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Canadian Jewish News, Toronto vom 9. Juni 2005

Berlin’s Jewish Museum is both depressing and enlightening

By Sheldon Kirshner – Staff Reporter

An average of 2,000 visitors file into the Jewish Museum every day to plumb the depths of 2,000 years of continuous Jewish history in Germany.

Opened almost four years ago, the zinc-panelled building, designed by the innovative architect Daniel Libeskind, is regarded as a major tourist draw and the biggest facility of its kind in Europe.

Charting the Jewish presence in Germany through thick and thin through 13 historical eras from Roman times to the contemporary period, the museum never loses sight of the Nazi interregnum that nearly wiped out one of the world’s most venerable Jewish communities.

You’ll need two to three hours for the tour, and the unusual architecture is bound to rivet your attention.

The Holocaust Tower, with its eerie vertical void, imparts isolation and hopelessness. The Garden of Exile, with its dizzying slanting floor, gives off a sense of uneasiness and disorientation. The permanent displays are panoramic in scope.

You’ll gaze upon a nearly pristine 13th-century Hebrew bible, a nasty 15th-century caricature of Jews, a 16th-century ordinance admitting Jewish merchants to the city of Augsburg and an 18th-century portrait of pre-eminent philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, one of the fathers of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment.

Strangely enough, there is a glaring omission. No permanent exhibit about the legendary Rothschilds, who launched their financial empire in Frankfurt, exists. Last year, however, the Rothschilds were featured in an important exhibition.

The exhibits about the 19th century – which ushered in the age of emancipation for German Jewry – range far and wide.

There is a map of rural Jewish communities and a portrait gallery of well-scrubbed middle-class families. There are also exhibits about Jewish converts to Christianity and Jewish-born revolutionaries such as Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle.

The early 20th century, riven by the outbreak of World War I and the formation of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, is portrayed as a golden epoch for German Jews, as a series of panels show. Rudolf Mosse was an important publisher. Max Reinhardt was a legendary theatre director. Kurt Weil was a celebrated composer. Martin Buber was a leading theologian. Walter Rathenau, gunned down by an anti-Semitic nationalist, was Germany’s first and only Jewish foreign minister.

The patriotism of German Jews comes shining through in an exhibit on World War I. You may not know that some 12,000 Jewish soldiers were killed in action, a figure proportionately higher than the rest of the population.

Photographs, medals, letters, illustrations and German military prayer books, as well as a retrospective of a Jewish submariner, Max Haller, underscore the attachment of Jews to Germany. But intimations of anti-Semitism in the ranks, as recorded by aggrieved soldier Hermann Abraham in his diary, suggest that Jewish love of country wasn’t necessarily repaid.

The rise of virulent anti-Semitism, which coincided with Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, is depicted through a collage of chilling photographs and flickering home movies.

We see Nazi stormtroopers humiliating Jews and indifferent or smiling German bystanders watching synagogues in Bielefeld and Buhl burn on Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, 1938.

Charts document the flight of Jews from 1933 onward. Jewish emigration levels topped the 20,000 mark annually until the flow was officially cut off on Oct. 23, 1941, in a prelude to the Holocaust.

Upward of 300,000 Jews managed to leave before the deluge, but 200,000 were deported and murdered. Twenty-five thousand Jews survived in concentration camps and mixed marriages and in hiding as fugitives.

The names of death camps and ghettos where German Jews were shipped, from Treblinka to Minsk, are inscribed on a white-washed wall on the lower level.

Several poignant photographic exhibits relate the stories of assimilated and converted Jews haplessly caught up in the Nazi net.

“The Naftalies” revolves around a Jewish family from the Berlin neighbourhood of Wedding who were deported to Lodz and then to Auschwitz.

“Charlotte Ochs’ Life in Pictures” is about a woman who visited her sons in London and Cape Town in 1937 and returned to Berlin, only to be deported to Theresienstadt.

“The Cantor Family from Mainz” tells the story of a baptized Jewish couple who were married in a Protestant church in 1904, whose business was aryanized after Kristallnacht and who were deported to their deaths in the early 1940s.

“A Talented Musician” turns on Steffi Messerschmidt, a Berliner who fled to Belgium in 1937, who was arrested by the Nazis in 1942 and who was murdered in Auschwitz.

Documents from the Riga ghetto, to which some 16,000 German Jews were deported from 1941 to 1942, are a relentless chronicle of unalloyed despair.

A solitary menorah, given to a Berlin parish priest in 1968 by an elderly couple who got it from Jewish friends murdered in a concentration camp, encapsulates the enormity of the Holocaust in a single powerful object.

Amid the darkness, there are rays of light, signifying new beginnings for surviving Jews. There is a certificate of naturalization, issued by the British authorities in Palestine on April 17, 1940, for Lothar Moritz Lion and his wife, Else.

There is the suitcase of Hedwig Roeder, who immigrated to France in 1939 and then on to Palestine.

There is a marriage certificate, in Mandarin, of a couple who found refuge in Shanghai, China, in the late 1930s, along with thousands of other European Jews. There is a sombre portrait of Leo Baeck – the president of the Nazi-appointed National Union of Jews in Germany – who survived the rigours of Theresienstadt and settled in Britain after the war.

The end of World War II unfolds through stark photographs of death marches and the liberation of ragged survivors from concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen.

The rebuilding of Jewish life in Germany during the post-war period is examined in several panels.

A panel on the sensational 1963 “Auschwitz trial” in Frankfurt, the subject of a documentary by the National Film Board of Canada, is representative of Germany’s efforts to come to terms with its Nazi past.

All in all, a walk through the Jewish Museum is both an enlightening and depressing experience. It is worth visiting if you care to understand the dynamics of Jewish German history.
For further information, click on 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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