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The Jewish Week, New York, 1. April 2005

The Captivating Jewish Museum

By Gabe Levenson – Travel Writer

In the four years since its opening, The Jewish Museum in Berlin has become one of the three most visited museums in the German capital, along with the complex of five institutions on Museum Island and the museum at Checkpoint Charlie, where people were allowed to cross beyond the Berlin Wall to the former East Germany.

The Jewish Museum is a public and official statement of German responsibility for the Holocaust. Further, it recognizes the Jewish contribution to the country’s history. And it is most strongly, as museum director W. Michael Blumenthal told me on a recent visit, a mark of the extraordinary interest in Daniel Libeskind’s acclaimed inventive design, the 1989 winner in a competition of 165 architects. It was the first realized commission for Libeskind. About half a million visitors came to inspect the empty building years before it opened.

Viewed from the air, the museum takes the shape of a crude Star of David - or, in contrast, the zigzag ground plan is in the dread lightning-shape of the SS insignia.

Visitors traverse the upper two floors along long, sloping passageways with empty corners, so-called “voids.” Blumenthal, quoting Libeskind, described them as “the embodiment of absence,” repeatedly reminding viewers that Germany’s pre-Hitler population of more than 500,000 was decimated to several thousand after the war. It has been replenished to 100,000 with Jews mostly from the former Soviet Union.

Before reaching these floors, some visitors will take a ground-floor detour to an outdoor garden that Libeskind calls the Garden of Exile in tribute to the many thousands of German Jews who fled their native land in the Nazi years and re-established themselves in other countries. The garden feature 49 columns 20-feet high - “the shipwrecks of history,” Libeskind says. The soil of Israel is contained in No. 48, and Berlin soil is No. 49.

Young men and women in black uniforms with red scarves are placed at every turn to talk about the museum’s contents or direct visitors to the exhibits on the upper floors. Examine on your own the variety of techniques - films, television screenings, showcases, sculptural replicas, photographs, letters and computers (on which you can print your own name in Hebrew). Or join one of the many daily guided tours of the 13 displays in the permanent exhibit covering German Jewish history from the Middle Ages to the present.

“Of course we devote one section to the Holocaust,” Blumenthal said, “but our mission is much larger - to encompass the whole of Jewish contributions to and participation in German history.”

In taking on the direction of the museum, even before the building was on the drawing board, Blumenthal had established his own place in the rich Jewish history of Germany. One of his ancestors, Rahel Levin Varnhagen, is featured in the current exhibit at The Jewish Museum in New York on the so-called salonieres, the brilliant Jewish women whose salons were major centers of German intellectual life 200 years ago. In gatherings at her home she would be entertaining and exchanging ideas with non-Jews such as Friedrich Schiller and Jews like Heinrich Heine, Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer, another Blumenthal ancestor.

Blumenthal’s position as the first director of the Berlin Jewish Museum caps a distinguished career as a teacher, diplomat and businessman. Born in Oranienburg, Germany, in 1926, Blumenthal and his family escaped in 1939 to Shanghai, where some 20,000 Jewish refugees, largely from Germany, would remain in a self-administered ghetto until the end of World War II.

The Blumenthal family resettled in the United States at the end of World War II, where Michael, then 21, completed his education. He rose to a professorship in economics at Princeton, then to a business career as a director and then CEO of one or another of several major corporations - Crown Cork, Bendix, Burroughs and Unisys, among others.

In the 1960s he entered politics and public service as a trade adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and later as Treasury secretary under President Carter. From that post, Blumenthal returned to top positions in private industry before accepting the appointment as director of the museum-to-be in 1997.

The museum opening was scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001, but it was delayed two days in deference to the Twin Towers catastrophe. Three years later, in mid-2004, the museum’s 2 millionth visitor was one Esteban Matias Grabner of Buenos Aires, the 16-year-old son of German Jewish immigrants.

In an initial viewing of the museum spectators can absorb only so much. Pause, then, for a kosher-style lunch at the ground-floor restaurant, named for Max Liebermann, the great German Jewish Impressionist artist, or browse the gift shop to refresh your later memories of the museum.

Return for another viewing, and look forward to temporary shows that will embellish your museum tour in the months ahead. One is “Jewish Identity in Contemporary Architecture,” a review of 17 contemporary Jewish institutions of worldwide fame designed by such well-known Jewish architects as Moshe Safdie, Frank Gehry and Libeskind. Another is “The Ovenmakers of Auschwitz,” a history of the J.A. Topf & Sohne, the firm that fulfilled the order of the SS to construct the crematoria ovens at Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

Commenting on the architecture show, Blumenthal said: “The building of Jewish institutions, particularly in Germany, is one more indication of the new Jewish self-confidence, evidence that Jewish self-assurance is gaining in strength again.”

The oven show, a spokesperson added, “needs no further comment.”

The city of Berlin makes its contributions to Jewish self-confidence with the dedication of “A Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” scheduled to open April 8, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Located significantly next to the Brandenburg Gate, the memorial takes the form of a vast cemetery of 2,700 concrete slabs of varying sizes.

This year is also the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity. A series of exhibits, lectures and other activities mark Einstein’s scientific achievements as well as the 50th anniversary of his death. The varied program runs May 16 to Sept. 11.

For details, as well as for a free copy of the excellent new guide “Germany for the Jewish Traveler,” call the German National Tourist Office at (212) 661-7200 or (800) 315-6237.

For the museum, take the U-Bahn, 1 through 6, 13, 15 or 53 to Hackescher Market and transfer to the S-Bahn 3, 5, 7, 59 or 75. Get off at either Hallesche Tor or Kochstrasse Station.


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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