Jewish Museum Berlin

Paul Sullivan takes a journey through one of Berlin’s darkest museums…

Interior of the Jewish Museum by Matthias Heiderich
Interior of the Jewish Museum by Matthias Heiderich

Of all Berlin’s myriad museums and memorials, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is one of the most powerful and unique. Built in 1999 and opened in 2001, it’s a bold attempt to express not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also to examine the broader history of Jewish life and culture in Germany.

Located off a busy road in the city’s Kreuzberg district, the museum’s striking zinc clad structure, with its violent slashes for windows and unsettling zig-zag form, intended to resemble a “dislocated” Star of David when viewed from above, readily indicates to visitors that they are not in for a comfortable experience.

The entrance to the museum is via an adjacent Baroque building, built in 1736, that originally housed the Prussian chamber court and later the City Museum. This all feels normal enough until you realise the lack of a formal entrance or exit means the Jewish Museum is a prison of sorts.

Indeed, once you’ve passed the security check, things change quite dramatically. A concrete ramp descends into the heart of the main building, and what Libeskind describes as his ‘Trio of Axes’ – three lengthy, geometrically skewed corridors that crisscross to represent different aspects of the Jewish-German experience.

Along the Holocaust Axis, visitors pass a series of eerily lit display cases that showcase anti-Jewish Nazi propaganda, and personal mementos from those who either survived or were murdered in the Holocaust; an embroidered Star of David and phylacteries from Leo Sheuer, who spent 15 months hiding in a hole in the ground; letters between “Aimee and Jaguar”, two female resistance fighters and lovers who were separated by the Nazis and never saw see each other again.

Front Garden of the Jewish Museum by Matthias Heiderich
Front Garden of the Jewish Museum by Matthias Heiderich

At the end of this personal parade of heartbreak likes the Holocaust Tower. Entered via a heavy metallic door, the dreadful claustrophobia of this tall, cold, strangely-angled structure is relieved only by a thin slit at the top that lets in a desultory amount of light and the muffled sounds of the outside world. In a small group by day it’s an intense and unsettling experience; alone, at night, it’s terrifying.

At the end of the Axis of Emigration lies another disorienting experience; the Garden of Exile. Originally named the ETA Hoffmann Garden, this installation comprises 49 concrete columns that on first appearance look weirdly crooked, until you realise that the columns are in fact straight. It’s the ground that’s askew.

This sudden perceptual shift causes a feeling of nausea that increases as you stroll in and around these towering, specifically built by Libeskind to provoke the alien, unnerving experience of exile.

The final Axis – the Axis of Continuity – winds its way through the rest of the building and, with the exception of the occasional deliberate dead-end (including one right at the top of the main stairs), thoughtfully-placed void, and a chilling installation by Menashe Kadishman, leaves behind the darker expressions of absence and disappearance to enter more familiar museum territory.

The broader story about the Jewish relationship with Germany comes almost as a relief, especially given the enjoyably innovative and varied nature of the exhibition. Spread over two vast floors, visitors find oil paintings, reproduced texts, films and touchscreen presentations, a coin minting machine, and lots of personal histories of the famous (Einstein, Rathenau, Liebermann) and the forgotten, such as the journal of Glikl bas Juda Leib, which gives rare insights into 17th century Jewish life.

We also learn (or are reminded) of how anti-Semitism was a part of the Jewish-German relationship pretty much from the offset. Of course, the events leading up to the Holocaust are also covered, with further eruptions of the museum’s overarching themes of loss and absence – Via Lewandowsky’s Gallery of the Missing, for example, consists of black glass sculptures that contain acoustic ‘descriptions’ – sound recordings – of missing objects that are accessed by special wireless headphones.

Image by Matthias Heiderich / Heartbeatbox Photos

If there are any criticisms, it’s that some of the stories along the Axes of the Holocaust and Emigration are quite severely truncated – a fact acknowledged on the museum’s official website, which elaborates on some of the stories – and that the earlier rise of Judaism as a religion is often glossed over in favour of individual stories.

There is also the fact that, as curator and author Amnon Barzel, the former Director of the Berlin Jewish Museum, who quit after arguments about the museum’s independence, once pointed out, “no form of art … can express the Holocaust”.

Libeskind’s building, while often psychologically overwhelming and undeniably expressive, doesn’t do that either; but neither does it claim to. It offers the visitor an opportunity to gain insight into the bigger picture, and given that understanding is a significant tool in the fight for tolerance and democracy, such a gesture is not to be taken lightly.

Addendum: In 2012, Libeskind unveiled a brand new addendum to the museum: the Academy of the Jewish Museum Berlin. Located on the site of a former flower market directly across the road from the main building, it houses the museum’s expanding library and archive as well as hosting educational workshops, lectures and conferences. It’s also a fascinating architectural structure in its own right, honouring the angular nature of the original though constructed from timber and other materials. Written on the left hand side of the façade as you enter are the words of the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides: “Hear the truth, whoever speaks it…”

This article first appeared in issue No.2 of Cereal Magazine, and was reproduced with kind permission from the editors.