BOSTON — In the heart of the United States’ oldest public park, large close-ups of 70 Holocaust survivors were erected this week by photographer Luigi Toscano as part of his “Lest We Forget” series.
Since launching the remembrance project in 2015, the German-Italian Toscano has photographed more than 200 survivors in seven countries. High-profile installations of the portraits have been staged in Germany, Ukraine, and — most recently — surrounding the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC.
As the first public park in the nation, Boston Common played a role in events ranging from the America Revolution to more recent protests. The sloping grounds are within sight of the gold-domed Massachusetts State House, as well as Boston landmarks including the original “Cheers” bar and Old South Meeting House, where the Boston Tea Party was organized in 1773.
Along with close-ups of 60 survivors from countries other than the US, Toscano included portraits of nine Boston-area survivors he sat with in recent months. The 46-year-old photographer initiated “Lest We Forget” in 2015, and has since received funding from Germany’s government, public grants, and private donors.
On Boston Common, each of the portraits includes a small panel with the subject’s name and biographical details. When The Times of Israel visited the installation on Tuesday afternoon, several portraits had yet to be put up along the path. Among them was that of survivor Halina Yasharoff Peabody, whose canvass was temporarily propped up next to bleachers.
According to the information panel on Peabody’s portrait,”[a] a bomb fell on the house and permanently injured Halina’s hand” while she was in hiding from the Nazis in Krakow, Poland.
Some information panels shed light on the survivors’ post-war efforts to educate the world about the genocide. For example, two leaders of Boston’s survivor community are among Toscano’s newest images: Israel “Izzy” Arbeiter, former president of the New England survivors’ association, and Stephan “Steve” Ross, founder of the New England Holocaust Memorial along Boston’s Freedom Trail.
Enlarged to a height taller than most people, each portrait conveys intimate details of the survivor’s age-worn face. A subtle ring of white light appears in some sets of eyes, a reflection of the round lighting apparatus into which Toscano directs the survivors to gaze during their sessions.
At a reception held at the Massachusetts State House on Tuesday, Holocaust survivors were joined by legislators and diplomats for the installation’s symbolic opening. The gathering was hosted by State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, whose district includes hundreds of survivors living in Brookline, Newton, and other Boston suburbs.
“It made me frightened,” said Creem of recent studies demonstrating that millions of Americans have never heard of the Holocaust.
In addition to Creem, the gathering was addressed by Germany’s top diplomat in New England, Nicole Menzenbach, whose office helped organize “Lest We Forget” in Boston.
“These photographs stand for those who lost their lives and suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime,” said Menzenbach, who began her posting two months ago.
“Anti-Semitism is real and a current threat. It can be observed on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Menzenbach, who recently completed a fellowship at Harvard University.
As for photographer and filmmaker Toscano, the artist’s parents moved to Germany from Italy as guest-workers. As a 19 year old, Toscano visited the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. In the years that followed, he held stints as a roofer, a bouncer, and a window-washer before making it as a full-time auteur.
When asked by The Times of Israel where he would like to organize a future installation, Toscano mentioned Poland. A challenge to operating in that country, he said, is that few Holocaust survivors live there as compared to — for example — Israel and the US, where Toscano recently met with and photographed 21 survivors in Chicago.
“Lest We Forget’s” North American premiere was at the United Nations’ headquarters in January. Outside the iconic New York City building, survivor portraits were displayed adjacent to the long row of international flags. As with the Washington, DC, installation, the images were seen by thousands of people every day.
Boston’s “Lest We Forget” installation is set to run until November 10. The portraits will serve as a focal point next month during commemorations of the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, Nazi Germany’s prelude to the Holocaust.
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