|The Berlin Jewish Museum|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
The name “Jüdisches Museum Berlin”, the Jewish Museum Berlin, has a macabre sound to it, for in a certain way, it very firmly puts a full stop on the history of German Jews. True, today there are Jews in Germany, but the rich era of German Jewry was brutally interrupted by the Germans themselves and their collaboration with the Nazis. Over recent years, I have visited Jewish museums around the world. I have noted that the more a nation and a people have to reproach themselves about the Jews, the more the Jewish Museums or museums “about the Jews” are beautiful, modern, rich, impressive and well done. The Berlin museum is no exception to this rule and fits this profile perfectly, as much by its excessive size and complexity as by the number of errors and basic omissions about our religion, parts of Jewish history and traditions.
The Jewish Museum Berlin recalls that before World War II, there was an extraordinary Jewish community in Germany, whose most brilliant members significantly contributed to the country’s advances. It also shows that Jewish inventors, scientists, industrialists, artists, publishers, business people and bankers of the highest order were expelled, persecuted or murdered. What is macabre about the plan to set up such a museum is that its backers expect in this way to do justice to the memory of the exterminated Jewish community. This is of course not the official message of the museum, but it is a thought that is piercingly present throughout the exhibition. Officially, the purpose and spirit of the Jüdisches Museum Berlin can be summarized as follows: Lessons must be drawn from the past, to make sure such horrors do not re-occur, and most particularly to let the young generation learn the history shown here, so that today’s Germany can develop a society that is more tolerant, in particular of the minorities that live in its midst. Curiously, all the official publications and notices by the museum management underscore this message, which appears to them essential: “we are not a museum about the Shoah”. Despite everything, it must be acknowledged that the museum has taken on an enormous challenge, to reduce the history of German Judaism to a single exhibition. That is the reason that even though the displays are very well done and only show the essentials, the museum is overloaded with objects, documents and explanations, which are not always easy to understand… or digest. A certain heaviness that is part and parcel of the German character definitely plays a role in this type of exhibition.
This is the way the museum’s exhibition, based on three themes, communicates with visitors. The first is to recall the history of German Jews, showing that their presence on German soil goes back to the 3rd century, and that they lived there through all the ups and downs until their annihilation by the German Nazis. In this connection, it is interesting to note that everything to do with orthodox Jewish life and strict observance of German Judaism from before the war is reduced to a tiny, almost non-existent, corner. Is this a deliberate omission or simply an error out of ignorance? The second part explains Jewish life, from circumcision to the grave, while the third section is dedicated to the Shoah. The first part of the exhibition, “Two thousand years of German-Jewish history”, is divided into fourteen sections, which follow a chronological progression. A Jewish presence is shown by an edict dated 321 CE, sent by the Emperor Constantine to the magistrate for the Cologne region, concerning the Jews living within his jurisdiction. The exhibition continues with the Middle Ages, when the three largest communities, Speyer, Worms and Mainz, enjoyed a Jewish intellectual flowering and a constructive and peaceful dialog between Christians and Jews. This lasted until the Crusaders, on their way to Jerusalem, slaughtered thousands of Jews. The visit makes its way through history, illustrated with personal accounts, such as that of the Jewish businesswoman, “Glikl”, whose real name was Glückel von Hammel (1646-1724). This part of the exhibition is indicative of the way the whole museum is designed. A series of interactive stations let visitors enter into “Glikl’s” life, and at the same time to learn what the daily and communal life of German Jews was like at that time. The exhibition continues with more of this sort of presentation, going from Court Jews to Moses Mendelssohn, by way of developments in the Jewish community faced with the rise of Reform Judaism and the development of the rights of the Jews, to the restrictions which were applied to them, including the professions from which they were excluded.
The second part of the museum, about Jewish life, is rather superficial and presents the essentials of the laws, traditions, ways and customs, and contains a number of basic errors. For example, the Bar Mitzvah is symbolized by a gift, and being called up to the Torah is described as the most important moment of this occasion, when that in truth is the putting on of tefilin! Overall, this section provides the general public with a concise overview of what is Judaism. It should not be forgotten that the information is not serving a well-informed audience, but first and foremost the German public, in particular the youth, who when they hear the word “Jew” think automatically of the term “Auschwitz’. The idea is to show the public – and in particular German youth in general and from Berlin in particular – that the Jews are not just victims of the Germans, but that they have a culture and way of life of their own. It also serves to emphasize that there was Jewish life in Germany before 1933.
The last section is on the Shoah. This is strongly developed, with a very well done interactive introduction. The following example well illustrates the way this part of the exhibition has been designed. Using a small screen, the visitor can first learn about the application of the anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws. These are presented as a multiple choice. By touching, for example, the dialog box about the exclusion of Jewish lawyers or teachers from their professions, a map of Berlin appears, highlighting the courts and the schools. By clicking with a finger on one or other of the buildings, the visitor is shown a full explanation, together with photos from the period. The visitor is slowly but surely entered into the horror, that allows a slow but effective awareness.
Nonetheless, despite a remarkable educational presentation, the museum is blemished by a scandalous and sickening space, which fills any normal person with revulsion. This the “emptiness of memory”, a creation called “Gefallenes Laub” – Fallen Leaves -, made, with macabre irony, by an Israeli sculptor called Menashe Kadishman (was this name predestined, since Kaddish is the prayer for the dead???). At first sight it is simply an unadorned area in concrete, which symbolizes the emptiness left in Europe by the murder of the Jews. But on the ground are 10,000 steel discs, sculpted in the form of tortured faces with gaping mouths. Men, women, children, the elderly, all are shown with the twisted face of those who met death in the gas chambers. The sight of this “work of art” recalls the opening the doors of the gas chambers after the gassing of the Jews by the Germans. Just the view of this place is nauseating in itself, but if that was not enough, the “artist” and the museum invite the visitor to walk over these metal plaques, over the tortured faces, mocking with their feet the memory of the murdered Jews. And this, right in the center of Berlin, former capital of the Third Reich! Asked about the meaning of his work, Mr. Kadishman said, “My sculptures sadly recall the memory of all innocent victims of yesterday, today and tomorrow”.
The museum boasts a remarkable study center, the Rafael Roth Learning Center, a sort of virtual memory of the museum. Here visitors of all ages are invited to move from one discovery to another about the culture and history of the Jews of Germany and of Judaism in general. Eighteen computer terminals let those who so wish to delve into interactive research of many centuries of Jewish life. In addition, a catalog provides very comprehensive information about every item displayed, which in the actual exhibition are only accompanied by a small note. A report on the “Jüdisches Museum Berlin”, which above all wants to be a museum of the Jewish side of German history and in no way a presentation of Judaism, would not be complete without a word about the architecture. The famous architect, Daniel Liebeskind, winner of the competition for the reconstruction of Ground Zero in New York, on the site of the WTC Twin Towers destroyed by Arab terrorists, was commissioned by the initiators of the museum, of whom the German Government is the leading light, to build this new institution, which was inaugurated on 9 September 2001. The building’s shape recalls a petrified bolt of lightning and symbolizes the sadness of the Jewish people, frozen for all time. One finds this feeling in the often dark corridors, particular in the basement. There, the visitor starts by following the Path of Exile, made up of windows where things belonging to expelled families are displayed, before reaching the Gardens of the Exile (a curious construct made of unstable, slippery, concrete) and the Street of Extermination (where the window displays recall particularly tragic destinies), which in turn leads to the Holocaust Tower. This is a black, bare concrete space, a terrifying, three-story tower, closed off by a heavy metal door that lets only a little weak light filter in through the bars, in a word a glacial place, ideal for catching cold. This desolate place makes the visitor feel abandoned by all and terrified. Everything points to the designer having wanted to recreate the feeling of what it was like when a railway wagon or the door of a gas chamber closed on you. In this respect, it must be said that a normal and informed person will not easily understand the use and benefit of such an installation. The museum is in fact built in such a way that this area can be avoided…This set of corridors nonetheless ends up on an optimistic note, the “Route of Continuity”, which opens onto enormous staircases (there is also an elevator, but it is poorly marked) which lead to the main display areas. There, the visitor is confronted by a complex mass of corridors, labyrinths, surfaces, uneven walls, unexpected crannies, crisscrossing and straight lines. This symbolizes the complexity and close interdependence that links the history of Germany to that of its Jewish population. The accumulation of objects is presented without emotion, rather like a scientific observation. This is probably because the designer of the exhibition, the New Zealand anthropologist (which says a lot about how he approached his work), Ken Gorbey, who is not Jewish, has no Jewish sensibility, and created this exhibition in the same way he did the Te Papa Museum in Wellington.
If the message and even the identity of the museum are in the final analysis quite ambivalent, a very clear lesson emerges from a visit to this place, which at first sight may seem curious, but which, in the end, is worth getting to know. The entire exhibition at the “Jüdisches Museum Berlin” demonstrates very clearly that the Jewish-German symbiosis so sincerely extolled was destined to fail, as was and still is every form of assimilation. Germany, the nation where Jewish society so wanted to be assimilated and where integration was strongest and most widespread, to the detriment of Jewish values and traditions, invented Auschwitz. In 1933, when he was banned from working or exhibiting, Max Liebermann, the famous, totally assimilated German Jewish painter, said, “Even though it was very difficult for me, I awoke from the dream of assimilation”.
Lastly, the “Jüdisches Museum Berlin”, which above all does not wish to be a memorial for German crimes against the Jewish people (the PR officer told me clearly, “Wir sind kein Holokaustmuseum – we are not a museum of the Shoah”) serves the interests of today’s Germany, which does everything to be accepted by the civilized world as a country where an authentically democratic society and a liberal state is evolving – in a nutshell, a nation that has retrieved the moral right to speak out against racism, for religious tolerance and for the rights of minorities. In fact, Germany at the start of the 21st century has not obtained its status as a moral authority among the nations. This museum will not contribute anything to its rehabilitation, just as the fact that today one hundred thousand Jews living in German will not contribute to the revival of German Judaism.
Up till now, over one and a half million people have visited the “Jüdisches Museum Berlin”, of whom a large proportion are students from Berlin. This is a museum “about the Jews” and not a Jewish museum, in the same way that there are jokes about Jews that has nothing in common with Jewish humor… It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Visiting this institution is worth a detour, but not worth making a special trip to Berlin.
«Jüdisches Museum Berlin» Lindenstrasse 9-14 Opening hours: Every day from 10am to 8pm, Mondays from 10am to 10pm. Open on Shabbat and Jewish festivals, except Yom Kippur. The restaurant is not kosher. The museum regularly organizes temporary exhibitions. For more information: www.jmberlin.de