It is almost what you might call a Mona Lisa smile. The face on the canvas is warm, but contains a hundred years of ups and downs, tragedy, triumph, and vigor—at least, that’s what we’re seeing. The woman’s emerald green eyes stare straight back at you. Her white hair is cut short and styled—or maybe it just goes this way naturally—in a loose wave that would look fashionable on a woman a quarter her age.
But it is the upturned curl at the corner of the woman’s mouth that gives her away. This cheshire grin suggests no matter how much heartache she may have experienced, there is an indomitable human spirit alive, well, and ready to release an outrageous tall tale with joyous laughter.
Bronia Weiner is a Holocaust survivor and it is no accident that her portrait is on public display here in Pittsburgh, now.
A partnership between The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh has brought German-Italian photographer Luigi Toscano’s project Lest We Forget (or Gegen das Vergessen in the original German) to Oakland.
The installation features 60 large-scale color photo portraits mounted on semi-translucent screen. Designed for outside exhibition, the photos, stretched on big wooden frames, line the broad walkways between The Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel. Additional portraits are indoors at The Carnegie Museum and Chatham University library.
Up close and in person, the photographs read as the kind of opaque, hiqh-quality prints that one might find on art gallery walls. From any distance, however—especially on a bright sunny day—the fine mesh of the media allows background elements to bleed through the images.
The lush green of the Cathedral lawn colors a sun-dappled face. Eyeballs pop out from university infrastructure. Cloud-like white hair disappears into arching tree limbs, autumn leaves, and blue sky.
We have no idea if this was the intended artistic effect or just a simple accident of the medium. Either way, the result is a beautiful and haunting way to portray these elder survivors and simultaneously address the mortality all of us inevitably wrestle with.
Toscano’s subjects range in age from their late 70s to 100 years old. Their time here—like all of ours—is limited. As these rich, detailed photographs dissolve into the wider landscape, it’s impossible not to think of the dust-to-dust return to the earth that will claim us one way or another.
As of today, it’s been exactly one year since a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue and committed an act of hate-filled violence that will forever affect every Pittsburgher.
With the Lest We Forget portraits, it is impossible not to see the sad irony that the 60 individuals pictured here survived Nazi concentration camps—not to mention everything else life throws at a person over eight or nine decades—and yet eleven of our neighbors were murdered at a Shabbat prayer service in Squirrel Hill.
Whatever you end doing today—be it attending the Tree of Life vigil or just parked on the couch with a bowl of popcorn—please keep all of these folks in your mind. Better yet, take a walk over to the lovely Cathedral lawn to see the installation for yourself. This remarkable collection of faces, each containing more life experiences than we could possibly know, will help you remember just what you have—and what we all lost exactly one year ago.