Forget” is now a wandering exhibition, which travels through Eastern Europe and was part of the state act commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre. A plan to bring the exhibition to the U.S. is also in the works. Frank Walter Steinmeier, Germany´s foreign minister and candidate for the presidential election in February, is now a patron of the project.
But Toscano has also received a lot of negative feedback; some asked why we couldn’t let the events of the Holocaust rest in peace. But Toscano, who describes himself jokingly as a “troublemaker,” doesn’t want that.
Toscano could have shown his portraits in a large gallery, but it was important for him to display them in public, to confront people with the topic. Especially now, Toscano says, remembering the Holocaust is more important than ever. In times where anti-Semitism is increasing and right-wing movements are gaining momentum, remembering discrimination and persecution of a minority group many years ago is critical. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, one of the survivors told Toscano. This is the message that he confronts his critics with.
When Toscano was a teenager visiting Auschwitz for the first time, he had many questions but no answers. Now, he wants to provide answers for generations to come. He can even imagine passing his project on to a younger generation someday, lest we forget.