The museum seeks to engage visitors without sentimentality and ready-made answers by creating spaces of encounter, memory and hope.
So said architect Daniel Libeskind about his design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin. It’s a remarkable place, moving and haunting in a way I’ve never known a museum to be, succeeding in giving form to Libeskind’s vision. It does so not through its exhibits, though there are some, and very moving ones, but through its use of space and form and light and dark.
Libeskind has said that he found inspiration for the design from four sources: Walter Benjamin’s 1928 philosophical text Einbahnstrasse (One-Way Street); Arnold Schoenberg unfinished opera Moses und Aron; the Gedenkbuch, or Memorial Book, listing the names, birth dates and deportation dates of all German Jews killed in the Holocaust; and prominent Jewish and non-Jewish Berliners such as Paul Celan, Max Liebermann, Heinrich von Kleist, Rahel Varnhagen, and Friedrich Hegel, whose interactions stand for the connections between Jewish tradition and German culture prior to the Shoah.
Libeskind has also suggested that the museum’s design is rooted in three fundamental needs: ‘the impossibility of understanding the history of Berlin without understanding the enormous intellectual, economic and cultural contribution made by the Jewish citizens of Berlin’, ‘the necessity to integrate physically and spiritually the meaning of the Holocaust into the consciousness and memory of the city of Berlin’, and the acceptance that ‘only through the acknowledgement and incorporation of this erasure and void of Jewish life in Berlin, can the history of Berlin and Europe have a human future’.
The floor plan for museum is based on two lines, one zigzagging and the other straight, creating at the points of intersection ‘voids’ – empty, unheated, barely illuminated spaces that cut through the building from the basement to the roof and which represent, in Libeskind’s words, ‘That which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: Humanity reduced to ashes’.
It’s the kind of grand conceptual schema that so often crumbles in reality, but here is astonishingly well realised, creating an extraordinary sense of both loss and of the sacred. The museum’s titanium-zinc-clad deconstructed look could easily have itself become the object of attention, screaming as many similar buildings do, ‘Look at me! I want to be the centre of attention’. Here it does not. Of course, the jagged, slashed-through structure does demand attention, but as a space the museum also makes you think more deeply about its subject – the tragedy of the Holocaust, and the history of Jews. And while I’m not an admirer of the ‘Museums should not be about reason and objects but about emotion and intuition’ school of thought, the Jewish Museum engages with the visitor in a way that allows it tell a story whose enormity often makes it almost impossible to tell. The Holocaust Void, for instance, a concrete-walled trapezoidal room reaching up to a single source of light – a slice of daylight penetrating the gloom way above your head – possesses deep metaphorical power and evokes in you complex responses to an almost ineffable history.
The most moving part of the museum was the Memory Void with its ‘Fallen leaves’ installation by Menashe Kadishman, thousands of faces with open mouths made from iron plates scattered across the floor into darkness. You are allowed, in fact encouraged, to walk across the floor, but it’s very difficult emotionally to do so, because it feels sacrilegious, as if you walking over people, their memories and their screams.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenman, and completed in 2004, three years after the Jewish Museum, has a very different feel. Close to the Brandenburg Gate, it consists of 2,711 concrete slabs of varying sizes, arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. The undulating blocks certainly create a sense of eeriness and unease. But as a memorial it does not work. It’s a place where people laugh and lark around and take silly photos. There is no sense here of sacredness and loss as there is in the Jewish Museum.
The Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial are well known. Far less known is a small memorial on Grosse Hamburger Strasse. This was, before the Holocaust, one of the main streets in Berlin’s Jewish quarter. It was home to several Jewish schools and the city’s oldest Jewish cemetery, almost completely destroyed by the Nazis. Where the memorial now stands was an old people’s home which, under the Nazis, came to serve as a detention centre for Jews being transported to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.
The memorial is a simple set of bronze figures, bearing witness to the extermination of the local Jews. The figures are small, and easy to miss, but they are haunting in their sorrow and grief. Its evocative realism is as eloquent as the jagged silence of the Jewish Museum.
The Jewish Museum
The memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe
Gedenkstätte Grosse Hamburger Strasse