Berlin: The Jewish Museum Berlin is not a Holocaust museum. So insists the museum’s new project director, Cilly Kugelman, who says, "We define ourselves as a German history museum that focuses on the Jewish minority in Germany." It’s a distinction that may be lost on many first-time visitors to the museum’s permanent exhibition, which opened to the public one year ago next week.
First, there is the museum’s extraordinary building, designed by the Polish-born American architect Daniel Libeskind, which attracted 350,000 paying visitors in the two years after it was completed in 1999: though it was empty. The shadow of the Nazi genocide lingers throughout the zinc-clad, lightning-bolt shaped building, which Libeskind created as a "deconstructed Star of David" based on the prewar residences of influential writers, musicians and thinkers that the architect superimposed on a map of Berlin.
Next, there is the ongoing association in Germany of Jews to the Holocaust. Using market research for the first time at a German museum, the Jewish Museum Berlin’s staff found that its target audience, young Germans, tends to regard the museum as a Holocaust memorial. Kugelman says that even today (after 740,000 visitors have viewed the exhibition covering two millennia of Jewish life in Germany) most German visitors come "because they are interested in learning about the Holocaust."
Such interest is part of a general fascination among younger Germans in things Jewish, which some observers attribute to a desire to identify with the victims rather than the perpetrators of the Holocaust. According to Aubrey Pomerantz, the head of Berlin branch of New York’s Leo Baeck Institute, which is housed at the museum, the majority of the archives’ users are non-Jewish graduate students studying historical aspects of German-speaking Jewry. Nicola Galliner, the head of the Judische Volkshochschule, a center for adult education on Jewish topics ranging from Jewish film to "the Jewish year," sees the same kind of interest among her mostly non-Jewish clientele. "My best Hebrew teacher isn’t Jewish," she recently told The Jewish Week.
Still, among the general public here, the image of Jews as the "other" persists. A recent full-color newspaper article encouraging children to visit the Jewish Museum Berlin featured a large image of a chasidic boy. In the article, published last month in the Dagsspiegel daily, captions point to and describe the boy’s fedora and kipa, his long, curled earlocks, and the prayer book he’s reading. A thought bubble indicates the boy’s thoughts: "Oh, how I would like to eat some kosher gummi bears."
The Jewish Museum Berlin sets out to tell the 2,000-year history of Jews in Germany, with all of its vicissitudes, triumphs and terrible consequences. Its two-story permanent exhibition follows a roughly chronological narrative through the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, the 19th-century struggle for emancipation and the flowering of Jewish culture to the persecution of the 1930s and 1940s and postwar recovery. Along the way, there are sections on the Jewish life cycle and ritual, Zionism and Jewish religious diversity. Stand-alone panels give brief biographies of important individuals.
Developed under Kugelman’s predecessor Ken Gorbey, whose past projects include the new national museum of New Zealand, the information-packed and often dizzying exhibits include numerous interactive elements, from simple cut-outs of Hebrew letters to touch-screen video monitors. The museum has also included a number of spaces specifically designed for children, an unusual step in Germany, where museumgoers tend to be older and more educated.
Original artifacts on view include a 10th-century copy of Emperor Constantine’s decree concerning the Jews of Koln, on loan from the Vatican library, and the oldest known Torah scroll from northern Europe. Videos and audio recordings highlight Jewish contributions to urban life; portraits show Jews’ successful assimilation into bourgeois society in the 19th century.
Several exhibits notably are devoted to prominent women, such as Glickl bas Judah Leib, a successful 17th-century businesswoman who is known through her memoirs; Bertha Pappenheim, a leader in the Jewish women’s movement of the early 20th century; and Regina Jones, the first-ever woman ordained as a rabbi in 1935.
But an exhibit on Jewish denominations ó the Reform and Modern Orthodox movements were born in Germany ó is lost in a gallery corner. Visitors are more likely to be drawn to a decorated Christmas tree (described as a "Hanukkah bush"), which is meant to represent the extent of Jewish assimilation of German, although not specifically Christian, customs.
And despite assertions that the building is not a Holocaust memorial, the shadow of the war years pervades, beginning with the subterranean space that the architect is said to have conceived as an "overture" to the museum experience.
Visitors enter the museum through a baroque former courthouse, built in 1735, which had housed west Berlin’s city museum since 1969. They access the exhibitions by descending a sharply angled staircase and proceed underground through a series of intersecting corridors, called "axes." These passageways have a slight telescopic effect because the floors rise while the ceiling height remains constant.
One follows the Axis of Exile, which leads to the Garden of Exile: a grid of 49 concrete columns erected on a sloping field that successfully conveys the disorientation and unease of forced emigration, even while silvery olive-willows growing out of the columns create a shady canopy overhead. The Axis of the Holocaust stops at a steel door through which one enters the Holocaust Tower. Lit by a narrow shaft of natural light, the high concrete tower evokes imprisonment and unmistakably recalls the gas chambers.
Darkened wall cases along both axes illustrate the stories of individual Jews forced to flee or murdered during the Nazi’s 12-year reign. Along the Axis of Exile, visitors learn of Jews who survived by emigrating, such as the Simon family, who left Germany for Chile in the 1930s. In the Axis of the Holocaust, victims are remembered in poignant displays of artifacts (a teddy bear, pages of a book collected in the streets after Kristallnacht), letters and photographs.
The permanent exhibition begins upstairs, through the Axis of Continuity.
The Jewish Museum Berlin has been called "the most visited museum in Germany." The idea to create a permanent display for the Jewish department of the Berlin Museum began in earnest in the 1970s. Eventually, the "Jewish department" emerged as a separate entity, and grew from a city museum to a federally funded national institution.
But since the permanent exhibition’s opening last Sept. 9, it has drawn criticism for being too cluttered and confusing and for overpowering the building’s architectural design in some gallery spaces.
Some critics have said that the museum treats religious issues with secular skepticism and that it lacks contextual depth, even in its treatment of the Holocaust. Others express doubt that non-Jewish visitors will take away a clear picture of Jewish life and practice, even after spending an average of two-and-a-half hours immersed in the exhibition.
Responding to such criticisms, Kugelman, a veteran of the Frankfurt Jewish Museum, who assumed the No. 2 position under director Michael Blumenthal on Sept. 1. says the museum’s curators view the permanent exhibition as a work in progress, a "core exhibition" that can be changed gradually over time.
For example, she says, the subject of why Jews use a Torah scroll, as opposed to a bound book, could be further developed. The subject of kashrut, she says, is a topic that opens "windows in many directions," especially as it is a well-known but little understood concept in a society where "it’s hard to get kosher meat today."
Such changes, Kugelman says, need "a lot of thinking and consideration."
The permanent exhibition was prepared in only 18 months: an unusually short period of time for so large and comprehensive an installation. "We didn’t have time to think," she says.
Despite initial failings, many people praise the museum as an important accomplishment. "It’s a good sign, a healthy sign" for Germans, says Galliner of the Judische Volkhochschule. "Especially to have gotten it off the ground after so much time."
Its significance as a story in the news has made an impact so far, Galliner says. As for its lasting effects, "The next few years will tell," she says.