This, I thought, is something they will have to get right. After all, Berlin was Hitler’s capital city, the place where leaders managed the bureaucratic tasks necessary to carry out the genocide he planned. You could say that this city, more than anywhere else, carries the weight of Germany’s guilt.
Disclosure: As at every museum I visited in Berlin, I received free admission on showing my press pass. Nevertheless, all opinions are my own.
As I approached it, walking from the metro station, the first thing I noticed was the unusual building. Metallic-looking, it has narrow windows in slanted lines that look like slashes in the structure. I couldn’t get a good look at the whole building from ground level, but was able to look at it later on google maps. It does not resemble a swastika, but somehow evokes one, or perhaps I should say a partially unbent swastika.
The next thing I noticed was the level of security around the building. Policemen patrolled, and signs prohibited any vehicle from parking or even stopping in the vicinity. Heavy concrete blocks would, presumably, stop a car from ramming the building. Certainly the building’s metal exterior itself looks weighty enough to withstand an attack.
The “axes” in the Jewish Museum
Entering the old section of the museum, I followed the signs downstairs to Level 1 to explore a series of crisscrossing hallways.
Called the Axis of Exile, the Axis of the Holocaust and the Axis of Continuity, I felt slightly off-balance as I walked these halls. The floors slanted, and the hallways crossed at irregular angles.
Here and there along the white-painted walls were glass windows, behind which ordinary objects sat under low lights. These objects – a personal letter, a handmade calendar, a silver spoon, a beaded handbag, and so on – were accompanied by small signs explaining who owned them and what happened to them. The objects in the Axis of Exile were either left behind or carried as Jews fled. Most of the owners of objects in the Axis of the Holocaust perished in concentration camps.
These objects were ordinary, everyday, unremarkable items, which made reading their stories all the more touching. Each represents millions of similar examples, and by extension, millions of people. I fought off tears as I read the stories.
There weren’t many windows or many objects. It puzzled me. This is a museum? It doesn’t tell the whole story; just these bits and pieces.
To me, it was an effective memorial more than a museum. That pleased me, because the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe doesn’t really work as a memorial.
The Jewish Museum building
Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the building itself is particularly impressive in its ability to provoke a response. The “Holocaust Tower” at the end of the Axis of the Holocaust, is a hollow, dark, concrete-walled gap. Walking in, letting the door close behind me, I felt alone, unheard, caged. I found myself looking up repeatedly, to the light source several stories above: an opening to the outside.
The architect intentionally left several such vertical cuts in the building, evoking feelings of vulnerability and discomfort in visitors, just as the slanting floors and stark white walls of the axis hallways do. The vertical “voids” are meant to represent the absence of Jews from German society.
The Memory Void
The “Memory Void” is the name for another gap upstairs. Again, it’s a tall, sharp-angled, empty space with concrete walls and light from above. But in this case the floor is covered with more than 10,000 round metal plates shaped like faces with gaping mouths. Visitors walking on the faces must step carefully to avoid falling on the uneven surfaces, and the faces clank harshly with a metal-on-metal sound. The Jews who are absent from German society are physically represented here, and their scream is metallic.
An Israeli, Menashe Kadishman, created this artwork, calling it “Fallen Leaves.” A sign at the entrance says he dedicated the work to all innocent victims of war and violence.
You might also want to read my article about lots of World War II and Cold War sites in Berlin that you can visit.
Upstairs at the Jewish Museum
I climbed a long stairway that looked like it ended in a blank wall, only to find, at its top landing, an opening into the more traditional part of the museum. Exhibits here illustrate all aspects of Jewish life in Germany, starting from 950 to today.
The sections are divided to some extent by time period, but sometimes also by topic. For example, a section on Jews and their contribution to Berlin covers 1890-1933. A section on Zionism covers 1900-1933. Not surprisingly, several other sections also cover time periods ending in 1933.
The history of Jews in Germany was largely a history of limitations until the 19th and 20th century. Laws restricted their movement, their professions, and so forth. Given those historical limitations, I was particularly surprised at just how assimilated the Jewish community became in the 19th and early 20th century. Many, for example, had a Christmas tree, seeing it as a symbol of German culture rather than of Christianity.
The museum exhibits end with two sections called “National Socialism, 1933-1945” and “Present, 1945-Today.” The museum’s approach to these periods is clear and blunt. It makes no attempt to minimize the deeds of the German leaders or people in any way. I felt a certain sense of relief in seeing that, but also didn’t feel like I could face studying this section in detail. I’d done that in the Axis hallways below, and that was enough.
Telling Stories with Objects at the Jewish Museum
The museum’s focus is “telling stories with objects” and they do it well. Often these are objects linked to a specific person or family, and signs allow us to read the thoughts of the person, and also they explain the object’s story. It’s an effective, personal way to show the more recent history in particular.
The Jewish Museum is remarkably well-done. Level 1 pushes visitors off balance, forcing them to confront the exile of Jews from Germany as well as the Holocaust that took most of the ones who remained. Then Level 2 provides the background: who were (and are) these people that Germany tried to wipe out?
We often talk about the Holocaust in terms of numbers: six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, along with another four million Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, and others. These numbers are hard to grasp, but also easier to deal with than to look at individuals. By focusing on personal objects, the museum humanizes the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It makes the story real.