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Jewish Museum: revisited

Like scar tissue moulded from sheet metal, the Jewish Museum in Berlin stands tall and forbidding on Lindenstraße. In a similar vein to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (built by Buro Happold in 2003 and opened to the public two years later), the right side of this triple-faceted monument pays visual tribute to a population that was systematically killed by the Nazi Regime. It achieves this through its weight, its severity and through the gravity of its angular structure. There is no question that the building has been erected as a solemn reminder of a horrific event. The front structure is altogether less imposing, having been repurposed rather than built especially, but its 19th century grandness is still noteworthy. Coming back to the museum after three years, the feeling that the two newer adjacent buildings, designed by Daniel Libeskind in 2001, give is still strong. But whilst the acute importance of never forgetting the persecution that took place here in Germany in the middle of the last century is fundamental, the building also serves another purpose. A visit to the museum’s permanent exhibition makes clear that although the horrors of the Holocaust are at its core, what is also of key importance is a tribute to the joys of Judaism and its rich history.

The visitor enters the museum  through its large, stern entrance which feels both calming and unnerving. The entrance hall is clean, full of light, with walls which are spectacularly high. Unlike many other museums in the city, the Jewish Museum has a strict security check including an x-ray bag conveyor-belt. Water and loose belongings are to be left at the garderobe (free of charge) before entering the exhibit, which is accessed through a flight of stairs that leads to an underground level. This first part of the display is dedicated entirely to the Holocaust. The architecture of the lower level is unnervingly fitting of its subject. Claustrophobia and a colour-scale of almost exclusively grey and black are used to instil something of the darkness of this recent period of history. There is a map on the first wall which shows the structure in full. Condensed to one straight walking path titled the Axis of Continuity, a sense of inevitability becomes apparent. From this central route diverge three paths which interrupt the relentlessness of the rest of the walk, but  are in no way spaces of relief. The Axis of the Holocaust, the Axis of Exile and the Holocaust Tower are their names. These areas act as focus-points for specific periods during the 1930 and ‘40s. The Holocaust Tower is of particular note in its simple effectiveness.

At the end of the Axis of the Holocaust is a door. This door leads to the Holocaust Tower. Discreet in its nature, many visitors walk right past it, which makes the experience of those who do enter all the more encompassing. The tower itself is not a traditional tower. It does not elevate or create a sense of all-seeing, quite the opposite. Once inside, the visitor finds themselves in a solid, empty, concrete space. The walls are high and lead to an angular ceiling which has been donned in black material to enhance the solidity of the area and its trapping qualities. Quiet and bare, the tower encourages deep reflection. It is an aside to the rest of the museum – filled with objects and information – to allow the viewer to feel something of the inevitability and claustrophobia felt by millions of Jews during the holocaust.  If you happen to find yourself alone in this space, trace the length of the wall to its conclusion at the far right. It reduces to a narrow triangle with one single window of light at the top. The emotional effect is strong.

Aside from these points of deviation, the path continues in one trajectory throughout the remainder of the museum. The viewer is taken up a flight of stairs and into a new space. In emerging from the underground level, the relief of escape from the severity of the topic of the holocaust is enhanced by the brightness of the exhibition room that you are led to. The first object that the viewer encounters upon stepping into the higher level is a tree of wishes. Adorned in decorative paper with hand-written dreams added by the museum’s visitors, the tree is emblematic of the power of positivity and its ability to grow, even from a soil laden with death. It stands as a reminder of the beauty of humanity and, in this case, Judaism. From here, the show is a relatively straight-forward didactic trip, with interactive gadgets and informative labels. The energy of the tree of wishes is carried through the space, with the brilliance of Judaism’s vast history and its often enlightened approach to education and women featuring heavily. Of course, the persecution of this particular group of people did not begin with the holocaust, and so the show addresses other periods of struggle in its truthful portrayal, but it remains insistent on the gifts of this culture and its shining stars (including figures such as Einstein and Glikl bas Judah Leib). It also contextualises anti-semitism, giving the visitor tools with which to perceive these historic episodes and, unfortunately, contemporary attitudes.

Fundamentally, The Jewish museum succeeds in being both a damning reminder of the horrors of persecution, and a positive ode to community – specifically within Judaism. It brings to light the far-stretching history of this people and gives insight into the beginnings of anti-semitism and its recent and contemporary guises. The importance of such an exhibit being in Germany is obvious enough that I need not point it out, but it should be said that it remains one of the things that is honourable about Berlin: that it is honest about the horrors that took place here and actively takes steps to remind us of these. In today’s world, these acknowledgments are invaluable and would be advisable in countries that currently seem to be forgetting the effects of segregation, demonisation and division. Let us not have to continue to build memorials and museums to acknowledge and apologise for history’s horrors, but let us instead use those that exist as the reminders not to repeat them.

Exhibition “Welcome to Jerusalem” from 11 December 2017 to 30 April 2019:
Cork model of the Wailing Wall
Dieter Cöllen
2017, commissioned work