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Star Tribune vom 16. März 2004

Light in the dark: A visit to the Jewish Museum

By Chris Welsch

To know why light is important, it is essential to know the dark.

That is the gift of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which tells the story of German Jews with a combination of artful architecture and eloquent exhibitions.

Daniel Libeskind, the architect chosen to design the development at the World Trade Center site in New York, made his mark with the Jewish Museum, which opened in September 2001. Amazingly, it was his first building.

Even without the displays inside, the building tells the story on an emotional level -- going through it is not an experience to be taken lightly.

You enter through the 18th-century facade of the former Berlin Museum, follow a tunnel underground and emerge inside the broken, angular hallways of the new structure. Canted floors, stairways that appear to lead nowhere and spaces that end in tight corners all produce disorientation, discomfort and anxiety, feelings Germany's Jews must have experienced as their world closed in on them in the late 1930s.

Simple stories
The museum was completed in 1998, but a furious debate about whether any displays should go inside delayed the opening. Many people believed that the building itself was enough and that exhibits would be extraneous.

The museum eventually chose to install exhibits about Jewish life in Germany, but they are sparse, simple and in harmony with the building; human faces and stories leaven the heart-rending experience of the architecture.

The exhibits aim to tell the story of Jews in Germany from the beginning, which was almost 2,000 years ago. Jewish people, working as traders, translators and merchants, were a key part of Roman society and followed the empire as it colonized Europe. Through the generations, Jews became an integral part of European life and culture. Some maintained their religious faith and cultural heritage, while others assimilated as Christians and Germans (and Poles, Russians, Italians, etc.) It didn't matter; all were targeted by the Nazi regime for extermination.

The display that hit me the hardest was behind a small window. There, an empty wallet, business card and two photos lay on a shelf.

The text explained that it was the wallet of Walter Blumenthal, a Berliner in his 70s. In 1942, the Gestapo arrested Blumenthal and his wife, Elisabeth, and put them in a truck. A neighbor saw something thrown from the truck before it left.

After the truck was gone, the neighbor picked up the wallet, which contained the card and photos. The card had Blumenthal's name on it. One photo showed the couple as young adults, just married. The other was of an unidentified child. The Blumenthals were never seen again.

"Again and again, the neighbor told the story, preserving the memory of the Blumenthals and their fate," the text said.

A visceral knowledge
I have been to Auschwitz, and I'll never forget it. Having been there, I believe in ghosts; there was a palpable sense of the lives that ended on that bloody ground. But I never cried at Auschwitz; I did in this museum. It evoked emotional responses that shook me to my core.

As I came to the end of a hallway that squeezed down to a low door, a docent opened it for me. "If you need help or feel frightened, I'll be right here," he said. I wondered what he meant until I stepped into the "Holocaust Void" and he closed the door behind me.

It was a cold, empty tower with a sloped floor. It was too dark to see my feet. A tiny sliver of light was visible high above. The faint sounds of traffic outside seeped in from the crack. My feet scraped on the rough floor when I moved, filling the empty space with an awful grating. Every instinct told me to get out.

I am eternally grateful that the door opened again when I knocked.

More information

If you go to Berlin, go to this museum. It is a difficult experience, but one that will enrich your understanding of history and life. Don't plan on a busy day afterward; you'll need time to reflect and absorb what you have experienced.

Admission: About $5. The Web site is excellent: www.jmberlin.de


Katharina Schmidt-Narischkin
Leiterin Presse- und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit
Tel: +49 (0)30 259 93 419
Fax: +49 (0)30 259 93 400

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