Kansas City Holocaust Survivors Are Among Those Delivering A 'Never Forget' Message Worldwide
Seventy large portraits in the courtyard of the National World War I Museum and Memorial put visitors face-to-face with Holocaust survivors.
The portraits, created by the photographer Luigi Toscano, include seven survivors from Kansas City. One of those is Sonia Warshawski, the Prairie Village tailor whose story was told in the 2016 documentary "Big Sonia."
"When I heard her story, I cannot believe that she is, in this moment, she's so lovely," Toscano told KCUR. "But this is the answer, you know: Don’t answer with hate. 'It's necessary to answer with love,' she said to me."
Toscano is the creator of "Lest We Forget," which in its entirety consists of 400 portraits. The images are simple in concept, just a black background with the subject's face staring back into the camera. That simplicity forces a more intimate look into the eyes and emotions of the survivor.
"I remember one of the survivors tells me, 'Luigi, this is the best form we have,'" Toscano said of the medium of photography.
For Toscano, the project was intended to help ensure nothing like the Holocaust happens again.
"It's so necessary that we defend our democracy, that we stand up and that we do something," he said.
Toscano has lived in Germany his whole life, so when he felt anti-Semitism bubbling again in Europe he jumped into the project, collecting photographs and stories about the Holocaust. Over the last four years, he visited Ukraine, Belarus, Germany and other locations, placing his exhibit in areas open to the public.
"I remember there was a woman, a survivor — Susan. I remember that she tells me in the beginning of our conversation, 'Luigi, if we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it,'" Toscano said. "She tells me, please share this with other people. Then you will see the doors are open for you."
Toscano began to doubt this path after swastikas were painted on his portraits during an exhibition in Vienna. But the community reminded him why these stories need to be shared.
"After 20 minutes, I think there was hundreds of young people at the exhibition. And they say, 'We would like to protect this art and we will stay here for 24 hours every day,'" Toscano said. "The federal president came and said, 'Hey, Luigi, don't give up.' Survivors of my project called me from around the world and say 'Don't give up. Don't give up.' You know, that motivated me so much."
Toscano's determination has led him from Russia to Israel to Kansas City taking these portraits, some of which have even reconnected long-separated friends. When he displayed his work in Berlin, Toscano hung portraits of a survivor named Walter, who lives in Stockholm, next to a survivor named Horst, who lives in Germany.
"Two days later, Walter calls me from Sweden and asked me, 'Luigi, Luigi, what have you done? This is Horst, This is Horst! My old school friend.'"
Horst and Walter reunited after 80 years. While the portraits have brought people together, revisiting these memories can be painful for survivors.
"I remember that they asked me, 'Do you have nothing better to do than describe the Holocaust and to take pictures?'" Toscano said. "I answer, 'Of course I have something better to do. You know, I have a little daughter, I can play with them. I can spend my holidays, I can be swimming. But you know, it is important that I will know your story and I will share this with the world, and I hope that somebody will read your story.'"
"Lest We Forget" is on display through Oct. 6 at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, 2 Memorial Drive, Kansas City, Missouri 64108. An abbreviated version of the exhibit featuring the seven survivors from Kansas City is up through Oct. 20.
Luigi Toscano spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the entire conversation here.
Noah Taborda is an intern for KCUR's Central Standard. Follow him on Twitter, @NoahTaborda.