Jewish Museum Berlin | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Jewish Museum Berlin

Architect Daniel Libeskind's zinc lightning bolt of a building is one of the most revolutionary structures built since the war in Germany or anywhere.

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How should a city commemorate a people it once sought to annihilate? What shape should it give to its sorrow, without seeming to absolve itself of past sins, much less to create what Germans call a Kranzabwurfstelle—a "wreath-dumping zone"? Berlin has confronted these thorny questions in many ways, including the stark granite forest of Peter Eisenman's recently inaugurated Holocaust Memorial. The city's boldest response is the Jewish Museum Berlin. Architect Daniel Libeskind's zinc lightning bolt of a building is one of the most revolutionary structures built since the war in Germany or anywhere. Over 200,000 visitors came in the first eight weeks after its opening on September 9, 2001, and some three million more have followed.

The city's first museum of Jewish art and culture was founded in January 1933, one week before Adolf Hitler became chancellor, and boldly proclaimed the very facts that the Nazis denied: the enduring influence of Jewish culture on Berlin and Germany. After the collection was gutted during the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 9, 1938, it took another half-century of anguished debate before Berlin was ready to build an independent Jewish collection once more. In announcing the international competition for the museum design, city planners stated the paradox: the new museum, like its 1933 predecessor, had to illustrate the symbiosis of Jewish and German culture over the centuries, yet at the same time underscore the near absence of Jews in Germany today.

Libeskind's answer to this enigma was a design that stood out from the other 164 submissions for its complexity, artistic beauty and downright audacity. It is as much a giant sculpture as a building, the zinc exterior sliced in dozens of seemingly random lines and geometric shapes. Libeskind's explanations of these shapes—he has likened the configuration to an exploded Star of David—add to the almost cabalistic aura of mystery and symbolism that pervades the entire building.

After admiring the exterior, one faces the first of many questions raised by the structure: how does one get in? There are no doors; one enters through a neighboring building and descends a long flight of stairs. Here, 30 feet below ground, a crossroads of three divergent avenues leads to distinct parts of the museum. The Garden of Exile is a plot of 49 evenly spaced concrete columns that are some 20 feet high and crowned with willow oaks, creating a leafy canopy overhead. The ground is tilted at odd angles, creating a sense of disorientation.

The second road dead-ends in the Holocaust Tower, an empty silo of raw concrete lit by a single slit window. A heavy door slams closed as one enters, as in a prison; the rough concrete floor slopes and cants, and sounds echo weirdly off the naked walls, contributing to the sinister atmosphere. Still, the play of light and shadow on the walls, and breathtakingly sharp lines of the place, are starkly beautiful.

The third underground avenue ascends the Stair of Continuity into the museum proper. The permanent collection, "Two Millennia of German Jewish History," documents the ebb and flow of Jewish status in German society: how wealth and influence alternated with pogroms in the Middle Ages, how outspoken Jewish patriotism during World War I was repaid by genocide during World War II. The exhibit emphasizes the prominent role of Jews in Berlin’s music, commerce, theater and philosophy, and ends on a hopeful note, with the resurgence of Jewish culture in a united Germany.

The Jewish Museum has its critics, some of whom object that the collection is overwhelmed by the building itself. Others dislike Libeskind's written commentary in certain parts of the museum, which works against the wordless power of the place. Yet all in all, Libeskind's Jewish Museum is a triumph. It makes Berlin itself look different: seen through the oblique ribbons, triangles and trapezoids of the windows, the cityscape is skewed and slightly surreal, its moods shifting quickly with a passing cloud in a way that lingers in the memory long afterward.

Tom Mueller is based in Vezzi San Filippo, Italy.

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