By Donna Tarney
Lest We Forget is the name of the project developed by photographer Luigi Toscano. The art installation is a series of larger than life photographs of faces. Faces of survivors. Faces of Holocaust survivors. Faces of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and parents. One of those faces belongs to a dear member of our Charlotte community, Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz.
On April 22, these portraits, representations of men and women who suffered at the hands of Nazi hatred, suffered once again from the actions of those who still carry hate. These portraits were spray painted with swastikas. Some of them were slashed by sharp objects. Lest We Forget became, overnight, a reminder of the rising tide of antisemitism in our world.
This tragedy hits close to home. Dr. Cernyak-Spatz is not only a citizen of Charlotte, she is a friend. She has given her time, her story, and herself to this community over and over again. Susan has enriched our community with her tireless devotion to helping us remember not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but our responsibility to uplift and support one another, especially during times of turmoil.
Her smiling face has become a staple in our community and a staple at the Stan Greenspon Center. In the past 18 months, we have heard her testimony, viewed the powerful staged reading of the play Protective Custody 34042, and watched the premiere viewing of the documentary “Surviving Birkenau: The Dr. Susan Spatz Story” — all in auditoriums filled to overflowing.
Susan’s face is known by students and adults, by her Jewish community as well as people of all faiths, by those who have met her and those who have heard her testimony. And now her face is known by those who read the headlines of this new act of antisemitism.
How do we respond? What can we do in the face of such hate? We can make sure that our local and national leaders publicly condemn acts of antisemitism and hate. The immediate reaction of the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, was forceful and clear. He tweeted: “I am dismayed by the antisemitic desecrations of the photos of Shoah survivors. I demand an immediate and complete clarification. Antisemitism does not have a place in Austria.”2 This is the response of a leader dedicated to social justice for all citizens. This is what we need from our leaders.
There are some simple ways to hold our community leaders accountable when antisemitism occurs and to expand Holocaust, genocide and human rights education in our community:
- Be aware of what your local and state representatives are doing, what they are saying, and how they are voting. Praise positive responses publicly and share them on social media so that they can serve as a model. Call leaders to accountability with emails, calls, and social media posts when their responses fall short.
- Speak out. When you see or hear something that is antisemitic or prejudicial, say something. One voice can make a difference.
- Educate yourself about hate crimes. The Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have websites with current incidents and groups that are actively spreading hate.
- Expand Holocaust and human rights education. Contact your local middle school or high school and inform about the Stan Greenspon Center’s Becoming One Human Family program. The program provides half day and full day workshops to guide middle and high school students teaching them how to respond to hate and become an upstander.
- Advocate for statewide Holocaust and genocide education. NC House Bill 437 requiring North Carolina middle and high school students to learn about the Holocaust was approved by the NC House in April and is now heading to the NC Senate. Urge your representative to support this important legislation.
“Lest We Forget” was created as public art to help those who pass by remember the survivors. It was installed in front of the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria, to help Austrian citizens and tourists alike look to the future with an eye to the wrongs and evils of the past. Instead, someone looked at these portraits of survivors and increased pain, injury, and hate through their vandalism. We cannot let that be the last word. We must raise our voices in solidarity against the hate. We owe it to Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz.
An added act of love… Susan is 96 years old. Rather than sharing with her the negative news of the world, we invite you to send words of love, the ways in which her story has made a difference to you, and your words of commitment to keep Holocaust and human rights education alive in order to shape a safer and brighter world for everyone. Words can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and will be shared with Susan’s family.
To support the important work of the Stan Greenspon Center in responding to antisemitism and providing Holocaust and human rights education to our region, please contact Talia Goldman, email@example.com.
1AP and TOI Staff, “Vienna: Photos of Holocaust surivors defaced with swastikas.” Times of Israel, May 23, 2019. https://www.timesofisrael.com/vienna-photos-of-holocaust-survivors-defaced-with-swastikas/?fbclid=IwAR0-M8oWHzym3JXV5G1SUpwvXySqV3piDk6IdbNeIJLYc4QfnjfiYxtBfI4
2Marcy Oster, Photos of Holocaust survivors exhibited on Vienna street vandalized, Cleveland Jewish News, May 23, 2019. https://www.clevelandjewishnews.com/jta/photos-of-holocaust-survivors-exhibited-on-vienna-street-vandalized/article_a93f5e63-4ea5-57e0-a114-240f4cc1cda7.html.