Not Remembering, not Forgetting
by Morgan Figa, 2023 Seminary Fellow
At the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe people are taking selfies. They are posing for photos. I hear a group with American accents discussing where the sunlight is and how far to extend the selfie stick to get as many of the steles as possible in the photo. I peer down rows of concrete trying to see if I can find them. After a few turns, I catch them—smiling, hands on hips, selfie stick out so far their phone is scraping against the concrete.
When I turn, I run into another one of my seminary colleagues. We look at each other, and after a moment he asks,
“Do we say something? Is that awkward?”
“What would we say?”
Later, as I’m recounting this story, my roommate searches #HolocaustMemorialBerlin on Instagram. Hundreds of photos appear. A few are somber. Their owners have put them through the black-and-white filter and tagged them #neverforget.
Most took some effort. In many, people are jumping in between the rows, suspended in mid-air. Others slide themselves in between two of the steles—their feet on one and their backs against the other. Some stand on the tops of the more easily attainable pillars. Sometimes they sit, smiling at the camera. Other times they stand with a serious expression, looking off into the distance.
“Why would someone want these?” she asks me, holding up a picture of two women smiling and making peace signs at the camera, the Memorial in the background. They have tagged the photo: #vacation #summer #Berlin #neverforget.
Full of judgement, I reply. “Why would someone put them on the internet for everyone to see?”
For a moment, I pride myself on being someone who knows better. I tell myself that I would never do such a thing and that I will not use photography to obscure history. I will be present. I will not look away.
And then I remember: not long into the same tour that ended at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, I stopped to take a picture of an advertisement with a silly pun on the tagline (Eis Eis Baby) and then, while still listening to the tour, I sent the photo to a friend in D.C. who likes puns and speaks German.
A few days later, at the Neue Nationalgalerie, I ask one of the historians what he thinks about photographs where memorial sites are the background for the visitors. He quickly asks as clarification, “You mean selfies?”
I nod, waiting for his judgement. Instead, he replies, “I think we have to take them seriously as something that could teach us about history and memory. There is a reason that people want to center themselves, their experiences in these places. There’s a reason they keep returning to their photographs.”
At first, I think that he means photographs exist as memory aides. When we foreground ourselves, we do so to remember we stood in that place, took in that scenery, felt those emotions. But, as I walk through the museum, I wonder if some photographs exist to help us forget or misdirect.
I sit on a bench in the middle of one of the galleries and look through the camera roll on my phone for the trip. Buildings, paintings, more advertisements and billboards – no selfies, no historical sites, no memorials.
In remembering puns and city skylines, what, exactly, am I trying to forget?
As I walk up to Am Großen Wannsee 56-58, my first instinct is to take a picture.
Immediately ashamed, I realize I feel my hand on my cell phone in my pocket. If I didn’t know where I was, if I had continued napping on the bus and missed Thorsten’s introduction to the site, I would have immediately stopped for a photo of the garden.
My phone is full of nature photos. I can’t tell you why—I am not, by any stretch, what someone would describe as “outdoorsy.” But on trips or even out on my daily commute, I will often stop and take a photo of a particularly beautiful arrangement of flowers or try to catch a butterfly moving through blades of grass.
As I am not a particularly talented photographer, I rely on portrait mode on my phone. Portrait mode creates a narrower “depth of field” effect.1 Depth of field refers to “the distance between the closest and farthest objects” in a photograph.2 Talented photographers use this phenomenon to guide our eyes to what they wish us to see. A narrow depth of field creates a foreground disconnected from its background; a wider depth of field creates the opposite.3
I did not realize until recently that nearly all the pictures on my phone rely on this narrowness. I have picture after picture foregrounding an element of the natural world at the expense of everything else happening in the background.
Of course, these photos almost always wind up on my own Instagram and have captions like,
“Jamaica Pond on a Sunday afternoon” or “First signs of spring at the arboretum”.
I am not sure when I began this collection of photos, but I do think that the reason I continue to take them is simple (and embarrassing): they make me feel artistic. Or more precisely, I take them and send them out into the world in the hope that other people will think I am artistic. I squeeze them in between selfies with friends or vacation photos, in which I strike exaggerated poses. I don’t want my social media presence to express all the fun (and always only the fun), I am having. I want people to think that I am also deep, reflective, and creative as well.
If I didn’t know what had happened at the Wannsee House, I probably would have walked the grounds for a bit and stopped near the lake to take 10-15 photos of it obscured by some tree leaves and then later have had a coffee while I scrolled through to find the one that felt the artsiest. I would have posted it on Instagram with the caption
“Beautiful day outside! #vacation #summer #Berlin.”
This is not the first, nor the last time on this trip, I feel my focus shift from the voice of the guide or a memorial display to the natural world. A few days prior, Icould not stop staring at ladybugs at Sachsenhausen. There were so many that during a break I searched online, “Ladybugs in Berlin,” wondering if there was some seasonal event taking place.
As I spent most of that trip staring at the ground, I also noticed that it was not just insects disrupting the terrain. All across the grounds small flowers burst through faded, unkempt grass. During a break, I asked the guide, “Why are these here? Did someone plant them?”
He shook his head and told me, “They are natural.”
Later at Grunewald Station, Track 17, I experienced a similar sense of disorientation. Butterflies and mosquitos breezed by, and yet another ladybug determinedly crawled across the tracks, away from the deportation site, for several minutes.
At Sachsenhausen and Track 17, something felt wild, untamed, each time I saw a flower or an insect. In those moments, it seemed that the work of creation continued as pictured in the commandment from Genesis 1:22 to “be fruitful and multiply.” Creation continued; life continued in places where every effort had been made to extinguish it.
This garden is not natural. It is cared for, tended, and manicured.
As the seminary cohort gathers with one of the historians, he asks us if we have any questions. I immediately raise my hand and ask, “Why is this garden so nice?”
He smiles, “Why do you ask that?”
I am too cowardly to admit that I am uncomfortable with my own reaction to its beauty, so instead I say, “Was it this nice during, uh, the conference here? Is it supposed to look like it did when, um, they were all here?”
He tells me exactly what I don’t want to hear, “Keep thinking about this. Keep thinking about why historians would make a choice to make this house look so beautiful.”
Later when I have a few moments to walk around the exhibition inside, I leave the building and go walk the grounds, eventually finding a pathway down to the lake. It’s a lovely, sunny day and I see people in rowboats across the shore.
I stare out unable to focus my eyes on anything in particular before I say out loud to my own surprise, “Hey Heydrich. I hope wherever you are, I hope you are so mad that I am here right now.”
As I start to return to the house for our next session, I decide that I am going to pray during my whole walk through the gardens until I get to the house. It is not a reflective or sorrowful impulse. I am not trying to memorialize or mourn. I’m feeling petty, vengeful. I hope to, as I describe to my seminary colleagues later, be as publicly Jewish as possible my whole way back to the house, hoping that somewhere, somehow, the men who with such cordial formality decided to massacre my family, sense this act, sense me, and are furious.
Later that evening, I tell others about singing and praying in the garden. “It just, it reminded me that in spite of everything, they lost. They really lost, y’know? Like, there’s still life here.”
“True,” one of the other seminarians responds. He takes what I said in for a moment before saying, “Yeah, they did lose. Eventually. But they won a lot too.”
About two hours into our tour of Birkenau, the guide offers us a restroom break. We all look around uneasily until he points to a well-used set of restrooms clearly constructed for visitors.
After hearing multiple historians and tour guides describe in painstaking detail all the ways they have tried to preserve spaces, to make them feel frozen in time, I cannot handle the irony that, of all the things, someone decided to build a restroom for the convenience of visitors in the middle of Birkenau.
The guide kindly points out to me there is a single-stall, accessible bathroom that I can use to help the line move a bit faster. As is my primary coping mechanism in all moments of pain and discomfort, particularly the last few weeks of this trip, a series of jokes flood my mind, but I decide not to share any of them.
The restroom is, well, gross, and I resolve to get out as quickly as possible.
And then, the sink breaks. Or maybe I break the sink. Either way, no matter what I do, I cannot get the tap to stop pouring water. I turn the faucet handle, press it gently, then smack it with force, but the water continues to pour.
“Who,” I wonder to myself, “do I tell that I broke the sink at Auschwitz?”
After what seems like an hour, I notice that the drip has started to slow and give myself permission to leave, mostly confident I’m not about to cause a flood.
When I exit the bathroom, the rest of the group has already gone. I run forward further into the path, looking in every direction. I cannot see them. I cannot hear them.
I am alone. In the woods. In a concentration camp.
My mind immediately starts to unravel—wondering if someone I was related to once stood there, and then I’m thinking about how I just learned bathrooms were a place of prayer because it was one of the only times inmates had close to a shred of privacy, and then I’m thinking about sanitization and insects, which are all over the ground here, and how Jews were compared to insects and how so many people got typhus here, which is caused by insects and—
And then I realize there is a thicket of trees in the distance, leading to woods that are absolutely beautiful. It’s a sunny day with a perfect blue sky and white fluffy clouds, and you can see literal beams of sunlight through the forest green leaves of the birch trees. It’s picture perfect—I’m standing in front of the cover of a photo album or a tourism poster.
I squeeze my eyes shut and then open them. I don’t know what I’m trying to do, what I’m hoping for in this moment, but it doesn’t work. I am standing in one of the worst places in the whole world, and I have somehow stumbled in front of something that is disturbingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.
I look away. Until this point on the trip, I have tried to stare into every abyss, listen to each word of every awful story, but this, this, is too much.
I turn right, and luckily, I guess correctly. After walking a few paces, I see the tour group ahead.
When I rejoin them, I must look visibly shaken, because one of the other rabbinical school students asks me, “Are you okay?” He then quickly adds, “I mean, okay, in this place, in this moment—"
“No, no, I get what you meant,” I reassure him. “I…I just got forgotten in the bathroom.”
One of the medical students is in front of me and turns around immediately, instinctively, to offer care: “Oh Morgan.
Are you alright? I mean, like, as okay as anyone can be in this place—”
“No, no, I’m…I’m fine. I mean, not fine, but…I don’t even have a joke about what just happened.”
Gently, my friend offers, “I’m sure one will come to you later.”
On Shabbat morning, I attend services at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow. There is a tour group of bored French teenagers standing in front of the room for services. When I arrive, a woman addresses me in English and offers me a tallit, a prayer shawl. I look around. There is no one there. I start to panic, wondering if, after watching me burst into tears the day before, Wayne, the kind FASPE CEO, has designed a whole egalitarian service for me, and no one else is there.
Another woman breezes in, and greets me in rapid Polish, explaining she’s been texting the congregants. They are all late because it’s raining.
I reply in English, “Oh, it is pretty gross outside. The rain was coming down pretty hard when I walked here.”
She stares at me for a moment and asks in Polish, “Do you speak Polish?” In Polish I respond, “A little, not well.”
She laughs and says, “I think your accent is a bit too good for that to be true.”
After a few minutes a group of Israelis walk in. They are shouting, half in Hebrew, half in English, about how excited they are to pray here again. They sit in the front. I sit in the back.
Slowly the congregation trickles in—a few people in suits, others in yoga pants. Another one of the rabbinical school students joins me. The cantor announces, half in Polish, half in English, that she’s going to do her best to call page numbers in as many languages as possible. The prayer book has Hebrew on one side and Polish on the other, and I feel my heart in my throat, realizing I was holding something I never knew I wanted.
The Israelis have a guide with them who speaks some Polish, and he and I take turns helping to quickly translate page numbers and prayer names. The Israelis get up to dance at one point. A bunch of the French teenagers come to look at the photography in the room. Most back out slowly, but a few stand at the door watching, unsure if this is part of an exhibition or not.
When I go visit the museum a few days later, I realize the room where I prayed contains an exhibition called “An Unfinished Memory.” The exhibition consists of a series of photographs of synagogues across Poland and Eastern Ukraine. The photographer, Jason Francisco, took the photos on a large-format analogue camera that he believes is a “tool that forces a slow and contemplative observational process.”4 At first, I am struck by how difficult it is to see anything detailed in each of the photographs. Most of the synagogues are centered in a wide landscape, often obscured by overgrowing vines and unintentional gardens full of weeds.
As I stand in front of each synagogue, trying to figure out what it is that I should look at, I am overwhelmed with emotion. For two weeks I have been standing in places of destruction that are somehow still overflowing with life.
Here too, each photograph is teeming with life—weeds and trees and bushes that probably contain mosquitos and butterflies and ladybugs overwhelm each of the abandoned, nearly destroyed buildings
There is life around every one of these synagogues; there isn’t any sign of humanity.
And then it hits me, here I am, the granddaughter of Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, who prayed on Shabbat in Krakow and cursed Heydrich in his own backyard. I’m standing in a museum looking at photographs of dilapidated synagogues with the power to fill them with people again.
This is the ending I want. This is the great takeaway, the great lesson that I want to have learned from all this: that I’m here, alive, carrying the legacy of my family, and there is so much work to do.
And then I remember as we rushed to meet the group in the rain, as I raved about the cantor’s voice and the Polish-Hebrew siddur and how I finally got to pray as myself in my spiritual homeland, my colleague said, “Yeah…but weren’t you a little surprised at all of the Carlebach tunes she used?”
And then I realize, just two days prior, the four rabbinical school students had a spirited debate about whether it was ethical to use Carlebach tunes in services and that I had been the one with the fastest “no” and the least patience for nuance in the conversation.
And then my memory of praying in Krakow does not feel quite as pristine, like quite as perfect an ending as I would like.
And then I remember that I had a plan to pray mincha, afternoon prayers, in the Remah synagogue not in the back section, but in the front of the pews toward the ark. When I first walked in, I saw a group of Orthodox men praying and made a mental note of how long I thought it would take them to finish. I tried to wait them out by walking around the cemetery and chatting with some Israeli women near the entrance. After almost a half an hour, when they had not finished, I walked inside, into the main space and started walking toward the ark.
They glared, and I pretended not to see it. They said something; I pretended not to speak Polish. And then, they wouldn’t move. And while I could have found a way around them, I felt myself paralyzed by the choice I had to make: make a point (and probably cause a scene) or respect our differences and keep my distance.
Ultimately, I decided to stand behind them and pray,
ברוך אתהתה היי אלהינונליוה מל לך ך העולםעםלו שעשנישעני אש שה ה ה ה א א ש מ א
“Blessed are you God, ruler of the universe, for making me a woman.”
And then I walked out.
And then I remember the conversation that my dad and I had a week later, walking down Świętokrzyska Street in Warsaw:
Me: “Two years in, what do you think your parents would think about me becoming a rabbi?”
Him: “I think they’d think it’s strange.”
Him: “Oh, no, strange, mad. (Pause). They really never trusted organized religion.”
And then I realize I don’t have an ending. Every time I think I stumble upon a memory or a vignette that feels perfect for a sermon, for a joke, for this very capstone project, or even an answer to the question, “What did you do for two weeks?” I remember something else.
During the pandemic, a group of friends and I held a weekly text study on Zoom. Each week, we’d all promise to read the weekly Torah portion, and then, being the only person who actually completed the assignment, I would lead the group in a conversation.
One day, while my friends generously let me play rabbi, I brought up Exodus 24:2:
וַיִשְמַָ֥עשעמי אֱלֹהִָ֖יםםליה את־נַאֲ ק תָ֑םתקנםא־ וַיִזְ כררכיזֹּּ אֱלֹהִי ם םליה את־בְ תרב־ רְִֶּית֔וֹתו את־אַבְ ר הָ֖םתרםהבא־ את־יִצְ חָ֥קתקציח־ וְ אֶֽת־יַעֲ ק ב א א א א ו ו י א א
“God heard their cries and God remembered his covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.”
“I kind of hate this,” I told everyone over Zoom. “Why does God suddenly ‘remember’ the Israelites now? What has God been doing all this time?”
My friend Sarah, a lawyer with an always careful way of reading words, replied, “But it doesn’t say that God forgot the Israelites. We never read that.”
“Isn’t forgetting the opposite of remembering?” my friend Meagan asked.
“No, I think forgetting is something different. The opposite of ‘remembering’ is ‘not remembering.’”
“Sarah,” I sighed. “What is the difference between ‘not-remembering’ and ‘forgetting’?”
She paused for a few moments before saying, “So, ‘forgetting’ is active. You are making a choice. ‘Not remembering’ is more passive. You are deciding the story is over, that there is nothing else to add. ‘Remembering’ means you think there’s still more to the story.”
At the time, I thought this was a lawyerly sleight of hand. But, as I’ve tried again and again to write without remembering, hoping that I would find an ending, I realize Sarah was right. We remember when there is more of the story to be told.
I would like to say that I think this is good—that I understand this is what is required to be uncomfortable, to do the work of growing, changing, and maintaining a sense of self-reflectiveness. I wish I could end with the reassurance that I continue to remember and re-remember this trip because I understand and have chosen to keep the story going.
But the truth is, my most natural inclination is to push away the responsibility of remembering and instead to end on a clever turn of phrase or a quick punchline. But since I keep remembering, I turned back to the room where I started to think about what it means to have an “unfinished memory.” In his concluding reflections on his exhibition, Jason Francisco wrote:
I am a photographer with a deep love of pictures and little faith in them. If photographs mostly show us what we are already prepared to see, sometimes they provoke us to ponder what we are not prepared to understand. In such situations, we stand to receive memory not just as an anterior truth but a future possibility, a force of change and renewal as against the forces of indifference and oblivion.5
In an effort to take seriously Franco’s plea for future possibility and perhaps, find an ending, I returned recently to the many photos that I took on this trip—colleagues who became dear friends, the ladybug that crawled along Track 17, tiny white and yellow flowers bursting between weeds at Birkenau, plates of pierogis and craft beers, the Berlin skyline, a Polish-Hebrew dictionary preserved in a museum, plaques and text from different exhibitions, statues, artwork, abandoned buildings, memorials, the Wisła at night.
I originally wanted to end this all with a story about life as a triumphant force in this world. I wanted to end with a great story. Instead, I just keep looking through photographs that represent the mess of my own humanity—photos of me being present, very present, in others completely absent. Some of these I sent out into the world. Others, I don’t think I’ll ever show to anyone. Some I know exactly why I took them; others, I have absolutely no recollection of their purpose. Some bring me joy, others sadness, still others guilt that I stopped to take them at all. Some brought about a sense of possibility; some I don’t ever want to look at again.
As it is all I have to offer, I am ending with this mess. And a prayer: may I continue to resist the urge to look away. May I continue to hold the contradictions, the possibility in the future, and the tragedy of the past. May I continue to embrace the mess.
Morgan Figa was a 2023 FASPE Seminary Fellow. She is currently in rabbinical school at Hebrew College. She is also an intern at 2Life Communities and serves as a mikveh guide and educator at Mayyim Hayyim.
- See, “How Portrait Mode Works and How It Compares to an 8,000 Camera,” https://petapixel.com/2017/12/11/portrait-mode-works-compares-8000-camera/
- See, Depth of Field – Everything You Need to Know from the Nashville Film Institute, https://www.nfi.edu/depth-of-field/