It will be a while before Lauren Bairnsfather, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s director, forgets her time in Geneva.
Bairnsfather’s “once in a lifetime” experience in Switzerland’s second most populous city largely revolved around photographer and filmmaker Luigi Toscano’s exhibit “Lest We Forget,” a project under the patronage of the German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas.
Toscano’s work, which included approximately 100 photographs of Holocaust survivors, including 17 Pittsburgh-based survivors, was displayed at the United Nations Office at the Palais Des Nations in Geneva between Jan. 24 and Jan 31.
“Seeing the Pittsburgh survivors at the U.N. was unbelievable,” said Bainsfather, who, along with members of her family, attended the Geneva exhibition’s opening after receiving an invitation from Toscano.
Apart from the photo exhibit, several events honored the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, including a series of speeches from Toscano, international leaders and a Holocaust survivor, as well as a somber evening candlelight walk through the United Nations’ grounds.
“We walked right by all of the countries’ flags. It was really gorgeous, and at the end of the walk we had a place to put our candles,” said Bairnsfather. “The real takeaway is the commitment among all of these leaders in Europe to counter anti-Semitism and to tell historical truths.”
During a public address, Christopher Heusgen, Germany’s permanent representative to the United Nations, recalled those lost during the Holocaust as well as the strength exhibited by survivors.
Similar thoughts were offered at the exhibition’s opening by Israeli Ambassador Aviva Raz Shechter: “Today, I stand here to speak for the 6 million of our people, for whom the gates of hell were broken into too late. The men and women, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, entire families including 1.5 million children that were brutally murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators just because they were Jewish,” she said. “Today, I am their voice and follow their command: חוכשל אלו רוכזל (lizkor v’lo lishcoah) — remember us. Never forget.”
Throughout the week, Bairnsfather connected with international leaders and engaged in “substantial” conversations. Doing so afforded an alternative view of Holocaust remembrance, she explained: “Commemorating the Holocaust in Europe just feels different. It happened there. It’s a different experience than we had here.”
Being able to partake in this type of dialogue, and doing so in Europe, “where the Holocaust happened, and to have these leaders commit to fight against anti-Semitism was really a significant experience.”
Prior to its Geneva showing, “Lest We Forget” was displayed last October on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus. At the time, Toscano explained the purpose of his efforts to the Chronicle: “I remember a woman said to me, ‘If we forget the past, we are doomed to repeat it.’ I think it is necessary to stand against hate. I hope my work is a powerful and emotional tool engaging people to do that.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.