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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”