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Chigshul Magazine vom 4. September 2004

German Jewry’s tragic history: Melvin Gold visits Berlin’s Jewish Museum

By Melvin Gold


A business trip. Not glamorous. A visit to yet another interesting location and the opportunity of seeing......the inside of an office, a taxi, a conference room, another airport lounge. Yes, many of you will have had this experience. Everyone thinks it’s a bit cushy, a glorified holiday really. But those who have been there and done that, perhaps hundreds of times, know that the reality is very different.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve probably been to Berlin more than any other city. But this year was different because I finally found enough time to visit the city’s Jewish Museum. And what a fantastic experience it was. I became so engrossed I nearly missed my flight!

I didn’t know much about the museum before I got there and, as I went around I soon realised that I didn’t know that much about Germany’s Jewish community either. But, first things first.
I arrived through a fairly typical and rather grey East Berlin housing estate. The bulk of the museum is housed in a remarkable building designed by Daniel Libeskind (the winner of the competition to transform the World Trade Center site), but the entrance is through the adjacent and contrasting baroque Kollegienhaus. Libeskind’s building has a forbidding greyness from the outside but inside it is a masterpiece of functionality. It almost defines the expression ‘fit for purpose’.

Initially I started to discover what I had expected - a focus on history far too sad and recent. Descent into the cool grey concrete basement gave one a feeling of eeriness, but the basement was a façade. Of course it was a memorial and reminder of what had occurred, but rather cleverly it exposed not death but life, the vibrant life of the community that had become Berlin - and Germany’s - Jewry. The basement is divided into three pathways which criss-cross each other - the central pathway through which you enter and exit is the Axis of Continuity. The Axis of the Holocaust leads to an eerie and dark chamber which rises several stories through the building. High up, a slit permits the noise and light of the outside to enter, but the visitor remains in darkness with no apparent exit - heavy symbolism indeed. And the Axis of Exile leads to a similar dead end, but this one is outside and reflects on the disorientation of exile and the period leading up to it.

But for the visitor, unlike our ancestors, Continuity is the only option and that axis reveals the story and history of a people discriminated against through many centuries and yet thriving and resilient against those forces, until they were overpowered for a final time. And all this played out in this space created by the remarkable Libeskind.

The story has an almost nomadic feel to it as German Jews were effectively forced to become merchants and traders since the professions were off-limits to them, but to remain traders they had to obey somewhat illogical rules and bribe officials. In many cases they became beholden to local rulers and invaluable as court ‘financiers’ - until, of course, the local ruler or legislature changed policy and the Jews were suddenly out of favour and on the run again…or worse!
I particularly enjoyed an area of the exhibition telling the story of a Middle Ages Jewess, Glikl bas Judah Leib (1646-1724). She wrote her memoirs, apparently one of the few surviving accounts of any woman from the 17th century, and they are interestingly brought to life in a dedicated area of the exhibition. She had 12 children, but her husband, a jewellery merchant, died relatively early and she carried on the business alone until she remarried after retirement. Whereupon her second husband managed to ruin her and she died penniless - a fascinating insight on a human scale.

The Memory Void will remain with me for many years. Another high void in the Libeskind structure, but this one contains an exhibit called Fallen Leaves created by Menashe Kadishman. On the floor, thousands of pieces of heavy metal cut into shapes of the faces of screaming holocaust victims. The visitor is encouraged to walk across the void. Clank, clank, clank echoing up into and all around the void. The noise rings in your head but there is no escape because as you are tempted to look down the screaming faces stare into your psyche. Very simple, very effective. Haunting.

But I have digressed, for the exhibition continues through the 19th century. Things became easier for the Jews as they acquired rights that were similar to the rest of the population and eventually equality in 1871 with the founding of the German Empire. Externally they were merely tolerated whilst at the same time the community grew increasingly comfortable and even affluent. With that came assimilation and complacency and the rest, unfortunately, is history.
There is much more to the exhibition than I have been able to describe here - in fact even more than I was able to see. And it is not just for Jews. Areas of custom, ritual and tradition are well explained for the non-Jewish visitor, for this is a place to learn, and perhaps above all things, to learn tolerance. We are reminded that actually around half of Germany’s Jewish population, some 250,000 people, managed to escape the country before and during the Holocaust.

Some of you will be predisposed not to visit Germany, but for those that do I thoroughly recommend you make time in your schedule for a visit to this most excellent museum.

Kontakt

Katharina Schmidt-Narischkin
Leiterin Presse- und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit
Tel: +49 (0)30 259 93 419
Fax: +49 (0)30 259 93 400
k.schmidt-narischkin[at]jmberlin.de

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