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Portraits of Holocaust survivors look history in the face

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 10/21/2018 By Graham Ambrose

Artist Luigi Toscano and his crew set up big photographic portraits of Holocaust survivors in the Boston Common on Monday for an exhibit. © Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff Artist Luigi Toscano and his crew set up big photographic portraits of Holocaust survivors in the Boston Common on Monday for an exhibit. BROOKLINE — In Nazi Germany, your face could seal your fate. A nose too long, a skull too broad, a certain sort of beard, and someone — a state agent with craniometric tools, a prying neighbor armed with racial stereotypes — might deem you Jewish.

Between 1941 and 1945 the Nazis systematically murdered some 6 million Jews in a genocide that nearly exterminated Europe’s Jewish population. 

But from the horrors of the Holocaust emerged survivors. They’re women like Esther Kampler, 89, of Brookline, Massachusetts who lost both of her parents in the Shoah and has lived in Greater Boston since fleeing Europe in 1946.

They’re men like Neil Levin, 89, a former baker who wears Hawaiian shirts, followed soccer’s World Cup last summer, and still cracks jokes with the glee of a young man.

“Most of my family didn’t get the chance,” he said. “I survived.”

Now portraits of Kampler, Levin, and other survivors are in Boston Common as part of an international exhibit by the German-Italian photographer Luigi Toscano. “Lest We Forget” displays in public spaces supersize portraits of Holocaust survivors, honoring human faces once demonized by Nazi propaganda.

“The face is the mirror of your life. It’s a most respectful act when you show something in the face,” Toscano said. “This is my art. We must respect these people.”

The public exhibit on Boston Common runs through Nov. 10. It features 60 portraits, including nine of Boston-area residents. The timing coincides with the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), a Nazi pogrom in November 1938, when Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues, and hospitals across Germany were ransacked and destroyed.

Toscano, 46, lives in Mannheim, Germany. He remembers traveling to Auschwitz as a teenager. He wanted answers. He found horrors.

“I couldn’t believe that people did this to other people,” he said. “I thought I studied enough in school to know about the Holocaust.” He shook his head. “I have learned much, much more about the Holocaust in my travels.”

Since 2015, Toscano has documented more than 200 survivors in Germany, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Israel, and cities across the United States. His subjects, photographed at close range, glow with a ghostly hue under white light, their age-cracked skin and bright eyes somber and still. The effect is disarming: The survivors appear vulnerable, even as their stares penetrate the lens.

Toscano said he is motivated by what he heard from a 95-year-old Auschwitz survivor living in Charlotte, N.C.: “If you forget the past, you are doomed to repeat it.”

A recent survey found that more than one-fifth of all Americans ages 18 to 34 are unaware of or unsure about the Holocaust. More than half of Americans think Hitler came to power by force. (He was elected democratically.) Seventy percent think that fewer people today care about the Holocaust than in the past. A majority of Americans think the Holocaust could happen again.

“People have forgotten the history,” Toscano said. “You see the political situation. We have this political situation in Germany and Europe also. I cannot go on the street and demonstrate. I’m too emotional for that. But I need to say something, to open my mouth about what is wrong. And my tool is to take pictures.”

All octogenarians have survived. But few are survivors. Jews who escaped extermination under the Nazis — and then managed to prevail over the long haul of life — share an improbable bond. And with every year, their numbers dwindle. In 2014 the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel estimated that more than 1,000 Holocaust survivors die each month.

Toscano acknowledges that he might be the last photographer to capture some of his subjects. Before taking photos, Toscano, who speaks a number of European languages, sits down with his subjects to learn their stories. The sessions are solemn and intense, though not always dour. Recounting trauma brings pain, but also a sense of responsibility.

“It’s my duty. I talk to anyone who asks,” said Kampler. During the Holocaust she lived in a ghetto, lost a sister, bounced between orphanages, beat paratyphoid fever, and survived a death march — all before she was 18.

“I lost my childhood because I was born a Jew,” Kampler said. “I didn’t choose that. But now I’m proud of my faith.”

Toscano said that funding comes from a combination of companies, public grants in Germany, and private donors, who send support from across the world, often unexpectedly. He remembers once opening his postbox to find a letter from a stranger who had heard about the project. It contained a check for 2,000 euros.

Last winter, “Lest We Forget” honored International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27) at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In April, the installation made its way to the reflecting pool outside the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington. D.C.

Many survivors in the United States consider themselves patriotic. Levin, originally from Lithuania, has lived in Boston since 1947. He lets his surf of silver hair crash against his head as he talks about his adopted home. “Nothing is perfect. But no country, Europe or anywhere, compares to the United States,” he said.

When he and Toscano met in July at Levin’s home outside Boston, Toscano had a message to relay: The other survivors say hello.

It’s a small but vital note he has carried like a torch halfway across the earth, wherever he meets survivors.

“I cannot change the world. I am not a superhero,” Toscano said. “But I will open my mouth and say something. This is my motivation.”

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