Jewish Museum-16

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

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Jewish Museum

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The memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe

Holocaust memorial

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Gedenkstätte Grosse Hamburger Strasse

Hamburger Strasse

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  1. Ray Halpin

    here in this carload
    i am eve
    with abel my son
    if you see my other son
    cain son of man
    tell him that i

    – Dan Pagis.

  2. Cable Strada

    The Jewish community too are overwhelmingly opposed to “free speech” in the toxic sense advanced by Donald Trump, Douglas Murray, Katie Hopkins, “Tommy Robinson”, and other vile white hatemongers. Jewish folk know from very bitter communal experience where “free speech” leads: to the Holocaust / Shoah. I invite all decent, progressive Americans to sign this petition at the Anti-Defamation League, “the world’s leading organization combating anti-Semitism, exposing hate groups, training law enforcement on hate crimes, developing anti-bias curricula for students, countering cyber-hate and relentlessly pursuing equal rights for all”:

    Eighty-four percent of Americans want tech companies to do more to fight online hate and harassment, and it’s time the CEOs of these platforms take greater responsibility for their role in amplifying violent white supremacy across the globe. That’s why ADL asks you to join in calling on the CEOs of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Twitter and Reddit to pledge to take decisive action to combat hate and extremism on their platforms.

    We, the undersigned, demand the CEOs of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Twitter and Reddit pledge to take decisive action to combat the scourge of hate and violence online — especially from the white supremacists who increasingly use their platforms to radicalize others toward violence and are claiming innocent lives. The tech industry must also submit to outside, independent verification of those efforts, and create regular reports on their effectiveness.

    • yandoodan

      “…vile white hatemongers.” Why use “white”? You are excluding non-white hatemongers, as if it’s okay for non-whites to monger hate. Of course you could be saying that only the hatemongers who are both vile and white should have their First Amendment rights curtailed, but again, you fail to curtail the First Amendment rights of non-white hatemongers. I am also curious as to why you are you excluding Jews from the category “white”. I hope you are not thinking that white Jews are “vile” and the non-white ones are fine. Perhaps you are thinking that Jews are an exception to white vileness; if this is true you should say so.

      In general, you are promoting attacks on the First Amendment rights of people you classify as “whites”. This will have the effect of preventing the people you have attacked from verbally defending themselves. Once they cannot argue for themselves you may well feel yourself free to do other, more violent things to them. It has happened before.

      • Cable Strada

        “Why use white?”

        This is a typical response by those who want to pretend that whites aren’t the core component of the hate community. Can you name some non-white hatemongers who have the media profile and influence of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Douglas Murray and “Tommy Robinson”? No, you can’t.

        “You are excluding non-white hatemongers, as if it’s okay for non-whites to monger hate.”

        I am no more “excluding” other hatemongers than the ADL is excluding other kinds of supremacist when it refers only to “violent white supremacists”. The ADL opposes all kinds of supremacism and hate, including the Jewish and Muslim kinds. However, it rightly recognizes that the white kind is most toxic and dangerous. Need I remind you of the Holocaust, the Crusades, the Slave Trade, Jim Crow, Apartheid, the White Australia policy, the Windrush Scandal, etc, etc, etc?

        “In general, you are promoting attacks on the First Amendment rights of people you classify as “whites”.”

        No, I am promoting an end to “free speech” in its toxic white male sense for all haters. I do not make a fetish of the First Amendment. Instead, I reject it utterly. The First Amendment was created by white male racists, sexists and Islamophobes to serve a toxic white male agenda. It should be abolished and WILL be abolished when the intersectional female future arrives, as presaged by Somali-American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Hispanic-American Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, Peckham MP Diane Abbott, and their sisters.

        • yandoodan

          Race is a construct. There used to be an Irish race; there is no more, because people stopped believing in it. Now the Irish race is no longer an oppressed race because there is no Irish race. Never forget that the Irish race suffered centuries of genocide, as bad or worse than other races that continue to exist in people’s minds — including intentional mass starvation, like the kulak race. Or is kulak a race?

          Same with the Sicilian race. The Sicilian race suffered from many centuries of the most vicious despotism imaginable at the hands of the Italians. Yet no one today, including you, even thinks of the Sicilian race; you think they are Italian, and not a race. And so they are, today, as the way we construct race has changed. The Sicilian race is no longer oppressed by the Italian race, because the Sicilians have become Italians and the Italian race has disappeared.

          Race itself should disappear. Its biological basis is about as trivial as they come. It has no predictive power; it is merely a proxy for more basic problems, and a poor one at that.

        • Cable Strada

          I do not see your point. Yes, race is a construct. So were the Nuremberg Laws, Apartheid and Jim Crow. And what follows? That constructs are ipso facto harmless? No, they can be highly toxic. We have to smash whiteness as a construct and sweep its fragments away before we can create a progressive, egalitarian society. The quickest way to do that is by opening white nations’ borders to people who have not been indoctrinated into whiteness and into the construct of white supremacy.

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