The Jewish Museum in Berlin tells the story of the Holocaust, of course, but also of the two thousand years of German Jewish history that went before.
There are vivid, detailed exhibits on fourteen historical periods, from the beginnings through the Middle Ages and up to the present, designed to “show how tightly Jewish life and German history are interwoven.”
The entrance, security area and restaurant are in an older building, and from there you go way down into the basement of the new part, which is a striking zinc-paneled building by the architect Daniel Libeskind.
In the basement there three long intersecting axes: the longest is the “axis of continuity”, which is intersected by the axis of exile (leading out to a “Garden of Exile and Emigration”) and the axis of the holocaust, which leads to a dead end at the “Holocaust Tower”.
At the end of the axis of continuity you go up a long flight of stairs (or an elevator; it seems to be completely accessible for the handicapped) to the second floor, where the permanent exhibition begins.
The known history of Jewish life in what is now Germany begins in the year 321 a.D., when Jewish residents of Cologne are mentioned in a decree by the Roman Emperor Constantine.
Detailed exhibits show Jewish life in the Middle Ages, particularly in Speyer, Worms, and Mainz.
Further exhibits are concerned with the “Rural and Court Jews” of the 15th – 17th centuries, and with the eminent 18th century scholar Moses Mendelssohn in the period of the Enlightenment.
There are also exhibits dealing with Jewish religious life and customs over the centuries, and with Jewish family life.
In 1871, the newly founded German empire adopted a constitution removing all legal restrictions on Jews, so that in theory they became citizens of Germany with equal rights. But at the same time anti-Semitism was on the increase.
Jewish artists, performers and composers were very much a part of the vibrant cultural life of Berlin in the 1920s. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, most of them realized — some sooner, some later, some too late — that they would have to emigrate.
The last exhibits deal with the Nazi period and the Holocaust, and with Jewish life in Germany today.
All areas of the museum contain a wealth of information and illustrative material. I have been there twice so far, and have the feeling I have only scratched the surface. It’s a museum you can keep going back to, and always discover more.
In the summer of 2005 there was a series of posters all over Germany advertising the Jewish Museum in Berlin using the slogan Nicht das, was Sie erwarten — meaning “Not what you expect.”
In the one on the left you cut open a coconut and find it is a grapefruit inside. In the one on the right you open an oyster and find there is a fried egg inside, sunny side up.
My interpretation of this is that even well-meaning people in Germany, who fully understand how dreadful the Holocaust was, have gotten somewhat ODed on somber Holocaust exhibits. These posters are meant to convey the message that the Jewish Museum Berlin is not only a Holocaust museum, but shows a lot more as well — all the ups and downs of two thousand years of Jewish life in Germany.
Jewish Museum Berlin, Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969 Berlin
My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: Daniel Libeskind’s Felix Nussbaum House in Osnabrück, Germany.