Undergoing Strong Feelings – The Jewish Museum

by Emilie Chatillon

The Jewish Museum is one of the biggest museums in Europe and has a very particular architecture, that people love or hate, but at least people won’t forget it. The museum entrance is an old edifice from 1735, the “Kollegienhaus”, that has been rebuilt after the war and it opens on a courtyard with a glas rooftop named “Glashof”. Then, visitors enter in the newest building, built from 1993 to 1998, opened empty in 1999 and filled in 2001, welcoming exhibitions and permanent collection. This part has been conceived by Daniel Libeskind, an American architect native from Poland. What I want to talk about is my experience of this building, from the outside view till the end of the exhibitions, including places Daniel Libeskind designed, and why I loved that place I thought I would hate, and why I wouldn’t necessarily go back, which makes this museum a very particular place to me, and perhaps to other people.

When I first came to the Jewish Museum, my opinion was biased, and in a bad sense, because of the book from Daniel A. Bell and Avner de Shalet “The spirit of Cities. Why the identity of a city matters in a global age.” Indeed, in this book one can read: “Rolf Schneider, the author of the museum guide, writes, ‘Libeskind has called his Jewish Museum project ‘Between the Lines.’ Visitors to the museum will need to try and follow his train of thought here, even though they might find it confusing and exasperating at times.’ Edward Rothstein of the New York Times was less courteous: ‘There may be worse Jewish museums in the world than the Jüdisches Museum Berlin, which opened in 2001. Bur it is difficult to imagine that any could be as uninspiring and banal’.” As you can imagine, I wasn’t very excited to go there.

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© Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Foto: Günter Schneider

But I was first surprised by the outside look of the museum. I only knew it was a recent building but I didn’t expect it to be all grey, in concrete, with some broken lines as the only windows. I was even more surprised later on when I did some research, to discover the global shape of the museum that I couldn’t imagine when I was at its feet. I have learnt then that Berliners use to call it “Blitz” because of its shape of thunderbolt. This concrete aspect didn’t repulse me but arouse my curiosity. I was pleased by the simplicity of the concrete and I think I would have disliked any ornaments for such a museum. Because when it comes to this museum, especially here in Berlin with such a historical background, you already feel uncomfortable and sad for the victims. This is the reason why I liked the outside of the museum and especially the beautiful garden surrounding the museum, because the green area is really peaceful and surprisingly suit each other with the grey museum. Nevertheless I recognize that my experience could have been really different in winter for instance, because I enjoyed Berlin spring’s good weather to visit the museum.

The entrance of the museum is more classic, because it is an old building, renovated after the war, with this familiar aspect of many “historical” buildings in Berlin with brand new paint. When you walk in the direction of the beginning of the museum, you can stop at the “Glashof”. This area, also designed by Daniel Libeskind and built as an extension in 2007, is very large with a café to welcome visitors and a view over the garden. The place is quiet even if there are many people enjoying a coffee because of its very high glass roof that let the light go inside. This architecture is not part of Daniel Libeskind’s project called “Between the Lines”, but I chose to mention it because I think it is part of my experience of the museum and of my good opinion and peaceful impression of it.

Then visitors enter the Jewish Museum itself. The first part, as Daniel Libeskind conceived it, has been entirely built to welcome visitors and have them have an experience. The museum also has a very impressive permanent exhibition which comes as a second part, aiming to recount “Two Millennia of German Jewish History”. This second part made me think of a very “traditional” museum, because of the contrast with the previous one. It is very well documented with a great collection but the architecture is less present, perceptible by the visitors. I will mostly talk about the project of Daniel Libeskind, “Between the lines”.

When I entered the museum, I remembered what Daniel A. Bell and Avner de Shalet told in their book ‘The spirit of cities. Why the identity of a city matters in a global age’: “When Daniel and Avner visit the Jewish Museum Berlin, they immediately become disoriented and, instead of paying attention to the exhibition, they focus on the claustrophobic feelings it induces. The many documents and objects on display do not attract them. They feel uncomfortable. All they want to do is to leave. But presumably the museum does enlighten people who come better prepared for the experience.” I wasn’t prepared for this experience except that I read this chapter from Daniel A. Bell and Avner de Shalet.

When I arrived at the beginning of the museum, I understood what they meant in the book by “disoriented”. At the entrance, several choices (corridors) are offered to the visitors: there’s not only one way to visit the museum and you have to make some effort to identify the three main corridors which correspond to the three main lines of the story Daniel Libeskind wants to tell us. The names of the axis are written in the wall along with some more information, but it has to be discovered while walking. The axis are underlined by a big luminous line on the ceiling, but it stresses the different ways the axis are going, and gives a feeling of bursting when you are at an intersection. Moreover, the soil isn’t flat but sloping. It emphasizes the feeling of disorientation because we’re not used to a sloping soil inside of a building, and it creates a visual effect of distance because the end of the corridor seems higher. Furthermore, you have to make some (little) effort to go to the end of each corridor, so you physically feel this architecture and it produces an effect on you.

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Innenansicht J¸disches Museum Berlin, die Achsen © J¸disches Museum Berlin, Foto: Thomas Bruns

Indeed I felt disoriented in the beginning, but not stressed or oppressed by the architecture because one can understand quite quickly the three lines of the story, that lead (for two of the three axis) to some kind of monument expressing the tittle of the axis. Those three lines are: “The Axis of Holocaust”, “The Axis of Exile” and “The Axis of continuity”. The last one is the longest: it represents life, and the permanent exhibition “Two Millennia of German Jewish History” is part of it. Furthermore, as the structure of the museum aims to embody the Jewish history in Germany, those three axis weren’t sufficient according to Daniel Libeskind. He included to the museum some “Voids”, empty places representing the destruction of the Jewish culture at some point in history.

I started with the “Axis of Exile” meaning the Exile of Jewish from Germany when fascism arose in Europe and Germany from the 1930’s. The Axis tries to give some clue about the destination of the exile people, leaving Europe for the United States and South America for instance. Pictures are reproduced on the wall, some objects are also included, behind a glass inside the walls. But even if there’s some objects, memories, postcards, the corridor seems empty. This is maybe due to the contrast with what people could expect from a museum, and also because there’s nothing in the corridor, everything that is exposed is inside or on the walls. At the end of the corridor, a window and a door are side by side. You can see the light from the outside by the window, and some columns.

When you pass through the big black door, you enter “The Garden of Exile”. This garden aims to represent the confusion of people that had to leave their country and family and that were disoriented in new places. It immediately remembered me of the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas I visited before in Berlin, because of the sloping floor that disorient yourself to the point you have to lean on the columns to keep your equilibrium. But instead of representing graves, at the top of each column grows an olive tree. Furthermore, the columns aren’t grey but in a light color, so that you don’t feel depressed but you’re invited to stay here for a longer time. And surprisingly, if you stay a few minutes and you sit where there is some space to do so, it gives the overall impression of a peaceful garden under olive trees. It might be because I know those trees from the South of France and I appreciate them, but I think it may be a deeper feeling induced by the architecture of this garden, and also by the name that the architect gave to it. He called it a garden, so you feel free to stay there and to appreciate the architecture and how the architect tried to explain to you, or give you some feeling, of what an exile could be.

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Außenansicht Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Libeskind-Bau mit Garten des Exils und Holocaust-Turm © Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Foto: Burkhard Katz

Then I left the garden, and did go back in the corridor to choose the crossing one: the “Axis of Holocaust”. In the same way, objects are included on the wall, postcards thrown from the trains, a spoon, the very little objects or drawings that were found in the camps. The corridor is darker, because there’s no window or light in the end. Instead, there’s again a big black door, really heavy to move, and it opens on the “Holocaust Tower”. You enter it silently, and your eyes have to adapt to the dark place. Once the door closes noisily, one can easily shiver.

The place is rather small but really high and quite dark: the only light gets in by a small opening close to the ceiling. This very high ceiling doesn’t give the impression to be in jail, but it rather gives the impression that there’s no hope. Indeed, when you are in the empty tower and you walk in the direction of the only light, the light seems not to move, not to get closer. You walk but you’re trapped, there will be no tomorrow and no sky again, only this small view of the light that is outside. This tower was very impressive to me, and I think this is a very interesting approach of what can be a memorial. Usually, when it comes to memorials, people try to recreate or recall memories, to show everyday life objects, like the DDR museum for instance, very successful in that regard, but this is different. It was a risky bet to create those “Voids” as Daniel Libenskind calls it, but in my opinion, successful too.

After the tower, the last axis left was the “Axis of continuity”, and the permanent exhibition in itself. You enter a rather classical museum then, by climbing long light stairs. Before you arrive to the top, there’s another of the “Voids” of the museum, which could be also a classical museum but empty of any pieces of art. The artist, Via Lewandowsky, called it “A Missing Exhibit” in purpose. This Void also represents the destruction of the Jewish culture and the death of Jews in the history, and during the Holocaust. Later on, throw the museum, another Void is to visit, called “Installation Shalekhet – Fallen Leaves”, created by the Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman. This installation is constituted by plenty of iron faces spread on the floor. When I came to the museum, people were observing this installation respectfully, a step away from the installation and the faces. I read later that people were invited to walk on those faces and be exposed to the noise it makes, but I didn’t see this. Maybe the installation is already really impressive and sad, and people naturally prefer to watch rather than walk on those faces, or maybe people don’t touch it because it’s a museum and moreover a memorial. But no matter the reason why I didn’t see people step on the installation, people would probably remember it as one of the most impressive parts of the museum.

What I liked the most about this museum was the fact that the architecture is really eager to be remembered. This is not a conventional museum in an old building with people walking by paintings, objects, pieces of art, but it was built on purpose with a challenging task: talking about the Jewish history and by doing so, talking about the Holocaust, in another way than historians do, than Berliners do, than people do. The idea of the Axis and the Voids could be confusing at the first sight, but the way the architecture of the building is talking to you is not. That’s the strength of the museum, to let the building speak when we lack words.

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Installation von Menashe Kadishman ‘Schalechet’ (Gefallenes Laub) © Jüdisches Museum Berlin, Schenkung von Dieter und Si Rosenkranz, Foto: Jens Ziehe

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