An exhibit at the heart of the University of Pittsburgh campus brings people face to face with Holocaust history in an artful display of defiance.
Through a partnership between Pitt and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, the traveling art installation “Lest We Forget” found its latest temporary home on the lawn of the Cathedral of Learning and will be on display through Nov. 15. The exhibit features 60 larger-than-life portraits of Holocaust survivors — 16 of whom are from the Pittsburgh area.
German-Italian artist Luigi Toscano calls it the most important project of his career — aligning the project’s display in Pittsburgh with the commemoration of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Oct. 27 marks one year since the shooting killed 11 members of three congregations that used Tree of Life as their house of worship.
“We are living in a tense time. I think it is important that people remember the past,” said Toscano, who met and photographed over 400 Holocaust survivors from around the world for his traveling exhibit. “I would like to motivate other people, especially the younger generation, to stand up against hate.”
One such person is Maja Lynn, a second-year Pitt student. She spent her gap year in Germany to connect with her German roots, and gave tours of the Dachau concentration camp. Now, back on the Pitt campus, she’s faced with a new way of absorbing the weight of the Holocaust while walking through “Lest We Forget.”
“You can see the time that’s passed on the survivors’ faces. You see their age. They were young during the Holocaust,” said Lynn. “This is an active form of remembrance that’s really powerful — almost in a spiritual way. I’m not religious, but I still had this profound experience walking through the exhibit, and I think most people will, too.”
“Impossible to ignore”
Each of the photographs are headshots of survivors on a mesh canvas about 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide. On a card next to each portrait, Toscano includes a short description of each survivor’s experience and the lives they’ve led since their liberation.
Francine Gelertner and Sam Shear are two of the 16 Pittsburgh-area people featured in the exhibit. Gelertner persevered through the Stutthof concentration camp in what is now Poland and later married another Holocaust survivor after coming to America. Shear endured five years of suffering in concentration camps and moved to Pittsburgh where he met his wife of 70 years. In the 1960s, he met Martin Luther King Jr., and the two discussed Shear's experiences. Shear is also the grandfather of Margo Shear, a communications manager with Pitt’s Office of University Communications.
The nature of the exhibit’s display — deliberately set outdoors in a public place as opposed to inside a museum — can be considered a powerful message in itself, according to Kirk Savage, chair of the Department of History of Art and Architecture in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.
“You as a visitor can choose whether or not you enter a museum, and then museum curators can change its interpretations,” said Savage. “With ‘Lest We Forget,’ it’s outdoors on a walkway in front of the Cathedral of Learning. Basically, people are forced to deal with it, just by going about their ordinary, daily routine. It’s thrusting facts — portraits of survivors — in your face.”
Savage also says the large scale of the photographs will almost be “impossible to ignore,” which has the power to strengthen a person’s connection to the Holocaust.
“If we know someone who is affected by an event, we have a much closer connection to it versus if we read about it,” said Savage. “That process of being confronted with the reality of a person’s face who survived it — looking at them — that changes your relationship to that larger historical event.”
“Holocaust memory projects often focus on abstractions, like scale and numbers,” said Kranson, whose research includes Holocaust memorialization. “Taking the focus away from impossibly large numbers and asking visitors to train their lens on portraits of individual people humanizes the history of genocide.”
Through the lens of Oct. 27
With the exhibit coinciding with the commemoration of the Tree of Life shooting, which took place about two miles from Pitt’s campus, the experience of visiting “Lest We Forget” in Pittsburgh takes on a whole new meaning, according to Savage.
“The Tree of Life shooting inevitably changes the way people at Pitt will walk through this exhibit,” said Savage. “We will look at the photographs through the lens of that event.”
Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for engagement and secretary of the Board of Trustees, said, “During our Year of Creativity at Pitt, the message we learn from ‘Lest We Forget’ is clear and universal. We must always remember what happens when hatred goes unchecked and stand with those who experience oppression, whomever and wherever they are.”
And while visiting “Lest We Forget” may be a time to reflect, Kranson said it also serves as an important reminder.
“During this moment of cultural reckoning, this exhibit reminds us that we need to remain vigilant as we combat white supremacy, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and other exclusionary and violent ideologies. The struggle against brutality is ongoing, and no society is immune,” said Kranson.
For Lynn, as a student, she hopes that the exhibit inspires people to ask more questions.
“The history can seem so distant, but it’s really not,” said Lynn. “And I think that’s really powerful for Pittsburgh, because you realize people are still being killed here for being Jewish, even though time has passed — and we’ve had so many opportunities to learn.”
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