Wednesday 25 October 2017

The Jewish Museum in Berlin

The origins of this elongated, sharply angled and folded building are manifold and various. Libeskind derived its zigzag contours in part from imaginary lines on the city map which connect the site with the street addresses of great figures in Berlin Jewish cultural history: Heinrich Heine, Mies van der Rohe, Rahel Varmhagen, Walter Benjamin, Arnold Schoenberg. A recurrent basic motif of the design are long parallel or intersecting lines without beginning or end that define sharply pointed, dramatic bodies or spaces. Libeskind himself has entitled the project 'Behind the Lines', implying that it is in this intermediate zone where the essential lies. 

In some of his explanatory texts and sketches of the ground plan Libeskind also alludes to a distorted, fragmented Star of David, even though this configuration is not visually evident in the completed structure.

The first thing we did was walk around the block so that we could appreciate the exterior of the building. Having visited the museum during our previous visit to Berlin, six years ago, we knew that this was essential.

The zinc-clad exterior with its intersecting window bands, and seemingly interspersed gaps and apertures oriented neither to the horizontal nor to the vertical is unusual indeed. The most striking feature of this is that the arrangement of the windows and lighting silts does not follow floor levels or even internal, vertical elements such as stairwells or dividing walls. Judging from the outside, the buildings interior might just as well be a hangar-like hall.

The concrete columns of the Garden of Exile and Emigration present a 7x7 square tilted square.

More about this when we enter the building.

Having completed our walk round the block we came to the entrance. The new building does not have a separate public entrance. Access to the Jewish Museum is provided by the entrance it shares with the Baroque-style Museum of German history.

But not only does the visitor have to symbolically pass through German history in order to reach the story and exhibition of Jewish culture, they also have to walk down a flight of stairs, down to the basement to go underground before having access to what they went there for.

Going down the stairs we get our first experience of how the slits work.

We reach the main subterranean corridor which gradually ascends.

Two corridors lead off the main corridor. These three axial routes,  cross the lower level: the Axis of Exile, the Axis of the Holocaust, and the Axis of Continuity - each tells its own story.

This is a complex structure, full of symbolic meaning - difficult to navigate your way through the building, but even more difficult having to describe it. Libeskind called his design for the Jewish Museum 'Between the Lines'. The floor plan is shaped like zigzag that is intersected by a single straight line. The intersection points are marked by the  six 'Voids' - empty spaces that run the entire length of the building and extend from its top to its bottom. They represent the absence of Jews from German society. They evoke the gap that evolved in German and European culture and history by the destruction of Jewish lives on every floor of the museum. The museum is pervaded by this absence. Only three of the Voids can be physically entered - the other three are inaccessible, though they can be looked into from the upper floors, through windows resembling gun slits.

The Axis of Exile. In 1938, a Jewish newspaper wrote: 'For every Jew living in Germany today, probably the most urgent question is: 'When and where can I emigrate?' Between 1933and 1941, some 280,000 German Jews fled the Nazi regime, heading for the USA, Palestine, Great Britain, South America, Africa and other parts of the world'.

The Axis of Exile leads to the Garden of Exile. This is the only path leading to the outside world from below ground -evoking the idea of exile as the only way to freedom.

The 49 tilted columns stand on a sloping plot of ground.  The columns contain earth and an underground irrigation system which permits willow oak to emerge and bind together at the top. 48 of these columns are filled with the earth of Berlin and stand for 1948 - the formation of the State of Israel. The one central column contains the earth of Jerusalem that stands for Berlin itself.

The columns which are perpendicular to the sloping paving induce a feeling of dizziness, and make the surrounding buildings appear to totter.

The Axis of the Holocaust.  When the National Socialists took power in 1933, the Jewish population in Germany numbered 560,000. Hitler's regime deported and murdered 200,000 Jews from Germany and the other Western European countries to which they had fled. In all of Europe, six million Jews fell victim to the Nazi Genocide. The Axis of the Holocaust presents personal documents, photographs and keepsakes that have been donated to the museum. They tell of the donors' murdered parents, relatives and friends.

This sewing machine belonged to the master tailor Paul Guterman, who, together with five assistants, created 'elegant fashions for men and women' in his shop at Luetzowstrasse 11 in Berlin. Because of his Polish nationality, Paul Guterman was expelled to Poland in 1938. His wife, Emilia, and their daughter Regina, continued to run the tailor's shop without him until they were forced to go into hiding to escape deportation. One of his assistants took two sewing machines from the shop, wanting to give them back to the family when they returned. Emilia and Regina Guterman survived the war in Berlin. Paul Guterman is believed to have been murdered in Auschwitz.

After receiving these postcards in 1942 and 1943 in Berlin, Adolf Wolffsky never heard from his deported relatives again. The card on the right was sent to him by his younger brother Fritz, who died in Auschwitz with his wife and six-month son. Fritz probably wrote the card while being transported to Auschwitz and threw it out of the train. The short message reads: 'Best regards to everyone! Don't forget us! Fritz, Ilse, Micki'.

Adolf Wolffsky was more fortunate than his brother. In 1938, at the age of 14, his daughter went to England on a children's transport. He survived in Berlin with his wife and son Jonathan because he worked for the Jewish community. After the war, the family went to Australia but returned to Berlin five years later.

The Axis of the Holocaust leads to a dead end - the darkness of the Holocaust Tower.

The austere space is dimly illuminated by daylight passing through a slit overhead. The closed, bare, empty and unheated space, its darkness penetrated only by a sharp beam from the single slit exerts an extremely compelling effect.

Libeskind called this the 'Voided Void'.

The Axis of Continuity. This is the longest of the axes and it leads to the

Stair of Continuity, emphasizing the continuum of history. The stairs lead to the exhibition spaces of the museum.

Concrete beams shooting obliquely through the space support the extremely high exterior wall.

We walked up one level and arrived on the ground floor and to a temporary exhibition titled 'Cherchez la Femme', which outlined the evolution of the headscarf and burqa - exploring how much religiosity secular societies can tolerate.

From here we were able to enter the Memory Void which includes the installation Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman. More than 10,000 faces with open mouths, cut from heavy round iron plates, cover the floor of the ground floor void.

The second floor houses the permanent exhibition of the museum which is about Jewish history and Jewish life. Predictably, the section on the Holocaust was harrowing.

Through this narrow window we could look into one of the inaccessible Voids

and then further along the building we could look down at the Fallen Leaves installation in the Memory Void

In such a complex interior orientation is a key factor. It is provided by the frequent views of the surrounding city,

and the projecting sections of the building itself, which are visible often due to its zigzag shape.

I got lost twice trying to find the exit

but finally found the stairs

that lead to the exit.

I have visited two more of Libeskind's museums: the Danish Jewish Museum, that you can see here and the Imperial War Museum in Manchester which you can see here .

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