In its new permanent exhibition, the Jewish Museum Berlin visualizes the complex history of Jewish life in Germany, thereby challenging many traditional clichés and simplistic narratives.

By Jonathon Catlin

The Jewish Museum Berlin opened in 2001 and remains the largest Jewish Museum in Europe. After two years of construction, its new permanent exhibition opened to visitors on August 23, 2020. The Museum is composed of a baroque entrance building adjoined to a postmodern exhibition space designed by the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind. Thematizing fragmentation, the building’s reflective zinc façade is gashed open with irregular windows. From above, its jagged profile resembles a broken Star of David or a lightning bolt.

The Libeskind Building | Jewish Museum Berlin
The Libeskind Building, featuring the Holocaust Tower, left, and the Garden of Exile, front center; photo by Jens Ziehe, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Berlin

One enters the exhibition building from below and, walking along a tilted floor designed to disorient, encounters a number of “axes” labeled “continuity” (a throughline running from the entrance to the permanent exhibition), “exile” leading to the Garden of Exile (representing the majority of German Jews who escaped before the Holocaust), and “Holocaust.” These elements are so central that Libeskind even named his design “Between the Lines.” The Holocaust axis leads to the Holocaust Tower, one of a number of bare concrete “voids” that run from floor to ceiling without heating or air conditioning. Visitors can enter the base of the tower, a dark shaft with a high ceiling and the only light coming from a thin crack in one corner. A steel ladder runs up the wall, just out of reach. The large, angular door slams shut when visitors enter or exit, creating a harsh echo and generating a sense of uncanniness, isolation, and confinement. While the axis of continuity offers a way out, some visitors may regret that the story of Jewish life in Germany always seems to begin and end with the overshadowing theme of the Holocaust.

Another space called “memory void” contains the installation Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by the Israeli sculptor Menashe Kadishman, which features thousands of individually cut steel faces with gaping mouths, as if they were frozen in the act of screaming. Visitors are invited to walk directly on top of the faces, which produces a harsh clanking sound that reverberates through the vast chamber. If several people walk on them at once, a cacophony soon fills the void, the low metallic clanking rising to resemble the sound of a passing train.

 Memory void and Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman; photo: Wikimedia
Memory void and Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman; photo: Wikimedia

Kadishman’s installation may be the closest experience I know to the radical self-scrutiny called for by the British-Jewish philosopher Gillian Rose in a 1990 reflection on the future of the site of Auschwitz: How could a Holocaust museum be designed, Rose asks, “to provoke a child or an adult who visits the ‘site’ of Auschwitz not only to identify herself in infinite pain with ‘the victims’, but to engage in intense self-questioning: ‘Could I have done this?’” Rose goes on, wondering how visitors might be invited to critical self-reflection in addition to mourning: “‘How easily could we have allowed this to be carried out?’ Are we Germans ‘or’ German-Jews…?” About 75% of the Museum’s visitors reportedly come from abroad. For them and German visitors alike, the experience of walking through this installation, while devoid of explicit Holocaust signification, serves as a moving site of moral reflection that situates the visitor in a position of complicity, challenging simplistic identification with victims of atrocity.

The Museum is so famous for its striking architecture that hundreds of thousands of people reportedly visited it before it even held an exhibition. Yet it is evidently no easy feat to design exhibitions to fit in its often awkward and unwelcoming halls (one sees why the Museum was the first building designed by Libeskind that was actually constructed). The Museum’s permanent exhibition, which tells the story of Jews in Germany from early medieval settlements along the Rhine to the present, was recently redesigned by a team led by the German-Jewish historian Cilly Kugelmann. The new exhibition does away with kitschy props in the old core exhibition, which included a giant clove of garlic (an old antisemitic stereotype), a Christmas tree (adopted by some highly assimilated German-Jewish families), and a video game that allowed visitors to “test their own abilities as a court Jew—and if they don’t watch out, they can land in the poorhouse.” It replaces these with brightly-lit and elegantly designed installations that touch on everything from the Hebrew alphabet, to Jewish mysticism, to controversies surrounding performances of the music of the notorious German composer Richard Wagner, who in 1850 authored the antisemitic essay “Jewishness in Music.”

Theme room “Torah”; photo by Yves Sucksdorff, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Berlin
Theme room “Torah”; photo by Yves Sucksdorff, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Berlin

The new core exhibition also includes Anselm Kiefer’s arresting site-specific installation Breaking of the Vessels,which interprets the kabbalistic teaching of Isaak Luria (1534–1572) about the catastrophe that took place during creation. After being disoriented by these fragments of mystical experience, one passes through a gateway to emancipation and enlightenment: a bright and open hallway resembling a modern airport terminal adorned with quotations from progressive intellectual figures such as Moses Mendelssohn and Karl Marx.

Epoch room “When Jews Became Germans”; photo by Roman März, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Berlin
Epoch room “When Jews Became Germans”; photo by Roman März, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Berlin

Digital portraits at the other side of the terminal allow visitors to impose their face on famous characters of nineteenth-century German-Jewish salons. Yet one never really learns what was discussed in these salons, what the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, is, or how it prompted religious reforms that made Germany the birthplace of reform Judaism. Here as elsewhere, the new exhibition relies too heavily on visuals, especially historical portraits, that would require explanation from a guide to make narrative sense and be integrated by most visitors.

Another central project of Jewish modernity that got its start in German-speaking lands is Zionism, a movement founded in 1897 by the German-speaking Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl. As Marc Volovici’s new book German as a Jewish Problem shows, German was the central language of leading strands of Jewish politics, including in Palestine-Israel itself, up until the Holocaust. The exhibition features a 1904 design for a stained glass window in Hamburg that depicts the biblical figure of Moses with Theodor Herzl’s features, highlighting how the program for a Jewish nation in certain respects became a secular political religion.

1904 design for a stained glass window in the B’nai B’rith home in Hamburg by Ephraim Moses Lilien; photo by Jonathon Catlin
1904 design for a stained glass window in the B’nai B’rith home in Hamburg by Ephraim Moses Lilien; photo by Jonathon Catlin

One of the most notable features of the new exhibition is the number of rooms devoted to paintings by Jewish artists or representing Jewish subjects. Such galleries are found in many Jewish Museums around the world. Yet because the Berlin Museum is structured in a narrative and chronological form, these rooms serve as spaces of aesthetic reflection that press pause on the unrelenting forward-moving push of history. While the collection of paintings is itself remarkable and the displays are both beautiful and playful, I felt myself losing momentum in these spaces and wondering how these artworks fit into the broader arc of the exhibition.

Theme room “Art and Artists”; photo by Roman März, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Berlin
Theme room “Art and Artists”; photo by Roman März, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Berlin

Following an engaging film about Jewish contributions to the vibrant culture of the Weimar Republic, the portrait of Jewish life in Germany slowly begins to grow darker. One of the most effective visuals in the new exhibition appears in the room “Catastrophe.” Hundreds of legal measures discriminating against and persecuting Jews in the National Socialist period appear on banners running from floor to ceiling and almost touching each other. One can, at the same time, apprehend the immense scope and volume of these measures while also reading them in detail and recognizing the granular, localized impact they had on individual lives and livelihoods: “Vouchers from marriage loans may not be redeemed in businesses with Jewish owners” (19 July 1933), “Soldiers must prove their wives’ non-Jewish ancestry” (20 July 1933), etc.

Banners displaying hundreds of Nazi anti-Jewish laws in the epoch room “Catastrophe”; photo by Yves Sucksdorff, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Berlin
Banners displaying hundreds of Nazi anti-Jewish laws in the epoch room “Catastrophe”; photo by Yves Sucksdorff, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Berlin

A new interactive map of anti-Jewish violence developed by researchers at the Museum and the House of the Wannsee Conference tracked 4660 incidents of anti-Jewish violence in the period from 1930 to the November Pogroms of 1938, creating a “topography of violence.” In an interview the researchers emphasize one of their principal findings: “The big insight is how much violence came from neighbors. It is local violence, not the faceless violence of the laws or regulations of the Nazi regime. It is local perpetrators who threaten and injure their neighbors.”

Topography of Violence interactive map of anti-Jewish violence in Germany, 1930–1938. Jewish Museum Berlin.
Topography of Violence interactive map of anti-Jewish violence in Germany, 1930–1938. Jewish Museum Berlin.

Because such persecutory measures were implemented early in Nazi Germany, unlike in countries occupied in the war, about three quarters of German Jews emigrated before it was too late, and about half ultimately survived the Holocaust. An interactive digital globe allows visitors to track where refugees ultimately settled. Visitors can even play a Zionist board game from the period called The Aliyah Game (a Nazi equivalent was called Juden Raus) in which tokens representing Jewish refugees advance across the Alps and the Mediterranean toward Israel.

A jagged silver railing full of facts and figures leads visitors from the aftermath of the Holocaust to the slow and unsteady rebuilding of Jewish life in Germany. While about 160,000 Jews had lived in Berlin before 1933, only 6,000 remained in 1979, the railing tells us, compared to the more than 1,228,000 Jews in New York. No doubt scars of persecution and exile remain. A massive, striking photograph displayed in an austere gallery depicts the American writer Carey Harrison, the son of a Jewish actress from Berlin who emigrated to England, who had the first page of Theodor Adorno’s classic exilic work Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life tattooed on his back. In that work Adorno characteristically reflected, “Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated,” and “There is no right life in the false one.”

“Minima Moralia” (2017) by Frédéric Brenner; photo: Jewish Museum Berlin.
“Minima Moralia” (2017) by Frédéric Brenner; photo: Jewish Museum Berlin

Today Berlin is estimated to be home to at least 30,000 Jewish residents. Thinking about this renaissance, I was reminded of the American-born philosopher Susan Neiman’s tales of being Jewish in Berlin in the 1980s and today. She opens her 1992 memoir Slow Firewith a line uttered to her by a German admirer: “Every time I see you I think of Dachau…baby.” At that time, she writes in her latest book, Learning from the Germans, she couldn’t imagine raising her Jewish children in Germany. But by the early 2000s, when she was offered a job as director of the Einstein Forum, the city had become so multicultural that she changed her mind. By 2010, there was no trendier place for young Israelis to move than the former capital of the Third Reich.

The new permanent exhibition ends with several fantastic video works. The first are a series of historical interviews with three remarkably different Jewish intellectuals: Hannah Arendt’s famous 1964 interview with Günter Gaus, the anti-Zionist Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and the Israeli historian Dan Diner, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Poland in 1947. In a second installation, leading academic experts including Detlev Claussen and Uffa Jensen address pressing themes such as the complex relationship between antisemitism and racism in contemporary Germany. Visitors can select among various topics and also conduct polls responding to case studies with other visitors on topics such as whether enough is being done to combat contemporary antisemitism and other forms of discrimination and violence.

The last thing the visitor experiences before leaving the exhibition is a video installation, Mesubin (The Gathered), by Israeli director Yael Reuveny and German video artist Clemens Walter, featuring twenty-one screens featuring short interviews with Jews living in Germany from diverse backgrounds and social locations, from a rabbi, to the leader of a Jewish carnival crew, to a gay Israeli-German man discussing how he often feels fetishized by German men. They briefly tell their stories, describe how many consider Germany their home and German their mother tongue, and reflect on whether they experienced antisemitism in Germany. At the end they sing a song from the Passover Seder, first one by one, then in a rising polyphony that preserves a healthy amount of asynchrony, and dissonance: German Jews are not and never were a monolith, but one museum can still illuminate their diverse experiences.

The installation Mesubin by Yael Reuveny and Clemens Walter at the end of the core exhibition; photo by Yves Sucksdorff, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Berlin
The installation Mesubin by Yael Reuveny and Clemens Walter at the end of the core exhibition; photo by Yves Sucksdorff, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Berlin

My favorite room in the new exhibition is the Hall of Fame, featuring dozens of sketches of culturally significant Jews by Andree Volkmann installed in a bright, open atrium. The very sight of this wide range of figures milling about in close proximity, as if catching up at a café in a parallel universe, delights the imagination with counterfactuals: The revolutionary Karl Marx cracking jokes with the American comedians the Marx Brothers; Holocaust survivor and chemist Primo Levi deep in conversation with the film theorist Siegfried Kracauer; the composer Leonard Bernstein clinking glasses with the prophetic critic Walter Benjamin and the mystical painter Marc Chagall; Jesus and Alfred Dreyfus sharing persecution tales; the Frankfurt School theorist Max Horkheimer bumping elbows with sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and Holocaust diarist Anne Frank; the Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler and the British singer Amy Winehouse nodding their heads in unison while sharing a pair of earphones.

Hall of Fame featuring illustrations by Andree Volkmann; photo by Jonathon Catlin Jewish Museum
Hall of Fame featuring illustrations by Andree Volkmann; photo by Jonathon Catlin

The playful tableau of the Hall of Fame also cuts to the core of one of the oldest problems in Jewish history: How to define that old German word, Judentum? Is it Judaism or Jewishness? Is Jewry constituted as a religion, an ethnicity, a nation, or a culture? Who counts as a Jew, and therefore merits representation in a Jewish museum such as this one? Whereas the earliest rooms of the permanent exhibition reductively define the Jewish community as a religious one defined by religious law (however fitting that may have been in the medieval period), that narrow and outdated characterization is blown apart by this rainbow paint-bomb of a broad spectrum of Jewishness. This matters for a museum moving forward from a number of controversies in recent years surrounding the question of what and whom a Jewish museum in Germany is for. The diversity of figures represented scrambles standard answers to these questions that fail to go beyond rigid categories and formulas. But, more importantly, it leaves the visitor wanting to learn more about the figures’ lives and the stories that hold them all together.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities at Princeton University. He lives in Berlin and writes about catastrophe in twentieth-century European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.