by Maya Moritz
On May 17, 1933, the Universitätsplatz in Heidelberg played host to a horrifying spectacle. According to Richard J. Evans in The Coming of the Third Reich, “Students processed with flaming torches, accompanied by SA, SS, and Steel Helmets and members of the duelling [sic] corps, and threw Communist and Social Democratic insignia into the flames as well as books. The event was accompanied by the singing of the Horst Wessel song and the national anthem. Speeches were delivered in which the action was presented as a blow against the ‘un-German spirit’.”
From April 23 through May 7 this year, nearly nine decades since Heidelberg’s book burning, Universitätsplatz was populated by portraits of Holocaust survivors for the photography exhibition “Lest We Forget” by Luigi Toscano. The traveling show has previously visited cities as far-flung as Washington, D.C. and Paris. Along the way, it has attracted media attention for its eye-catching, simple premise.
The display consists of huge photographs arranged along walking paths showing the faces of elderly survivors. Beside them, their stories are described in quick bullet points: Niel (Nuchim) Levin (1929), Kovno Ghetto/Lithuania, forced labor 1941-44. We see a list of the concentration camps they suffered in, their date of liberation, and their migration locations. Mr. Levin lived in Munich until 1949, at which point he migrated to the United States.
The experiences of the subjects are peppered with familiar names and nearby locales. Anna Strishkowa, who was born in the Ukraine, saw the murder of both parents upon arrival in Auschwitz concentration camp before being used for experiments herself by Dr. Mengele. This inscription, consisting of only three lines and no additional detail, allows the reader to imagine the horrors for themselves.
Andrzej Korczak-Branecki was detained in Mannheim Sandhofen in 1944, a satellite camp of the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp. He was continually transferred between camps and survived three death marches before being liberated on April 25, 1945.
Oliver Gebhart witnessed nearby Mainz’s “Kristallnacht,” after which he was moved by family into an orphanage. He went on to experience the “Blitzkrieg” in London before joining his parents in the Netherlands.
Stories of valor in the face of certain death also abound at the exhibit. Raymod Gurême from Bagneux, France escaped from the “cold, hunger, disease, death” of his deportation to Linas-Monthléry in cattle cars. He was re-interned after tossing food over the camp fence and went on to escape from no less than six different camps before being aided by partisans and joining the resistance. He was present for the 1944 liberation of Paris before locating his family in Belgium in 1952.
Herman Snyder from Vilna, Poland also managed to escape the ghetto in his home city twice. His family was subsequently murdered and Snyder joined the partisans in the woods, where he suffered “hunger and cold.” He was granted entry to Russia before leaving for the United States in 1949, where he met his mother’s family.
These stories are told in clipped, clear language on small plaques with QR codes for visitors to further explore the histories. There is no need for eloquent essays concerning the horrors of the Holocaust, as the tiny plaques convey pain, struggle, and hope in the trimmed reports of such difficult lives.
Some survivors, despite great trauma, went on to contribute to science and the arts in their new countries. Arye Ephrath from Czechoslovakia was separated from his parents as it was deemed too dangerous for a local priest to hide the entire family. He relocated to Israel in 1948 before studying aerospace engineering in Florida and receiving a scholarship to MIT. The family was miraculously reunited after the war.
Yolanda Avram-Willis from Greece, who has written a book about her experiences in hiding as well as the story of the Greek people during this era, became a Fulbright scholar in the United States.
Like other Holocaust tributes and memorials, the visitor’s experience varies with their own connection to these stories. Most adults ambled between photographs, inspecting the lines on the visages and linking them to each raw detail on the plague to their right. Children ran over the cobblestones, unaware of the recollections around them, as a stray cat blocked a path for some lookers.
The exhibit is unique in many respects. Among the 100 portraits are Germans and Eastern Europeans, Jews and Catholics, and almost every permutation of Holocaust survivor one can imagine.
Visitors are wont to find someone who looks like their grandfather, or who is from somewhere near their grandmother’s hometown. In this way, viewers who may not connect to or usually enter a Holocaust museum are forced to reflect on how a historical event may have touched them.
The fact that passerby’s may be drawn in while they go shopping or look for dinner, as I was, is another strength of the show. With no ticket barriers to entry and a position so close to a main thoroughfare, visitors find themselves pulled into a touching art show and vital history lesson without their own planning.
Luigi Toscano is originally from Mannheim. His work on this show led to an award-winning documentary and photobook. For more stories and information, you can look at the exhibition website. In a time of increasing anti-Semitism and general social and economic hardship, we can draw inspiration from the strength and courage of previous generations during one of the most tragic events in history.