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The origins of the Jewish Museum Berlin date back to the 1970s in West Berlin. At that time, there was no museum in Germany devoted solely to German-Jewish history, but just a few exhibitions on the history of Jewish culture had been shown throughout the 1960s. An independent museum governed by the Jewish community – like the museum in the Oranienburger Straße that was forced to close in 1938 – was not planned. The desire was rather to integrate Jewish history into general city history, but still keep it separate. The concrete administrative and conceptional implementation of these ideas was fertile ground for conflict, particularly against the backdrop of the profound historical upheaval since 1989.

The Jewish Museum in the Berlin Museum

The idea of a Jewish museum in Berlin evolved in 1971 in connection with the exhibition "Achievement and Destiny," organized by the Berlin Museum to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Community of Berlin. The Berlin Museum was founded as a city history museum in West Berlin in 1962, following the erection of the Berlin Wall. Since 1969, it had been located in the old Supreme Court building on Lindenstraße.

Visitors in the Martin-Gropius-Bau courtyard

Opening of the "Jewish Department" at the Berlin Museum, Martin-Gropius-Bau, 26.11.1986
© Klaus Lehnartz

The board of the Jewish Community, the management of the Berlin Museum, and the Berlin Senate planned a "Jewish Museum" connected to the Berlin Museum that should be devoted to the history and culture of Berlin’s Jews. The idea was to rebuild the baroque palace of the Court Jew Veitel Heine Ephraim – that had been dismantled in 1936 and whose façade was in storage in the western part of the city – opposite the Berlin Museum in the Lindenstraße. Apart from the Jewish Museum, it was also to house the History of Theater Department, the coin collection, and the depots. The "Society for the Jewish Museum in Berlin" was founded in 1976 to support this project and was chaired by the journalist Hans-Peter Herz and the chairman of the Jewish Community of Berlin, Heinz Galinski.

View of the "Jewish Department" exhibition at the Berlin Museum, Martin-Gropius-Bau during the opening ceremony (visitors and objects)

View of the "Jewish Department" exhibition at the Berlin Museum, Martin-Gropius-Bau during the opening ceremony, 26.11.1986
© Klaus Lehnartz

Many Jews who were born in Berlin and had emigrated during the Nazi period joined the society and contributed significantly to the building of the collection. In 1978, the Berlin Museum presented for the first time the new acquisitions for the future Jewish Museum. In 1979, the cultural anthropologist Dr. Vera Bendt was appointed to head the Jewish Department and establish the Jewish Museum. She expanded the collection substantially in the years that followed and organized several exhibitions, among them "Synagogues in Berlin" in 1983.

In 1981, the Berlin Senate struck the reconstruction of Ephraim Palace from its plans and gave the façade pieces to the East Berlin municipality. To make it clear that the Senate had not dropped plans for a Jewish Museum or a Jewish Department, it provided funds to acquire the Judaica collection of the cantor from Munster, Zvi Sofer.

In 1984, an exhibition room on the ground floor of the Berlin Museum was made available to the Jewish Department and in 1986, three rooms on the second floor of the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Up until 1998, the permanent exhibition of the "Jewish Department" was shown in two rooms while a further room displayed changing exhibitions on German-Jewish themes.

The plan to expand the Berlin Museum to incorporate a building for the Jewish Museum was still in place. The content concept, however, had changed a great deal between the 1970s up to the announcement of the competition in 1988, and the political framework underwent further radical change after 1989.

From an Idea to the Laying of the Foundation Stone

In the 1980s, the project of a building for the Jewish Museum became ever more closely linked to the desire for an extension building for the local historical collections and exhibitions of the Berlin Museum. Uniting the two museum ideas with their different collections, target groups, and content and at the same time giving the Jewish Museum some autonomy was the foundation of the so-called "integrative approach" developed by Rolf Bothe, director of the Berlin Museum since 1981, and Vera Bendt, chief curator of the Jewish Museum. It proposed an independent status for the Jewish Museum within the Berlin Museum and became the basis for the architectural competition and further conceptual planning.

Members of the jury raising their hands to vote

Jury vote for the "Design competition for a Berlin Museum extension with Jewish Museum Department," 22.6.1989
© Matthias Könsgen

In November 1988, at the same time as the opening of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt and the announcement of the reconstruction of the "New Synagogue" in the eastern part of the city, the West Berlin Senate announced a competition for the "Extension of the Berlin Museum with a Jewish Museum Department."

Architectural model of the design for the Jewish Museum Berlin by Daniel Libeskind

Architectural model of the design for the Jewish Museum Berlin by Daniel Libeskind, on permanent loan from the Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe

By April 1989, 165 entries had been received. The jury, presided by Josef Paul Kleihues, awarded first prize to Daniel Libeskind’s design "Between the Lines" in June 1989.

Just a few months later, the Berlin Wall fell and the Berlin state’s architectural and cultural policy priorities shifted. The realization of the design was questioned for a time. After intense debate, the Senate decided in fall 1991 to go ahead with the building as planned. In November 1992, on the occasion of the commemoration of the Kristallnacht, the foundation stone was laid.

This decision had far-reaching consequences. Not least, Daniel Libeskind’s design with its references to Judaism and the Holocaust laid open the points of conflict inherent in the "integrative concept" that had so far been smoothed over with compromises.

Continue to the next chapter of the museum’s history "Controversies and Contradictions"

A description of the Jewish Museum Berlin’s history and development can be downloaded as a pdf-file.

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