The history of Jews in Germany


Exhibit: Berlin's Jewish Museum will go beyond the Holocaust to present the grandeur and suffering of 2,000 years .

November 21, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BERLIN -- The building is empty, and still they come, 10,000 people a month, embarking on a silent pilgrimage into a nation's soul.

They tread through disorienting corridors that weave this way and that. One stairwell is topped with light and seeming life. Another path leads to symbolic exile, a jagged garden of concrete pillars shrouded with oak willows. And over there, the heavy door is moved, and the Holocaust Tower is entered, with its deathly chill and darkness countered by a shaft of sunlight.

This is Berlin's Jewish Museum, an architectural marvel awaiting installation of its historic treasures.

Clad in zinc and sprawled like a snake, the museum has risen next door to the Baroque-style Berlin Museum in a neighborhood near the former east-west fault line of the Berlin Wall. Grandeur, grace and even suffering are in the design by American architect Daniel Libeskind, the son of Polish-born Jews.

Some visitors and critics leave the vast, echoing museum and suggest that it remain empty -- a monument to the historic dislocation between Germany and its Jewish population.

In the bustle of museum offices, there is a decidedly different view and feel, a rush to catalog priceless artifacts, weave a coherent story and establish an exhibition in time for the official opening next October. The desire is to create a museum encompassing the 2,000-year history of Jews in Germany, through good times and bad, and not just the horrors of the Holocaust.

Guiding the project is museum director W. Michael Blumenthal, former corporate titan and one-time U.S. Treasury secretary, whose family history serves as a mirror of the German-Jewish experience. Sixty years after fleeing Berlin, he has returned as an American trying to help Germans gain a greater understanding, not just of Jews and Judaism, but of their country's past.

"I want them to be reminded, reminded of what is lost," says Blumenthal, 73.

With his silver hair, mustache and genial manner, Blumenthal cuts the figure of an elegant, well-tailored diplomat. But he can be surprisingly outspoken, a necessary quality to bull through a project that could have become mired in Germany's often glacial government bureaucracy.

When he speaks of Germany, he speaks from experience -- as a child who fled Hitler, and as an adult rummaging through history's embers.

"The relationship between German Jews and non-Jews remains somewhat stilted and artificial," he says. "A German has difficulty confronting a Jew as another person. A German is likely to be keenly aware he is sitting opposite a Jew. Many Germans will let you know they're aware of that.

"When people confront me, they don't look at me as Mike Blumenthal, secretary of Treasury, head of the Jewish Museum," he says. "They look at me as Mike Blumenthal, the Jew."

Because of his command of German, love of local cuisine and obvious interest in a city rebuilding itself, local people can mistakenly judge Blumenthal to be a Berliner at heart. But he calls Princeton, N.J., home and lives part-time in Berlin.

"I was 13 when I left," he says. "You're 60 years too late."

He recalls his Berlin childhood in images: A 1933 torchlight parade that left people "with a feeling of fear." Wandering the ravaged streets and seeing a smoldering synagogue in the aftermath of Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, 1938, when Jewish property was destroyed. The arrest of his father, Ewald, who was taken to Buchenwald, where he spent six weeks and returned a broken man, ready to flee a country he once loved and had served during World War I.

The Blumenthals waited out World War II in Shanghai, which Blumenthal recalls as "a tough place to go."

After the war, Blumenthal followed a well-worn immigrant track to America. Dedication and aspiration lifted him from a doctorate in economics at Princeton to government posts under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter, and top executive spots with Bendix Corp. and Burroughs (later Unisys Corp.).

The relationship between Germany and its Jewish population has long intrigued Blumenthal, who wrote a well-received 1998 book, "The Invisible Wall," which knitted his family's tale into the greater historical tapestry.

In much the same way as he melded the personal and the historical for the book, he is trying to create a museum. He took the job in 1997, after a nearly decade-long struggle to forge the facility, which was originally conceived as a department of the Berlin Museum.

"My predecessor wanted a modern art museum," Blumenthal says of Amon Barzel, an Israeli art expert who was ousted. "The city wanted a Berlin Jewish history museum."

Blumenthal straightened out the museum's financing, established its independence and created a broad focus on the entire scope of German Jewry. He hopes to create a vibrant museum and educational institution.

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