From Wagner to the Weather

My Two Hours as a Living Exhibition Object in the Show “The Whole Truth

This was a truly extraordinary experience. The best moments were when the visitors started talking not just to me but to each other, and we wound up talking about Wagner and the weather rather than ‘just’ about growing up Jewish – or, more specifically, in my case as the daughter of a Jewish-American mother and a German, (formerly) Protestant father – in Germany and how odd it was to be sitting in a glass showcase in an exhibition.

A woman sitting on a bench in a vitreous showcase open at the front

Signe Rossbach in the exhibition “The Whole Truth”, April 8, 2013
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Michal Friedlander

I was reminded of the moment in 1998 when I returned to Germany from the U.S. (although I did not want to see it that way at the time). The German publisher I was working for in New York had just been appointed State Minister of Culture by Gerhard Schröder, and I continued working for him in the Federal Chancellery, first in Bonn, then in Berlin. Back in New York, an editor at Henry Holt said to me: “Well, well, isn’t that a great job for a good little Jewish girl, working in the German government?” I thought about it, and said: “Exactly.”

So, I guess this was what brought me to sit in a glass showcase in a show at the Jewish Museum Berlin, where I have been working for twelve years now, on a seemingly quiet Monday afternoon. In my two hours of being a living exhibition object, I …  continue reading

In the Showcase

With a flip of a wrist, showcases turn arbitrary objects into works of art. Now, I can find out what it will do to a human being. I am sitting in a transparent case which is part of the current special exhibition “The Whole Truth… everything you always wanted to know about Jews.” The visitors pass by, and we observe each other. Many read the text on the wall, throw me a look and hurry away.

A woman behind glass, in the background visitors of the exhibition

Olga Mannheimer as a guest in the “Whole Truth” exhibition
© photo: Ernst Fesseler, Jewish Museum Berlin

Some stop, but keep a safe distance. I clear my throat, smile invitingly, and motion to the button on my blouse: “Ask me, I’m Jewish.” I qualified for this position, as I learned from a speech at the opening of the exhibition, by claiming to be able to tell the “whole truth” about Jews. Will anyone ask me to? The distance gradually shortens. One man wants to know what the object label on the case-window says – he does not have his reading-glasses with him. “Species: Diaspora Jew, Sub-species: Eastern European Jew, Variant: Banana Jew.” Thank you, says the man, and leaves quickly. “Banana Jew? Never heard of it,” says a woman. That was the term for Jews in Poland, I explain, who received citrus fruits and bananas from their relatives in the West.

Hesitantly, more people join the bystanders in front of my showcase. “Are you allowed to bring flowers to a seder?” “Can you sew a foreskin back on?”  continue reading

Trials of a Truth Seeker
(Part Two)

A showcase filled with food, seen through another showcase

Installation of the showcases for the exhibition “The Whole Truth”
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Michal Friedlander

The exhibition “The Whole Truth … everything you always wanted to know about Jews” opens in a few days. The curatorial team steps back to admire the showcases and compliment one another on a job well done.

Not quite. Let me guide you through my afternoon.

13:45    After returning our food trays in the Mensa, there is a rush for the freezer box containing ice cream. Avoiding the crush, I make for the candy stand. Deliberations. I confer with my colleagues. M & Ms, Toblerone and Rittersport. Wrappers are discarded before we have even left the room.

A showcase in magenta and people on a ladder

Installation of the showcases for the exhibition “The Whole Truth”
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Michal Friedlander

14:00    I scroll through the 13 page document listing the questions asked by museum visitors. The questions relate to Jews, Judaism and the Jewish Museum Berlin. Many repetitions. The list needs to be tidied up for exhibition use. A few samples:

Why are there so many Jewish museums and who pays for it all?
Are Jews normal?
Do Jews have horns?
Why do Jews think they are so special?
Why don’t all Jews live in Israel?
Why didn’t Jews defend themselves against the Nazis?

Time for another sugar inhalation.  continue reading