“We are the last Mohicans,” observed Sonia Warshawski as she stood near her magnified likeness installed on the courtyard of the National World War I Museum and Memorial.
Warshawski is one of 70 Holocaust survivors represented in “Lest We Forget,” an exhibition of photographic portraits by Luigi Toscano, which opened Sept. 20 and runs through October 6. The exhibit is presented by Goethe Pop Up Kansas City as part of the Wunderbar Together: Year of German-American Friendship campaign, a year-long celebration funded by the German Federal Foreign Office, implemented by the Goethe-Institut and supported by the Federation of German Industries (BDI).
In the last four years, Toscano, a German-Italian artist from Mannheim, Germany, has photographed roughly 400 survivors from Germany, Austria, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Belarus, the Netherlands and the United States. Seven of the subjects portrayed in the current outdoor display live in the Kansas City area; Warshawski is joined by Steve Sherry, Anna Federman, Erwin Stern, Judy Jacobs, Regina Dollman and Eva Hartwich.
Prior to this project, Toscano shot portraits of refugees which were exhibited in Mannheim. When four survivors visited his home town to observe an anniversary of their incarceration there, Toscano met them and was inspired to begin the “Lest We Forget” body of work.
The oversized likenesses, approximately 20 times the size of their subjects, have been printed on a weather-proof mesh fabric and displayed on heavy metal stands. Toscano prefers his exhibitions to be outdoors, in a space that is easily accessible to the public and free of charge. Using a camera surrounded by a ring light, he focuses on the eyes of his sitters. The results are intense — imagine high definition on steroids.
Every detail, whether a freckle, a wrinkle or a bit of facial hair, is undisguised and exposed. Yet one cannot help but be riveted by the eyes, the eyes that have seen the horrors that we can only imagine.
“Lest We Forget” serves to recognize and laud those who were able to escape death by the Nazis. Yet it also provides an education to those who are unfamiliar with the atrocities committed by Hitler and his cronies. In a recent interview, Toscano mentioned that 50 percent of students in Germany do not know about the Holocaust. A recent study found that two thirds of American millennials do not know what Auschwitz is. As George Santayana said in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In May of 2019, the Viennese version of the “Lest We Forget” exhibition was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti; some of the portraits were slashed as well. But the community reaction was immediate and heart-warming. A local Muslim group mobilized to stitch the portraits back together. A Catholic youth group volunteered to stand guard to prevent any further assaults, while nearby restaurateurs provided food for the patrol. When Toscano spoke to the survivors whose portraits had been slashed, he was told, “now more than ever before these portraits need to be shown.”
Gerhard Richter, a contemporary German artist said, “Art is the highest form of hope.”
“Lest We Forget” provides us with some hope that we all need.
“Lest We Forget” continues in the courtyard of the National World War I Museum and Memorial, 2 Memorial Dr., through Oct. 6. Admission is free. For more information, www.theworldwar.org.