An `emblem of hope' for confronting past

Museum: The Jewish Museum Berlin opens in an architecturally acclaimed building filled with slanted floors, hard edges and dead ends that symbolize the Jewish experience in Germany.

September 10, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BERLIN -- In a zinc-clad building shaped like a lightning bolt and aimed at a country's conscience, remnants of 2,000 years of Jewish history in Germany were displayed last night with the opening of the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Reminding Germans of what they lost in the city where the Nazis launched their attempt to destroy European Jewry, the museum was inaugurated not as a Holocaust memorial, but as a center of teaching and learning about a people's life, times and culture.

Even while the building stood as an empty shell after its completion in 1999, hundreds of thousands of people visited the structure, which has been acclaimed as a masterpiece and was designed by Polish-born American architect Daniel Libeskind.

Now, treasures preserved from the past can be discovered by a new generation.

In one section, a 10th-cen- tury copy of a fourth-century decree that mentions Jewish office bearers in Cologne.

In another, the last surviving piece of Passover matzo produced in 1938 by the Heppner factory in what is now Poland.

In between, and beyond, a rich story.

"The history of German-speaking Jewry is German history, and in this museum we attempt to tell it accurately and fairly. All of it: the towering highs and abysmal lows, the triumphs as well as the bloodshed and disaster," museum Director W. Michael Blumenthal said during the gala opening.

The gala attracted many of Germany's political, cultural and business elite, including Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Johannes Rau, who said the museum "shows us that Jewish and German history are more than the Holocaust and the Third Reich."

Broached in 1971, the project was delayed by clashes over leadership, autonomy and historic mission. For a time, it appeared the museum would be nothing more than a department of the Berlin Museum. But as it grew in importance, it gained independence.

Despite disputes, the museum began to take shape in the working-class quarter of Kreuzberg, which was smashed during World War II by Allied bombs and shadowed by the Berlin Wall.

The signature design -- called a lightning bolt by some, described as snakelike by others -- was fashioned by Libeskind. Some pleaded to leave the building empty as the ultimate expression of the Holocaust.

Libeskind, who shepherded the project for 12 years, noted in a recent Newsweek essay that his assignment survived "seven governments, six name changes, five senators of culture, four museum directors, three window companies, two sides of a wall, one unification and zero regret."

He called the museum an "emblem of hope."

But getting this "emblem of hope" completed needed a bull-dog of a director -- Blumenthal, a former U.S. Treasury secretary who spent his early childhood in Germany before fleeing the Nazis.

Blumenthal was brought to the project in 1997 and ensured that the $60 million museum received proper direction. He demanded that the museum focus on helping Germans gain an understanding of Jews and Judaism.

To make his ideas become reality and get the museum opened, Blumenthal hired a project director, Ken Gorbey, a New Zealander whose vision was imprinted on the permanent exhibition.

Critics, donors and schoolchildren will be the first to see how a coherent story can be told in what is admittedly a confusing building.

The sheer genius of Libeskind's creation is in the mood it sets. The building is designed as a disorienting jumble, filled with slanted floors, hard edges and dead ends that symbolize the Jewish experience in Germany. Libeskind wrote that he designed the museum around so-called voids, "open spaces devoid of rooms or light, representing the empty silence left by the Holocaust."

Visitors enter by way of the Baroque-style Berlin Museum and move underground to two axes that are supposed to represent the Holocaust and the exile of Germany's Jews. The names of concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, are on one wall; and cities to which Jews fled, such as Zurich, Switzerland, and Buffalo, N.Y., are on another. One path leads to the Garden of Exile, 49 concrete columns shaded by willow oaks. Another path leads to a dark chamber with a shard of light at the top, evoking the Holocaust.

The history is told through interactive displays, old photos and precious mementos arrayed in 13 areas, including one explaining Judaism and its rituals, such as marriage and keeping a kosher kitchen.

Some of the nice touches include a page of Albert Einstein's 1912 manuscript on the theory of relativity and a little display devoted to strongman Sigmund Breitbard, who could lift two horses at the same time but who died in 1925 after being injured by a rusty nail.

Most of the opening-night visitors seemed to enjoy the exhibition, although German historian Julius Schoeps said he couldn't see any overall message.

"Where is the entrance? Where is the exit?" he asked.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger said, "I had no idea of the scope of the material that is here."

But the museum isn't really directed at historians or world leaders. It's designed to teach ordinary people an extraordinary story in a city that has confronted its past and reclaimed its place as the capital of a unified Germany.

"There are fascinating stories to tell in this museum," Blumenthal said. "Some are painful and sad, and others are inspiring."

One artifact speaks volumes about what's here. It's a hand towel given to a child named Paul Kuttner by his mother, Margarete, on Feb. 8, 1939, as the boy left Germany. The boy never again saw his mother, who died at Auschwitz. He never used the towel.

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