May 21, 2018

The Jewish Museum Berlin: An Unexpected Education

Shalekhet - Fallen Leaves: The individual face sculptures attendees could touch, walk over, or observe from a distance.
17 May 2018

I appreciated the opportunity I had to research the Berlin Jewish Museum before attending it; the process helped me conceptualize how a museum could teach me about the repression, violence and memory of the Holocaust with its physical structure more than with its historical content. 

As a result, I could critique--- rather than merely identify-- how the Berlin Jewish Museum explored the German Jewish experience during our visit. 

Upon arriving, I had in mind the museum’s identified content- and architecture-based missions, which helped me evaluate what was present and absent from my experience. The museum is meant "to educate Germans about the role that Jews once played in German life", and to encourage tolerance among the attendees. Though not explicitly stated in the mission statement, the Holocaust and repression leading to it play major roles throughout the exhibitions in terms of historical content and building design. My experience was also largely informed by Berlin Jewish Museum architect David Libeskind’s narrative framework, which focused on the lack of Jewish culture in Germany as a result of the war (Hansen-Glucklich). 

I would have learned more about German Jewish culture unrelated to the Holocaust if the main permanent exhibit, Two Millennia of German Jewish History, was open. Due to its closure, Iinstead had the chance to focus on the emotional elements of German Jewish pre- and mid-Holocaust experiences in the available Memory Void rooms.

These empty rooms provided insight in the form of architecture. The two I observed were supported by concrete walls with holes the size of bullets running up and down them. Both had ceilings 24 meters high that allowed echoes to remain in the rooms for a long time. 

The first contained nothing, but rather a large black door and a smaller ladder served as its focal points. While standing in this Memory Void, I could not help but compare it to how I visualize concentration camps; I found myself imagining how a prisoner would view the sliver of sunlight in the ceilings and how the room’s dark corners would feel during freezing winters. I also experienced a unique description of the discrimination German Jews suffered before the war; the concrete walls felt suffocating and the room corners made people feel far from me, even in the relatively small room. 

The Berlin Jewish Museum even encouraged me to think differently about the representation of the experiences I tried to consider, particularly through the Fallen Leaves installation. The floor of one Memory Void was covered by a thin but long pile of round, metal faces varying in size. Unlike most sculptures, this one encouraged physical interaction. Attendees could walk on the faces to reach the other end of the room. 

Listening to reactions of students and faculty to this piece has been one of the most memorable moments of the trip so far. While faculty member Dr. Walke had reservations about stepping on representations of Holocaust victims, student Madeline Alburtus viewed the experience positively. She felt that by interacting with them, we were “disrupting” the void of memory and historical discussion.

After digesting the opposing views, I found my thoughts slightly closer to the positive end of the spectrum they established. I personally had trepidations about making the faces move, especially as they were arranged in a way that reminded me of a mass grave; I believe in leaving those at rest in peace. In addition, I found the loud screeching sound of moving face sculptures under my feet extremely unpleasant, counter Alburtus’s experience. I wondered whether the sound warned us to back away from the faces or merely reminded us that interacting with Holocaust victim stories is in fact painful. But I agree with Alburtus and believe that Libeskind’s encouragement of attendees to consider the void of German Jewish culture can apply to the lack of discussion regarding their Holocaust experiences.

In the Berlin Jewish Museum, I had the chance to contemplate the Holocaust-related experiences of German Jews in a refreshing way that combined physical interaction and intellectual research. However, I am not finished learning from the Berlin Jewish Museum. I hope to one day experience Two Millennia of German Jewish History. I plan to see how the historic information informs the more visceral feelings I experience while in the Memory Voids. But for now, I will appreciate how small, lonely and at times claustrophobic the Berlin Jewish Museum made me feel. I will remember these personal sensations as I return to academic Holocaust study. 


Group 3: Melanie De Lisa, Nicci Mowszowski, Abby Rodler (Author: Abby Rodler)



Jennifer Hansen-Glücklich, “An Architecture of Absence: Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin,” in Holocaust Memory Reframed: Museums and the Challenges of Representation (Rutgers University Press, 2014).