Remarkable Jewish museum in Berlin is reinventing itself

In essence, every Jewish building in Berlin is in itself a monument to the Holocaust.

THE JEWISH MUSEUM BERLIN, once known as the City of Berlin Museum (photo credit: BECKY FRANK)
THE JEWISH MUSEUM BERLIN, once known as the City of Berlin Museum
(photo credit: BECKY FRANK)
There are many museums in the world which are architectural wonders: The Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Since I travel the world, I would like to add to the list one of the most remarkable museum buildings you will ever encounter: the Jewish Museum Berlin (Jüdisches Museum Berlin), which was opened in 2001 and is the largest Jewish museum in Europe.
Museums are not static in their presentations. News that the Jewish Museum Berlin is now reinventing itself by creating both a new permanent exhibition and a children’s museum, should not stop the visitor from touring this fabulous structure. Only the two upper levels of architect Daniel Libeskind’s building are not accessible until late 2019. But one can still view the architectural highlights of the Libeskind building, namely, the Axes in the basement, the Garden of Exile, and the impressive Voids – as well as the current exhibitions and art installations.
“One of the great glories of the architectural rebirth of the unified city of Berlin,” exclaimed one writer discussing the museum and the Reichstag. Those two structures stand as perhaps the only pieces of 21st century “avant-gardist architecture” in the city. The outer walls of the building are covered in zinc, pierced by slashes of window that could be lightning or a shattered Star of David.
I remember my first tour of the Jewish Museum 15 years ago when it was empty of exhibits and yet, it was one of the most challenging visits to a museum dealing with the tragedy that befell the Jewish people. More than 350,000 persons came to the museum in the two years before the exhibitions were installed.
Museum officials stress that the museum depicts the history of not only Berlin Jews, but of German Jews as a whole and that it is not a Holocaust memorial – it is a Jewish history museum that shows the creative role that Jews played in Germany before the Nazis took over in 1933. No doubt about it, Jews influenced the city’s cultural life, and that is shown here.
Still, as you walk through this now elongated, sharply angled and folded building, you cannot but recall the Holocaust. The building’s narrow galleries with slanting floors and zig-zag turns evoke a sense of dislocation and are interspersed by voids embodying the vacuum left behind by the destruction of Jewish life.
In essence, every Jewish building in Berlin is in itself a monument to the Holocaust.
The museum consists of three buildings, two of which are new additions specifically built for the museum by Libeskind. The third building, the old City of Berlin Museum, serves as its entrance. After you move through the latter doorway, the floors you walk on in the new building are uneven. You might even fill a little dizzy. At certain points you will be disorientated. You will stand in space voids. You will enter a dark angular tower, an oppressive space that obviously stands as a symbol of the Holocaust. One tourist noted that he found the tower “more powerful than museum images of the reality.”
When I toured the museum, I glanced at the guest book which included quotes in Japanese, Chinese, French, Hebrew and English. They ranged from “with great admiration,” to “I think my grandparents would sigh with relief and grief if they could visit this place. I will lend them my eyes. The Jewish Museum Berlin has ‘lent us its eyes,’” written by a woman from the Netherlands.
A highlight of the museum is the Garden of Exile, consisting of 49 tilted pillars to represent the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, plus one for Berlin. The garden also symbolizes the forced exile of Germany’s Jews. I found the Garden of Exile  very thought-provoking and powerful.
In any discussion of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, mention must be made of the background of 72-year-old Daniel Libeskind, the Polish-American Jewish architect whose buildings also include, among others, the extension to the Denver Art Museum; the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen, and the Wohl Center at the Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. In 2003, Libeskind won the competition to be the master-plan architect for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan. His work has been exhibited in major museums and galleries around the world. Born in Poland, Libeskind moved with his family to Israel in 1957 and then onto the US in 1959.
Opening last December was the new exhibit “Welcome to Jerusalem at the Jewish Museum Berlin,” which will run until April 30, 2019. The 1,000 square-meter exhibition explores aspects of the city’s history, in which religion, politics and everyday life are inextricably intertwined. The exhibition opened in the Old Building.
 “Welcome to Jerusalem” tells the history of Jerusalem from Herod’s time until the present day through a wide selection of themes. Ten rooms present Jerusalem’s many and diverse challenges through historic objects, artistic responses, and multimedia installations.
Those stopping at the exhibit will find objects that illuminate cultural history, with loans from private collections and international museums, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, Tate Modern, the Musee du Quai Branly, the Uffizi Gallery and the Israel Museum, as well as works by contemporary artists.
Some museum guests, including those who have visited the capital of Israel, said that the “Jerusalem exhibit was so informative and made them feel like they were back in Jerusalem.”
The Jewish Museum is located at Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969 Berlin.
Tel: +49 (0)30 259 93 300.
The author is a travel writer and travel-lecturer, the author of the just-published A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 4th edition (Pelican Publishing), Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press), and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press). Follow him at twitter:@bengfrank