I have been travelling with my friend around Europe. He is both Australian and Jewish. With that in mind, we felt it appropriate to at some point make a stop in Berlin, so as to be able to pay respect to his cultural heritage and view some of the museums.
One such museum is the Jewish Museum. I decided to go alone as I figured my friend would like to do the trip on his own. Being agnostic, I went there with no prior sentiment or in depth knowledge of their culture or beliefs.
The museum was 30 minutes from the centre of Berlin, requiring both walking and catching the highly efficient underground system. It is oddly positioned in quite a dilapidated part of Berlin, but the two buildings it occupies are hugely impressive; apt for the long and rich heritage contained within. After a fairly rigorous security check (apparently security is still required on Jewish places and events – disgusting) then paying €7, I was inside.
While the entrance was in the baroque building, the main part of the museum was in the zig-zagging, zinc coated building. It was designed by Daniel Libeskind and only available from an underground tunnel connecting the two together. The building has a 20m tall void in the zig-zag intersection, apparently placed to represent the absence of Jews from German society.
The tunnels are lined with real possessions from those persecuted by Nazi soldiers and citizens. One tunnel leads to the Garden of Exile, which is a space which has 49 pillars with Oleaser growing from them. The whole monument is on a slope, and is surprisingly tranquil despite its outside setting near a main road.
The tranquillity held nothing to the frankly unnerving and rather eerie Holocaust Tower. The 24m tower was made of concrete, completely bare, with no temperature control, and only the smallest slither of natural light let through from a slit at the top. I found myself inexplicably lacking coordination while inside, and when you close your eyes you felt totally isolated from the rest of humanity. The purpose of the space is left up to the interpretation of the engager, according to Libeskind.
The final tunnel takes you to the main museum exhibition, which covers two Millennia of Jewish history, largely through the eyes of those who took up inhabitancy in Germany when it unified in 1871. I expected there to be a big focus on the Holocaust, for obvious reasons, but I was really surprised – this was a really comprehensive display of Jewish culture and heritage, explaining their migration, beliefs, plights, social exclusion, attempts of assimilation an lifestyle all in a highly creative and engaging way.
Obviously the Holocaust was going to come up. There are some people feel that we should start to move on from this atrocity, and others who deny it happened completely. The latter are not worthy of having their views considered however. I spoke to quite a few German people about this, and they think that it is good those events are kept in mind. It makes every new Nazi scandal, or fascist right-wing movement seem that little bit more extreme and a need to combat against conditions that create them are considered.
Interestingly, it was my friend who felt most polarized by the memorials. He felt it insensitive and unnecessary to continuously paint Jewish people as victims, and skirting round the issue of the Holocaust with every Jewish person. Being Australian, he has no relatives who were affected by the actions of the Nazis, yet feels that he is always viewed through the ‘victim lens’. While the Holocaust was a horrific and needless act of genocide, there seems to be less outrage towards the treating of homosexuals and the other minorities, who were killed on Hitler’s orders. While in Berlin, I walked around the memorials of these two minority groups, and they were appallingly underrepresented. I would love to see an elevation of remembrance; so all groups are mourned equally, without detracting from existing sentiment. Genocides have also occurred elsewhere in the world, Rwanda for example, but that seems to lack the same gravitas. Perhaps it is due to the location, or the fact there wasn’t a world war to accompany it, but to me it seems unjust.
I don’t know how I felt about his pontificating, and I’m not sure to what degree I can present a counter argument or a solution. On one hand, constantly hearing about the Jewish massacre can be a little bit grating, that we seem to rate one group’s plight more important than another subsection of humanity. Yet at the same time, why should any person be denied their right to mourn, and the Jewish community have been persecuted for thousands of years, social pariahs wherever they go. The holocaust was a despicable act in a supposedly democratic state in a time of ‘post war uncertainty’, which may make it more hardhitting?
I don’t know. A really poor end to this piece, but I really am ambivalent on the issue. However, I do encourage you all to visit the museum if you are ever in Berlin.