LOS ANGELES — In Jonas Kulikauskas’s black and white photographs, the peaceful streets of Vilnius, Lithuania, hide a dark secret. The cobblestones trace the footprint of the Vilna Ghetto, where nearly 40,000 Jews lived during the Holocaust.
In I Often Forget, Kulikauskas’s solo exhibition at California State University, Los Angeles, the photographer illuminates a history that, until recently, has been obscured by scholars. In 1941, thousands of Jews were forced to live in the Vilna Ghetto, and by 1943, about 95% of them had been murdered or relocated to concentration camps. With the community decimated, Jewish stories nearly vanished. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Lithuanian government reopened its Jewish museum and erected memorials, but contemporary life still paid little attention to the Jewish culture that once thrived in their neighborhood. With a World War II era lens mounted to a modern, 8 x 10 large format camera body, Kulikauskas recreated the archival aesthetics of the ghetto with modernity shining through his subjects: a cafégoer typing on their laptop, a delivery driver with their COVID-19 facemask pulled over their chin, and a wedding party celebrating their union on haunted grounds.
The show’s title refers to a phrase commonly spoken among Holocaust survivors, “never forget,” but Kulikauskas’s photographs are not about forgetting, but rather, never being taught. In a didactic placed at the front of the gallery, Kulikauskas writes about the lack of education he received in the Lithuanian Catholic school he and his siblings attended in Southern California.
“My sister Rima told me that, to her embarrassment, she first learned of [the Holocaust] from a Jewish friend in her college days,” he wrote. Revisiting his 12th-grade textbook, he made a discovery. “World War II is described over seventeen pages. The word ‘Žydai,’ or Jews, is nowhere to be found. My brother Andrius pointed out that, in fact, Volume III includes information on the Litvaks. A chapter simply entitled ‘Jews’ contains only one sentence about the Holocaust.”
For this reason, I Often Forget takes on various exhibition techniques found across art institutions, history museums, and war memorials. Alongside Kulikauskas’s photographs are maps and timelines of the ghetto, metal-framed reproductions of government ordinances that defined the strict rules for Jews to follow, and large, expository didactics that provide historical background for the Vilna Ghetto and the killing fields in the Ponary forest. These educational methods are right at home in a university gallery, given that two-thirds of young adults are unfamiliar with the Holocaust.
Kulikauskas presents all his photographs in plain, manila folder dossiers, forcing a tactile, archival experience. The quaint pictures are paired with testimonials from Vilna Ghetto survivors, pulled from deep research into books, essays, and videos. It forces the viewer to closely examine the photographs and juxtapose the banal urban scenes with the horrors that once transpired in their place. In “Rūdninkų Street No. 6, Vilnius, Lithuania, (Former Judenrat Headquarters, Vilna Ghetto 1)” (2021), a chic woman in sunglasses and strappy sandals struts across a building with a glass door and romantic, crumbling facade. Next to the photo is a block of text by Abraham Sutzkever, a Yiddish poet, ghetto survivor, and witness at the Nuremberg trials, who describes a harrowing scene that took place on the same street: “On Rudnitske (Rūdninkų) Street 4, at the foot of the wooden gate, a half-naked woman was lying on a pile of rags in the throes of an epileptic seizure. The moon lit up her disheveled hair and lent her cheeks an unnatural green hue.” The two women are foils, but only the modern one’s image will progress in history. Behind our fashionista, trowels rest on a window ledge, soon to cover up the brick that peeks through the cracked concrete facade. It’s a subtle metaphor for the woman in Sutzkever’s text, whose figure is mostly lost, a rough sketch in a testimony.
In addition to the photograph dossiers, there are two large installations. In “Ponar/Ponary (Paneriai) Memorial” (2023), one room in the gallery is filled with stones, which reminded me of the pebbles Jews leave on headstones. Projected on the wall is a pastoral view of trees — it’s the view a victim would see if they were thrown into a massacre pit. The number of rocks, it turns out, has been carefully counted. The 75,000 stones represent the Jews who were buried in this killing field.
The other installation, “Sifters” (2023), documents a team of archaeologists who are excavating the site of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, which was vandalized by the Nazis and then fully destroyed by the Soviets in the 1950s. Kulikauskas displays his documentation in three wooden sifters, the same tools used to filter artifacts from the rubble. Each photograph, which shows the archaeologists sorting through old coins and name placards, looks like a relic itself. The enormous trays also evoke the darkroom trays Kulikauskas uses to develop his silver gelatin prints.
Though I Often Forget is quite tranquil visually, the testimonials and histories that it unearths are difficult to stomach. Despite this, it’s an important way of pairing modern life with the disturbing reality of the past. Kulikauskas’s lack of Holocaust education mirrors a threat that is still present in America, such as Florida Republicans’ attempt to ban all forms of critical race theory, including Jewish studies, in the classroom. We can only remember history if it is taught to us. Without education, the streets go silent, and the past is bound to repeat itself.
Jonas Kulikauskas: I Often Forget continues at the Ronald H. Silverman Fine Arts Gallery, California State University (5151 State University Drive, University Hills, Los Angeles) through July 7. The exhibition was curated by Mika Cho.