Sigmund Adler looks calmly forward. Rachel Miller smiles slightly. Ram Levy gazes pensively ahead.
Since 2014, the Italian-German photographer Luigi Toscano has created portraits of more than 500 Holocaust survivors. Time, he thought, was passing. Survivors were growing older. He wanted to preserve their stories.
Toscano has photographed survivors from Germany, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to Israel, the Netherlands and across the United States. His work has been seen in exhibitions around the world. He has received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, that nation’s highest honor, and been designated as a UNESCO Artist of Peace by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization..
Last spring, Toscano traveled to St. Louis to photograph 12 survivors — including Adler, Miller and Levy — now living here. Beginning Oct. 20, those portraits will be featured as part of “Lest We Forget,” a public art installation on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis.
“It’s incredibly moving,” said Dee Dee Simon, co-founder of Conversation Builds Character and chair of the Missouri Holocaust Education and Awareness Commission. “These larger-than-life portraits raise awareness about the history of the Holocaust and help to promote both human rights and a sense of mutual respect. I think it’s important that they be seen.”
Simon, who also serves as national chair of planned giving for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., first encountered Toscano’s work in 2018 when a version of “Lest We Forget” was installed at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Last year, Simon approached WashU’s Erin McGlothlin, professor of German and of Jewish studies and vice dean of undergraduate affairs, all in Arts & Sciences, about bringing the project to WashU.
“As a scholar of Holocaust narrative, I work on a lot of memoirs,” McGlothlin said. “I’m focusing on words and texts.” But in Toscano’s portraits, “you can see history written in their faces. There’s strength and frailty but also an openness and resilience.”
McGlothlin put Simon in touch with Sabine Eckmann, the William T. Kemper Director and Chief Curator at WashU’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, and Leslie Markle, the museum’s curator for public art. To identify local survivors, the group partnered with the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum and its former chair, Marci Rosenberg, a video producer who has worked with Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation.
The resulting portraits, which measure approximately five feet wide and seven feet high, are at once luminously monumental and achingly intimate, as individual as the survivors themselves.
See also: St. Louis Jewish Light story “Noted photographer captures images of 12 St. Louis Holocaust survivors”
“You realize just how much life each survivor has lived,” McGlothlin observes. “It’s been almost 80 years since the end of the Holocaust. And, of course, the Holocaust is an important part of their histories, but it doesn’t define everything, either. They’ve established lives and families and become part of our community. They are very much living in the present.”
Over the last five years, McGlothlin has led — with Anika Walke, associate professor of history in Arts & Sciences — the first-year Ampersand Program “History, Memory & Representation of the Holocaust.” She notes that in the aftermath of World War II, St. Louis was home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the Midwest.
“St. Louis was a destination for Holocaust survivors,” McGlothlin said. “Some of our students have survivors in their families.” But others never imagined they’d have a chance to meet or directly interact with survivors. “This project is a way of bringing Holocaust memory directly to them.”
About the exhibition
“Lest We Forget” will be on view in Ann and Andrew Tisch Park, located at the eastern end of Washington University’s Danforth Campus, Oct. 20 to Nov. 6.
The Kemper Art Museum will host an opening ceremony at 5 p.m. Oct. 20 in Steinberg Hall Auditorium. Speakers will include Toscano and Rachel Miller, whose portrait is featured in the exhibition. Other speakers will include Chancellor Andrew D. Martin as well as McGlothlin, Simon and Miriam Silberman, president of the Washington University Student Union. A reception will immediately follow in the Kemper Art Museum. For more information, visit kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu.
In addition, the Midwest Regional Office of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will host a conversation between Toscano and survivor Rita Rubinstein at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, also in Steinberg Hall. Moderator will be Steven Luckert, senior program curator for the Holocaust Memorial Museum. For more information or to RSVP, visit ushmm.org.