Shifting Perspectives: Berlin’s Jewish Museum

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011

Axes of Jewish Experience. Photo: Pete Driscoll.

The axes of experience at the beginning of Daniel Libeskind’s controversial annex to the Jewish Museum in Berlin disorientate the visitor. They are below ground and dark. Some narrow as they progress and seem to tilt as strips of light draw the eye away to a corner. And there is no clear route to follow. This is a clever way to evoke the precarious and transitory nature of the history of the Jews in Germany, particularly during the 1930s and 40s. The disorientation is given poignancy by the mundane remnants of lives displayed in the walls: an uncollected parcel of belongings, a sewing machine, a set of keys from suitcases that were confiscated and sold. The chamber at the end of one axis is a provocative statement of the horror Jews faced during the Holocaust. The visitor is shut in and the size of the chamber, the cold, the silence, the unreachable ladder that ascends nowhere induce apprehension. This is the closest one can get to empathising with the deported Jews’ last moments. It is an apprehension underlined by the police presence outside the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in the city.

Woodcut showing the counting table

Woodcut: counting table

Another axis leads up to a history of Jewish life in Germany. Our tour took in the later medieval and early modern periods. Medieval Jews traded spices and other goods with Christians and acted as money-changers, but they remained excluded from European society. The explanation of the money-changers’ counting table revealed how the use of the Arabic numerical system, the one we use now, reinforced the Jew’s status in European society as the devil’s accomplices. If God created everything, the devil stood for the opposite: nothing, a concept symbolised by the number zero (or cipher), which Jews used, but Christians did not.

Church and Synagogue. Synagogue (right), is blindfolded and bareheaded: click for detail. Photo: Caitlin Freitag.

A statue of blind Synagoga demonstrated the basis of this exclusion, that the Jews had rejected the Messiah; stories of the desecration of the host, blood libel and the Wandering Jew showed how Christian culture held the Jews (rather than the Romans) irredeemably responsible for killing Christ, refusing him even the dignity of helping to carry the cross to Golgotha. Our tour finished with the Jew as a wandering pedlar, before Enlightenment figures like Moses Mendelssohn and David Friedländer began to argue for Jewish emancipation and integration into a broader German identity.

What this tour showed was that the Jews have a history of exclusion from and, at times, inclusion in German society. Exclusion in medieval and early modern Germany differed from that in the early-mid twentieth century in being motivated mainly by religion rather than race. In this sense, it placed the well-known horrors of recent Jewish experience in a broader, more complex historical context. Interestingly, the museum’s agenda fitted well with our previous visit to the Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur. Public history in the Jewish Museum is not a dry narrative of irrelevant, if often shocking, past events; it is used to prompt visitors to think about how the past shapes a present full of religious, parochial, cultural, intellectual and ideological tensions. It is also used to prompt visitors to think about how identity can be constructed in this shifting environment, how one can be both German and Jewish, given the long history of exclusion from mainstream society suffered by the Jews.

Jonathan Durrant researches and lectures on early modern history: in particular gender history, the history of witchcraft and deviance, and history as entertainment.

Jewish Museum, Berlin
Inside the Jewish Museum, Berlin. Photo: Caitlin Freitag.

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