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More than just a building: Berlin’s Jewish Museum

As Germany’s museums begin to re-emerge after a long winter of lockdown, the halls of the celebrated Jüdisches Museum shall soon be filled once more.

Opened as we know it in 2001, the Jüdisches Museum Berlin is the largest Jewish Museum in Europe and one of the most visited museums in Germany today. Spanning over 3,500 square metres, the museum presents the history of Jews in Germany, from the Middle Ages to the present day. The current museum building was designed by Polish American architect Daniel Libeskind and is classed as his first major international architectural success.

Berlin's Jewish Museum. Photo: Yair Haklai via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 4.0

A turbulent past

The original Jüdisches Museum was founded on 24 January 1933, just six days before Hitler's rise to power. The museum was initially intended to revitalise Jewish creativity and to demonstrate Jewish history as living history.

In order to reflect this focus, the entrance hall of the museum contained the busts of prominent German Jews such as Moses Mendelssohn and Abraham Geiger, as well as a number of works by contemporary Jewish artists such as Arnold Zadikow and Lesser Ury.

Yet on 10 November 1938, Kristallnacht - or 'Night of the Broken Glass' struck; a pogrom against Jews which included the torching and vandalisation of Jewish homes, schools and businesses. The museum was sadly no exception - it was shut down by the Gestapo and its inventory confiscated.

New beginnings

Almost forty years later in 1979, the Berlin Museum re-established its Jewish Department and discussions surrounding a new museum dedicated solely to the Jewish history of Berlin began to take place. In 1988, the Berlin government announced an anonymous competition for the design of the new museum, with Libeskind’s radical, zigzag designs being chosen from among 189 submissions. Construction was completed in 1999, and the empty building alone attracted over 350,000 visitors before it was filled and opened to the public on 9 September 2001.

The museum consists of two buildings: the old, baroque style Kollegienhaus, and Libeskind’s new, modern, deconstructivist-style building. From above ground, there is no visible connection between the two buildings, with the new museum accessible only via an underground passage leading directly from the Kollegienhaus.

While the old Prussian courthouse may seem to play a relatively insignificant role in the museum as a whole, Libeskind himself has noted its underlying importance. By connecting the museum to the former Court of Justice, its architecture serves as a reminder and a form of justice for what has happened to the Jews of Germany and beyond.

Lasting impressions

Upon entering the museum, visitors can expect to be struck immediately by its rawness, as well as a general sense of it being incomplete. Its large, open spaces of exposed concrete provide for moments of meditation, and yet cannot help but leave the visitor with a feeling of isolation. Such features are not accidental, but rather carefully chosen in order to compel the visitor to reflect on the subject at hand. As the son of two Holocaust survivors, Libeskind subtly incorporates the Jewish experience into his architecture, from the imprisonment of the Jew to the continuity of Jewish living history.

Throughout the museum, there are more than 1,000 windows, each constructed at varying angles. They project across all points of the compass, reaching out to the Jewish diaspora beyond Berlin.

A line of ‘voids’ slice linearly through the building, representing "that which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: humanity reduced to ashes". They illustrate the impossibility of bridging the moments in history before and after the events of the Holocaust, with Libeskind emphasising the fact that one could not possibly transgress such a gap without anything other than a void.

Only one of these ‘voided’ spaces can be entered, the Memory Void. Within this space is a permanent installation by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman named Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves). The installation is made up of 10,000 faces punched out of steel and distributed across the ground. Visitors are invited to talk over the faces and listen to the discordant sounds created as the metal sheets come into contact with one another.

Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves), Jewish Museum. Photo: Rob van Ruiten via Pixabay

The power of three

The division into three is a common architectural feature of Libeskind. In his first building, the Felix Nussbaum Haus (a museum housing the painting of German Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum) is divided into three areas, each with a different meaning. A similar feature can be seen here at the Jüdisches Museum, with the basement of the museum being divided into three intersecting corridors named the ‘axes’. These three axes reportedly symbolise the three paths of Jewish life in Germany: the continuity of German history, emigration from Germany, and the Holocaust.

The second of these axes leads to a small courtyard within the museum. Named the E.T.A. Hoffman Garden after the German Romantic author, the courtyard houses 49 tall concrete pillars. 48 of these pillars are filled with the earth of Berlin, with the final pillar being filled with the earth of Jerusalem. The foundations of the garden are slightly tilted, leading to a feeling of disorientation as you navigate your way between the pillars.

The museum courtyard. Photo: Jorge Royan via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The unfillable void The third axis leads you to the Holocaust Tower; a 24 metre high empty silo. Made from exposed concrete, the silo is neither heated in the winter nor cooled in the summer. Its only source of light is found from a small slit on its roof, a feature inspired by the story of a Holocaust survivor. Inside, the reverberation of the city can be heard, compelling the visitor to remember the importance of sound and to return them to the outside world.

The ascension out of the museum up the 'staircase of continuity' evokes a wholly different range of emotions, compelling the visitor to take a moment's reflection. Just as it seems you have reached the end, the staircase continues upwards, yet is stopped short by the wall in front. According to Libeskind, this architectural feature serves to indicate the end of something that still prevails, an illustration of Berlin’s Jewish history.

Above all, the museum is about memory, remembrance and the passing on of the past. The history of Berlin is unique, a quality that has become embedded into the infrastructure of the city. The architecture of the building displays a history hinged in space and time, an illustration of the void which can never be filled.

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