Jewish Museum Berlin

October 31, 2012

While many people today compare stories you tell them from your own experience with episodes they have seen in a movie or TV series, modern museum concepts try to explain the relationship between experience and museums. As a key institutional space of modernity  museums currently increasingly appear as active operator. You no longer just have to enter an usual room with some more or less precious samples in show cases or behind barriers. Modern concepts include interaction, audio-guides, videos, computers, screens and other touchable items you can grasp with your hands, in order to make as many different sensual “experiences” as possible. Maybe the way you know from a ghost train at funfairs.

When it comes to the question of how to organize a Jewish museum the problem to deal accurately with it obviously already is the requirement to deal accurately with it. Since for most Gentiles Judaism in one way or another is connected with the Holocaust, a Jewish Museum obviously is no funfair matter, although some ghosts are still haunting in many attics. One way to get over the known dilemmas for two decades or so was to use architecture and its forms as key element of a modern museum concept. Thus exhibition premises as well as individual showrooms, their furnishing, technical equipment, illumination, etc. have become at least as important as the actual exhibits.

If teenagers who grow up with umpteen sequels of “scary” movies and smart phone videos of bullied classmates are bored to look at poster sized black-and-white photos of murdered Nazi victims, let them enter a narrow, dark and rather frigid concrete tower which will leave on them the sensation of  “hopelessness” and “desperation”. At least that is what was the “master plan” in Berlin at the new “Jewish Museum” and since there is no intention to learn anything from jewish culture and tradition, that apparantly “works”.

The idea of the former Israeli director of the museum Amnon Barzel (born 1935) to use the museum as an instrument to portray German history from a Jewish standpoint, instead of the usual Gentile perspective on Jewish clichés, items and exhibits, was rejected. With Polish-Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind whose main aspect in architecture is “the experience” and Berlin born Werner Michael Blumenthal, (former Secretary of the Treasury under President James Carter from 1977-1979 and since 1997 successor of dismissed Barzel), who said at the opening the museum was “not for Jews but for Germans” the project broke out in another direction.

The Jewish Museum of Berlin, inaugurated two days before „9/11“ in 2001 is best known for its remarkable zigzag design, which is interpreted as “Blitz” by one or as “broken Star of David” by another, but actually also equals the more or less likewise random route of the Berlin Wall in the center of the town, which you can still take notice of on Berlin roads signed by marks. The makers of the federal museum obviously also felt some kind of connection and maybe therefore integrated a “Checkpoint Charlie” entry, where as visitor of the museum you will be treated like a terror suspect by the employees of a private security company.

You have to put all your baggage, such as backpacks, purses or handbags on a conveyor belt which takes it to a x-ray like apparatus. Next you have to undress your jacket and overcoat, because it also has to be roentgenized. Now you have to pass a security door system, which of course suddenly peeps as if you was leaving a supermarket or library with demagnetized items. No need to be embarrassed here, because it is just your key in your trouser pocket as one of the four security agents who are occupied with you instantly finds out with his hand held metal detector. He requests you to show the content of your trouser pocket. It is a bunch of keys. He looks fleetingly at the keys and asks you to put them in small plastic container one of his colleagues sticks toward you. Why? Because also your keys are x-rayed and you starting to worry whether this are reasonable security measures or harassments. And indeed your key does not contain any weapons as you know them from James Bond movies. But the hand probe of the security man now detects another peep worthy violation: your wallet in the other trouser pocket. Since Euro-Cent coins are mainly made from steel (covered by a copper alloy) there of course is another potential reckless endangerment. It is hard to imagine what kind of malicious insidiousness actually may fit in a flat fingernail sized 1-Euro-Cent coin, but of course the German saying goes” Ordnung muss sein”. Finally you pass all the examinations and you get your personal belongings back. Since it is no secret that there are terrorist attacks against Jewish facilities or others which they regard as such, you already accepted the procedure as a bit annoying and surely exaggerated – but maybe in some respects also as necessary. After all we know that from airports and the like. You received a thorough examination and usually that is the end of that! But not so in the zigzag-museum.

Although your belongings were checked and x-rayed by a number of people and probes, you are not allowed to carry any of it with you. In contrary there are no lockers which you can use to put your bags in. Every library or backwoods museum in Germany has lockers where you insert a coin and get personal key. Not so at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, where they have a checkroom instead with a number of additional personal from the same security company. They tell you that is not your decision what you may carry with you. You have to hand out your bags of course but also your jacket and overcoat. Why? The onset of winter outside and the concrete structure of the building of course do not warm up. Additionally a sign at the wall says that they assume not any liability for your belongings. Although half a dozen or more people treated you like a kind of criminal or terror suspect because as a Jew you wanted to visit the stately “Jewish” museum, in contrary you are requested to trust them, resp. to accept the possibility that your belongings will be lost.

Well, of course actually it was better to leave, but since you already have your ticket, you just ponder whether it was easier to get your money back or to “continue” with the exhibition. Of course you prefer the later. The permanent exhibition of the museum now promises to depict “two thousand years of German-Jewish history”. That sounds good, but unfortunately just is an advertising gimmick.

The first item of the exhibition is a replica of a small shard fragment of a late antique oil lamp with the partly survived emblem of a menorah on it. The original was found in the city of Trier and was dated “4th century”. Similar findings are known also in Augsburg or in Switzerland. Depending on whether you regard it as the beginning or end of the century the small replica remarkably already covered three or four hundred years of “German-Jewish history”. The next item was another replica of two figurines we already knew from Bamberg where we had seen a copy at the façade of the Cathedral and the original inside the church: two female statuettes which depict “ecclesia” (church) and “synagoga” (synagogue), which are dated about the middle of 13th century. The Berlin Museum now has a snow white plaster cast of the figures. Before you could turn around you already have left 1250 of the 2000 years of German-Jewish history behind you. Next there are some gimmicks like a huge hinged garlic bulb which represents the medieval Jewish communities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz. The Hebrew initials of the names frame the word “shum”, which actually means “garlic”, but it also means “nothing”. It is a common phrase in Hebrew to answer questions like “is anything wrong?”, “what is happening?” or “do you want to bring any weapons of mass distraction into the museum?” with “shum davar!”, what means “nothing at all” or “forget it!”

Soon after that you will be in the Baroque period, introduced by the famous “memoirs” by Glückel of Hameln (זיכרונות גליקל האמיל,see:, written about 1700. Actually the exhibition of the museum rather deals with the history between 1700 and 1945, two and a half centuries of modern Jewish German history, which of course rather is portrayed from the standpoint of the Gentile perspective. The pretention to represent “two thousand years” of history is misleading. In the same way it has not that much to do with Judaism, rather with some more modern day Jewish individuals whose roads of life are portrayed as far they were on the move on “common ground”. To put in a nutshell: sort of German-Jewish assimilation history over two and half century until the rise of the Nazi party who tore everything to shreds.

The museum concept is “between the lines”. So the architecture, especially the façade is characterized by crossed lines or let’s say by different kinds of crosses (The part of Berlin where the Museum is is called Kreuzberg,that means “Cross-Mountain”… ). A concrete building covered by zinc-coat sheets with cross windows of course does not represent the “openness” architect Libeskind was pretending. It is cold and impersonal, oversized and obtrusive. But as we know this comes not by accident but is part of the exhibition idea, which is to impress people rather by the architecture than by the exhibits (or replicas).

Double-cross window at Jewish Museum Berlin

Double-cross emblem in “Great Dictator” (wikipedia)

Double cross also is a phrase meaning to deceive by double-dealing, but there is no need to over-intellecualize the matter, since there also are a number of empty spaces called “voids”. One called “memory void” has some 10.000 (nobody wants to examine the figure) “faces” of steel, which are distributed on the ground of a narrow, some 60 feet tall “room” of uncovered concrete walls. The masks or “faces (as they put it) represent “the victims” – which one is unclear, but a number of sources say that a bit more than ten thousand Jews were killed by the Nazi. You can see there many visitors walking on the masks (or: “faces”) in order to listen the “sound” when they clang. A funny experience for school classes obviously. So they may “experience” what it is like … to jump on the faces of victims. Another “void” is the so called “Holocaust-Tower” (there is no explanation what actually is a holocaust – tower, the name obviously speaks for itself. Does it?). It is another rather pointy and high concrete room which now is complete dark – at least you have the impression until your eyes realize a small window at the ceiling. There, as we heard from leaving teenagers “you can feel the holocaust”. Isn’t that the experience Jewish museums urgently want to convey? Where else you can get such an “experience” for so little money?

one of the lower ten thousand