Ilsa Alexander was a young Jewish child living a beautiful, upper middle-class life in Austria, until Nov. 9, 1938.
“Then everything turned black and ugly,” said Alexander, describing the day when, at 9 1/2 years old, she and another Jewish student in her class were sent home from school in the first of series of severe indignities her family faced at the hands of the Nazis.
Alexander is one of 78 Holocaust survivors from around the world whose larger-than-life portraits grace “Lest We Forget,” an outdoor art exhibition by German-Italian photographer Luigi Toscano on display in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza through May 19.
The exhibit, presented by the Goethe-Institut San Francisco and the German Consulate of the Federal Republic of Germany San Francisco (with support from donors Barbro and Bernard Osher and San Francisco’s arts commission and parks deparment) opened last week with a moving ceremony with survivors and city officials.
Alexander — whose father was sent to Dachau, but was able to leave in 1939 due to efforts from her uncle, who helped her family escape to China — spoke with Holocaust survivors Ben Stern and Eleanor Chroman, whose pictures also are in the exhibit. They said they agreed to be photographed for the project to continue to actively fight prejudice and anti-Semitism.
German Consul General Hans-Ulrich Suedbeck said, “The project is relevant for the future of our children; it calls on us to stand up against bigotry as soon as we witness it,” in remarks echoed by Sigrid Savelsberg, director of the Goethe-Institut, Kimberlee Stryker, vice president of the San Francisco Arts Commission, and Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Arts Commission.
Toscano, who began the project with a display in his hometown of Manheim, Germany in 2015, and has since expanded it and taken it to Ukraine, Washington D.C. and New York, was visibly choked up when he said, “I feel honored I can do what I do to stand up against racism and any kind of hatred.”
Complementary programs planned during the run include a Thursdays-at-noon free film series at San Francisco’s Main Library, featuring “Near Normal Man” with director Charlene Stern and Ben Stern on May 9; “Into the Arms of Strangers” on May 16; “After Auschwitz” with director Jon Kean on May 23; “Shores of Light” on May 30; and “Lest We Forget” at noon May 2, and also at 6 p.m. April 30, featuring a Q&A session with artist Toscano.
A panel on historic and contemporary anti-Semitism is at 6 p.m. May 13 at the Goethe Insitut, which also is hosting a series of anti-bias workshops. And City Guides Walking Tours of the Civic Center are including a stop at the display in April and May.
IF YOU GO
Lest We Forget: A Holocaust Remembrance Project
Where: Civic Center Plaza, Polk and Larkin streets, S.F.`
When: Through May 19