The Jewish Museum in Berlin is the best way to understand Jewish Germany past, and present

Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany

I don’t know quite what I expected, but I do know it wasn’t the stunning architecture, thoughtful exhibits and breadth and depth of coverage. I thought a couple of hours and I’d see the whole thing. I was wrong. Allow a whole day for this fascinating and comprehensive exploration of the complexities of Jewish history in Germany. It goes back to the distant past and moves into current times. It covers history, culture, daily life, religious ceremonies and way more.

Our New Book

Daniel Libeskind’s modern zinc-clad structure is attached to a historic building, making the Jewish Museum a true study in contrast, as well as fascinating inside and out, much of it laden with symbolism.

The idea of those who are no longer here runs throughout the design of the building and some of the exhibits. It is actually constructed around an empty space, and there are empty, unheated and unlit spaces to underscore the void left in the life of the Jews and German Jewish culture. For example, the Holocaust Tower is unheated, and unlit. It’s a dark and forbidding place, with huge concrete walls reaching upwards to a very high slit in the ceiling.

I spent well over an hour exploring just the bottom level before I realized how much time had actually passed.

Take the audio tour, it is a fascinating elaboration to the exhibit descriptions. Only a fraction of the story appears in the wall plaques. One exhibit, called Trial of Jews, depicts a series of woodcuts about a trial of a man accused of theft. Most of the story is in the audio tour. A tinker stole a wagon, but unknown to him the wagon contained the host used for religious service. The community was outraged and the tinker was interrogated, and tortured until he finally confessed to having stolen and sold the host. As more and more people were arrested and tortured, people were confessing to more and more bizarre things about the host, and more and more of it was blamed on the Jews. Finally 41 Jews and the original thief were brought to the bizarre trial and punished.

Museum makes excellent use of films - short and to the point so they don’t lose the viewer. Most are in German with English text running underneath but for others you can choose the language.

Films trace the very early roots of bigotry. There one on the Crusades and how on the way, the legions took the time to kill the Ishmaelites (descendants of Ishmael in the Bible, later identified with Arabs) for killing the "One Who Is Guiltless" - Jesus.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin is the best way to understand Jewish Germany past, and present
There are exhibits that touch on the spread of toxic information, including blaming of the Jews for the deaths during the plagues of the Middle Ages. Exhibits also make the point that when the population wasn’t blaming the Jews for diseases, Jews were flourishing in daily life.

In addition there are small scattered exhibits and short bits and pieces of history. A nook explains Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. There’s another section on the relationship between Judaism and Islam.

One amazing exhibit is about a woman called Glikl who left 7 books of memoirs - history, personal thoughts, daily life. It’s an incredible trove, and we get a glimpse into her life.

It was at this point that I realized I had already spent 2 hours and had covered only a small fraction of the exhibits. I began to run through the museum, racing the clock before closing. There were still some things that just caught me, and stopped me cold. A picture of an elaborately painted room - a prayer hall from 1738.

I paused in my headlong rush when I heard the strains of Jewish wedding songs. How many times had I heard them played at family weddings, including my own. There was a chupah (wedding canopy) and songs and prayers for the bride and groom. The section on Jewish family life also had sections of rituals of burials and funerals.

There were walls of family photos, even home movies of vacations and family events.

I learned that Chanukah celebrations with Christmas trees was quite popular with families in Germany. Part of the exhibit was a very clever cartoon depicting the gradual change of the menorah into a decorated Christmas tree. I stopped long enough to laugh and note that my father would have been appalled at the blending.

Few exhibits were horrifying, but one in particular was a short film in English made by the Canadian Film Board of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials – and the 17 men brought to trial in 1964. There was nothing graphic at all, just scenes of these people being brought into court. But it was the trial of the Auschwitz administration and the actions of the men indicted chilled the air around me. Joseph Klehr interrupted torture and puncturing of human hearts to pray. Another on trial defended himself by saying that he was always polite to the people he murdered. I stood transfixed, watching the short filme over and over, as if the ending might change, or perhaps lightning would strike the perpetrators.

The next section spoke to the attempts by Jewish Germans to return to Germany, or to continue to live there. There were the people who wanted to make it their home, but couldn’t. It was usually the children who could most successfully do so. For their parents the memories were too fresh.

As I went flying out the door (missing a few more excellent exhibits) before the museum closed it was clear that the Jewish Museum is an extraordinary place. By turns fascinating, horrifying, uplifting, it is at all times a reminder that we all eat, laugh, marry, cry. With understanding, perhaps, comes tolerance. And perhaps acceptance.

Read more about Jewish travel in Berlin and Germany

Have a comment to share? Like us on Facebook - OffbeatTravelCom and post your comment.

Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 23, 2016

© 2016