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Los Angeles Times vom 29. August 1999

The Pain and hope live on

By Nicolai Ouroussoff


Review. The design of Berlin's new Jewish Museum strikingly evokes the terror of the Holocaust as well as a spirit of survival.

BERLIN. To say that a building can accurately convey the full extent of the tragedy of Nazism's mass extermination of Jews would seem foolhardy. To ask an architect who has never built before to attempt such a task is to court failure. Yet Daniel Libeskind, the son of Polish-born Jews who fled Nazi and Soviet persecution before emigrating to Israel in the 1950s, was a relatively obscure academic when he won the 1989 competition to design Berlin's Jewish Museum.

Libeskind came to architecture late. At 17, he was a gifted pianist with plans for a career on the concert circuit, but he gave that up to become an artist. He discovered architecture as a student at New York's Cooper Union and eventually gained a reputation as a radical thinker among fellow academics. But he didn't open a professional office until 1990, when he moved to Berlin to complete the design of his museum. At 44; it was his first commission as an architect.

All of which makes Libeskind's accomplishment that much more striking. Libeskind's goal was to express the complex history of Jews in Berlin in architectural form and to make that story relevant to the present. He has succeeded spectacularly. Completed earlier this year, his jewish Museum captures the full spectrum of human emotions, embodying humanity's remarkable capacity for horrific cruelty and eternal hope. Few buildings have evoked the unspeakable with as much clarity.

The museum was conceived in 1988 as a new department in the Berlin Museum, which mounts historical exhibitions about the city in a classical building in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, a mostly Turkish neighborhood. Libeskind was the first to point out to museum officials the difficulty of segregating Jewish history from its context and relegating it to a footnote. He insisted that to do so would be to follow the model of the Nazi regime, whose atrocities against the Jews began by redefining them as other, separate from the whole of German culture.

Libeskind's contention was largely responsible for convincing Berlin authorities to re-conceive the museum as an Independent structure, and as a result the plan's exhibition space grew from 8,500 square feet to 45,000. (Although the museum has been opened for occasional tours, it remains empty. Its collections are still being assembled, and its first full-scale exhibition is more than a year away.)

As you approach the museum along Lindenstrasse, the long, five-story building twists and bends across its site in a gigantic zigzag. Its somber facade cut by hundreds of asymmetrical slashes that serve as windows. Libeskind says the cuts reflect the invisible lines that connect various cultural figures who lived and worked In the district. Other metaphors come to mind: The cuts, for instance, evoke painful scars the Holocaust has left on our collective memory. But one of the designs greatest strengths is its resistance to simplistic interpretations. If, at moments, the building evokes human suffering, at other times it is strikingly beautiful, its surface shimmering with the reflection of soft white clouds and rustling green leaves.

To enter the building, you must first leave it behind. Visitors arrive through the Berlin Museum next door and then follow a long, stone stair into the underground galleries. The deflected entry is a subtle psychological ploy; by temporarily drawing you away from the Jewish Museum and anchoring the entry in a building devoted to Berlin's history, it reminds you of the abandonment that made the Holocaust possible. It is as easy to ignore the truth here as it is to confront it. Simply turn left instead of right.

From the bottom of the stair, you pass along a maze of intersecting, underground passageways. A long narrow path, its concrete floor gently rising, leads to the Stair of Continuity and up to the main galleries. As if to suggest the randomness of our fate, other paths veer off this one-one leads to the Path of Exile, another to a room called the Holocaust Void.

If there is a place in Berlin where the meaning of the Holocaust is clearly felt, it is in this room. Visitors quietly file into what is essentially a narrow concrete tower, and the sound or a heavy steel door clicks shut behind them. The room has a chilling feel; its massive walls make you aware of a sudden helplessness. Inevitably, the eye is slowly drawn up to a sliver of light at the top of the room, a tiny opening that also lets in the faraway sounds of the city. The image is inspired by a survivor's story of looking through the slats or a cattle car bound for the camps and seeing the white plume of a plane in the sky. "This white line kept me on Earth," she wrote. It is the thin line, in fact, that marks the tragic distance between one human being and the rest of humanity.

From here, the stair up to the museum galleries is a painful reawakening. The stair is braced by a series of skewed concrete beams that look as if they might snap from the pressure of the walls on either side. From above. the beams appear to cascade back down into the darkness. To one side, two small cross-shaped windows look onto a green lawn, announcing that you have returned to solid ground.

Once inside the empty galleries, that tension - between a vibrant culture and a terrifying abyss - is more subdued, but it never dissipates entirely. The scar-like windows emit occasional streaks of light, as if to remind you that another, less familiar world is not far away. Five more giant voids, painted in black graphit, cut through every floor, and visitors must wind their way around to avoid them or wander into the stark concrete rooms to confront emptiness. The voids are obvious symbols of the absence that is the Holocaust's legacy - the absence of those who were murdered, the absence of the culture that they helped forge. They are also places of silent reflection, of discovery.

But there is hope here, too. A final path leads out to the Garden or Exile and Emigration - a grid or 49 thick concrete columns enclosed inside four walls. The garden's cobblestone floor is slightly tilted, setting you off balance. Willow oaks sprout out or the tops of the columns, sheltering you under a canopy or leaves. The garden suggests spiritual renewal and the unsteadiness of immigrant life. At its center, we are told, a single column is filled with earth from Jerusalem. Here, you finally begin to reemerge into the life or the city around you. Buildings loom above; the sounds or children's voices and speeding cars mix in the distance.

In his book "Survival in Auschwitz" Primo Levi describes the "funereal science of the numbers at Auschwitz," which allowed older prisoners to instantly gather information about others in the camps through the numbers tattooed on their arms - where they were from, how long they had managed to escape their fate. Everyone, Levi writes, treated the rare numbers from 30.000 to 80.000 with respect, since they marked the last survivors or the Polish ghettos. Libeskind's museum also suggests a language closed to the uninitiated - one that is personal to Libeskind and extends throughout the city's entire fabric. To those willing to decipher that code, the building becomes a map to a silent landscape.
That landscape has been partially hidden since the dust settled over Europe in 1945. It is no coincidence that only now, as the list of those who witnessed the Holocaust begins to dwindle, has the world begun to confront the scope or its responsibility. Swiss banks that profited from Jewish suffering are reluctantly beginning to admit their sins; the Catholic Church refused to condemn the atrocities until a year ago.

Libeskind's refusal to isolate the Holocaust, to separate it from these facts, is what connects his work so directly to our own moral universe. It does not allow us to assign guilt and responsibility so easily. It reminds us that it was a chain of small events perpetrated by many, not just one man's evil, that made the Holocaust possible. That relentless need to expose difficult truths is the reason that his building will endure as an important work or art.

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