Lest We Forget

An exhibition of portraits of Holocaust survivors on Vienna’s Ringstraße has been defiled on three separate occasions since May 7. Now, civil society is stepping up to protect them.

The project Gegen das Vergessen (Lest We Forget) was initiated by German-Italian artist and filmmaker Luigi Toscano, who spent a year meeting Holocaust survivors in Germany, the United States, Ukraine, Israel and Russia. As they shared their personal stories, Toscano created 200 portraits, designed as an open exhibition in public spaces.

The Viennese counseling center Esra – specializing in psychosocial support for Holocaust survivors, Jewish migrants and traumatized asylum seekers of all faiths – brought the exhibition to Vienna. But since its opening on May 7, the larger-than-life-sized portraits have been defaced on three separate occasions: A few days after the opening, they were damaged with a knife, then last week they were defiled with swastikas, and on Sunday night, several portraits were again destroyed with a knife.

On Monday, Toscano shared pictures of the damaged portraits on Facebook, asking “Austria, what is wrong with you?” and criticizing the police for not protecting the exhibition.

Ich bin einfach nur sprachlos, schon wieder gab es ein Anschlag auf meine Bilder.Österreich was ist los mit…

Gepostet von Luigi Toscano am Montag, 27. Mai 2019

Since then, the artists and actors collective Nesterval has stepped into the breach. In a matter of hours of the third attack, they organized a round-the-clock watch of the portraits and committed to continuing until the end of the exhibition on May 31.

The artist and actors collective Nestervcal keeps watch in fron the portraits close to Burggarten.

As damaged portraits were sewed up and the watch established, several other organizations including Caritas Catholic Charities, the Muslim Youth of Austria and the Jewish Students Association joined in with support and their own watch teams. Many Viennese stopped by to pay tribute, bring flowers, candles or tea and sweets for the watchers.

The damages portraits were sewed up and repaired by volunteers.

People started bringing flowers for the portraits and tea and sweets for the volunteer guards.


Volunteers from the Caritas, the Muslim Youth Austria and and the Jewish Student Association joined in.

Volunteers from the Jewish Student Association and Muslim Youth of Austria meet artist Luigi Toscano.

In the meantime, the director of Austria’s museum Haus der Geschichte (House of Austrian History), Monika Sommer, announced the following: “Due to the historical dimension and importance of these events in Vienna, we have decided to add some of the damaged objects to our permanent exhibition, thus also placing them under permanent monument protection.”

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen lauded the commitment of the watchers and their organizations. In a video, he condemned the vandalism and the antisemitic overtones: “Not with us. That is not who we are.”

In the same clip, artist and initiator Luigi Toscano stated: “This reaction [of civil society] is bigger, stronger and more democratic [than the vandalism]. That gives me hope.”

Mahnwache "Gegen das Vergessen"

Mein aufrichtiger Dank an alle, die die Bilder der Ausstellung "Gegen das Vergessen" repariert haben und seit gestern bewachen. Sie alle sagen: So sind wir nicht. Sie alle setzen mit der Aktion: Wir passen auf! ein starkes Zeichen für den Zusammenhalt in unserer Gesellschaft. (vdb)

Gepostet von Alexander Van der Bellen am Dienstag, 28. Mai 2019

Survivors often turn to philosopher George Satayana:  “If we forget the past,” said 94-year-old survivor Susan Cernyak-Spatz, “we are condemned to repeat it.”

Benjamin Wolf
Benjamin studied Journalism, History and International Affairs. After stints with Cafébabel in Paris and Arte in Strasbourg, he is now working as managing editor and COO for Metropole in Vienna. Fields of expertise are politics, economics, culture, and history.Photo: Visual Hub

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