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To Deutschland We Have Come: The Jewish Museum in Berlin

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We made it to Berlin Tuesday morning after what, as I had anticipated, was a wonderfully pleasurable flight, relaxing in the sauna, playing a couple of rousing games of ping pong down on the recreation deck, sipping mai-tais with the crew, and singing karaoke in the lounge. In my dreams.

Actually, as I really predicted, we were stuffed into our seats like sausage meat into pig intestines in the economy section of the 757-B. Periodically, they brought us drinks and what they claimed was food a couple of times. At one point during the "meal" a young, waiflike boy rose up at the rear of the plane clutching his small bowl and stating in his tiny but plaintive voice, "I want more." "More?!!" Bumble roared. "No one ever asks for more!" Well no, actually, that's in a scene from Oliver, but I presume you get my drift.

Sometime after feeding us they started running a movie up in first class, while in coach, they passed around a View Master with a series of pictures of various midwestern barns having "See Rock City" painted on their roofs. (The "3D" effect in that View Master is truly amazing. It's just like being there, standing in front of those barns. What won't they think of next?) America is truly a great country!

Well, once again, I must confess that I have been, how you say, pulling the leg. Ha,ha. Actually, we were treated with the very high minded and artfully understated film version of the venerable Starsky and Hutch. Again, I say, America is… yada, yada, yada.

The seat was so roomy and comfortable, the atmosphere so relaxing, I must have slept for as long as 10 to 12 minutes during the seven-plus hour flight. The only part of me that got any real sleep was my butt which remained pretty much numb for the duration. I did get an aisle seat as I had hoped, but of course that meant I got whacked in the arm or shoulder every time someone passed by in the aisle. I have the tomato juice and coffee stains to prove it.

Nevertheless, we did eventually land at Tegel Airport in Berlin with most of our parts and luggage more or less intact. We were also more or less on time, and my son was there to pick us up. After a cup-o-joe at the airport Starbucks (where else?) we drove into the city for a bit of sightseeing. We wound up at the Jewish Museum. Here, the story takes on a bit of a turn.

Any readers familiar with the museum know its scope and what we saw there. Suffice to say that it is not solely a Holocaust museum. It is primarily devoted to the history of Judaism and the Jewish people which, of course, includes the Holocaust. It is set up in three basic levels. The upper level recounts the early development of Judaism. The second level is devoted to the evolution of Jewish culture, society and family, culminating with the first years of Nazism and the harbingers of what was to come. The lowest level then is devoted almost wholly to the Holocaust.

We spent roughly two hours there, which would tell anyone who has toured the museum that we didn't really take in much. That, I suppose, is true. We had come more or less directly from the airport and our 20 or so hours since leaving home. Our exhaustion, coupled with my sore and swollen knees made the tour a bit arduous and painful.

Perhaps that is in some respects an effective way to do it. I'm certainly not suggesting that my situation is in any way analogous to the suffering endured by Holocaust victims. But discomfort is a theme that runs through the exhibit starting with the architecture. The new and larger portion of the museum designed by Daniel Libeskind apparently looks like a slash or lightening strike over the landscape when seen from the air. The building is fraught with odd angles, deceptively sloping floors and odd shapes. Windows offer small, almost tantalizing glimpses of the outside world. Interior "voids" offer just that – void, a sense of nothingness. The last of these voids and the largest, is a space of bare concrete, the floor strewn with "Fallen Leaves," several thousand anguished iron faces of the expelled and murdered Jews.

While, as I said, we spent a scant two hours there, the museum had a definite effect on me. The architecture, the voids and especially two features located on the ground level near the end of the tour were most disturbing. First is the "Garden of Exile." One enters through a deformed doorway leading outside to a space taken with several vertical pillars each having some type of willow tree growing at the top which, at least in early spring, look more akin to barbed wire. The walls, the floors, the aforementioned door and other visual aspects are all disconcertingly at odd angles rendering it difficult to navigate, apparently at times making people effectively sea sick.

Second is the "Holocaust Tower," which Libeskind describes as a "void of voids," also an exterior space – a triangle of concrete walls rising upwards perhaps 60 or 70 feet. As the access door is closed, one is suddenly aware of the isolation. There are no windows, only a small slash of light at the very top. On one wall is a series of steps, the lowest of which are inaccessible, reaching up to nothing in the dim light. A sense of confinement and claustrophobia rose in me almost immediately. I couldn't get out quickly enough. Apparently, earlier on, once someone entered the space, the door remained closed and would not reopen for around three minutes. They stopped that practice because too many people were freaking out in isolated panic. I left the museum exhausted, hobbled in pain and deeply moved. I didn't take in much of the detail – the small exhibits of photos, letters, bits and pieces of individuals and families torn asunder, lives lost – but the effect, I think, was the same. The scope of this hideous tragedy was not lost on this patron.

In what amounts to a sad footnote, all accesses to the Jewish Museum are blocked by large concrete cubes designed to keep all vehicles at bay, and it is necessary that every visitor go through security screening including x-ray just as at any airport to gain entrance. Security guards, cameras, and who knows what other monitoring devices abound throughout the complex. This tour made for a sobering beginning to our visit, but perhaps aptly so. It helps to put everything one sees and does in Germany in a different perspective. While there is much history, beauty, and greatness to be seen here, the Jewish Museum serves as a reminder that insanity and horror lie just around the corner.

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About Baritone

  • Baritone,

    This was a very interesting article. Thank you. I know you would have preferred it had been as funny as your last one on preparing to go to Germany, and the tour of this museum took the “funny” away, if not the fun.

    In what amounts to a sad footnote, all accesses to the Jewish Museum are blocked by large concrete cubes designed to keep all vehicles at bay, and it is necessary that every visitor go through security screening including x-ray just as at any airport to gain entrance. Security guards, cameras, and who knows what other monitoring devices abound throughout the complex. This tour made for a sobering beginning to our visit, but perhaps aptly so. It helps to put everything one sees and does in Germany in a different perspective. While there is much history, beauty and greatness to be seen here, the Jewish Museum serves as a reminder that insanity and horror lie just around the corner.

    What you saw in the excessive security the museum has is the result of Jews not properly defending themselves. We have the same kinds of security arrangements in the Central Bus Stations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion Airport, as well as most major museums, every single post office and government building, movie theater, and most major department stores or shopping malls. Civilization is a very thin veneer. Insanity and horror DO lie just around the corner.

    I do hope you enjoy the rest of your trip in Germany.

  • Ruvy,

    Thanks for the comment. Have you visited the Berlin museum? It’s quite impressive.

    The security was not unexpected, of course. It is sad that it is necessary.

    We have had a pretty good time so far, although the weather has not been at all springlike.

    Yesterday, we visited the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. I may deal with that in a later post, but obviously that too, was sobering. Happily, we went from there to Rhinesburg, a beautuful small town having a georgeous castle overlooking a large lake. My son performed at their opera theatre a couple of summers ago. It’s touristy, but quite nice.

    By the way – Dave, thanks for publishing this little piece.


  • Have you visited the Berlin museum?

    I’m not as well traveled as you are, Baritone. The only time I was ever in Europe was for a half hour stop-over in Rome on the way to Israel in the spring of 1973. I never even got to leave the plane, much less get a chance to whistle at the cute Roman girls.

    So, I never made it to Berlin.

    I have to be honest, though. I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable in Germany, or Poland or the European countries that comprised the former USSR. They are a Jewish graveyard, and while I can’t blame some German, Ukrainian, Russian or Polish teenager for the acts of his grandparents or great-grandparents, Jew-hatred is still alive and well in all of these places, no matter what guise it travels under.

    I don’t need it. And I don’t need to be reminded of the events of the 20th Century that made Europe a Jewish graveyard, either. It’s not healthy to view oneself forever as a victim, or to push that self-image upon others.

    But that’s me.

    You have family in Germany and hopefully will be able to visit to see your grandchildren in the near future, and to imagine your own descendants – drinking healthy amounts of beer and talking about their “Amerikanische Grosseltern” and their strange ways.

    Enjoy the rest of your trip, and do write about something that really impresses you – it doesn’t have to be a concentration camp, either.

  • Ruvy,

    I will write more of our trip here. Perhaps concerning the concentration camp. Perhaps not.

    I certainly can understand your feelings. Dwelling on such a hideous part of history is not pleasant.

    It is though perhaps more useful for someone like myself to take a little trip down horror lane, just to serve as a smack upside the head, as it were.

    Actually, we are not particularly well traveled. If my son were not living in Europe, I doubt we would have ever made thr trip. Even though we always stay in his apartment, eschewing hotels, the trip is always expensive for us as I am forced to shut down my business in our absence. So for us it is not only the cost of the trip, but also that of the lost business.

    Oh, well.


  • Well, now that this piece has been consigned to Cultural hell, I doubt that few people will see it, and fewer will take it upon themselves to comment. I originally designated it for the political arm of BC where all the action is, but the editorial sages deemed it inappropriate for political perusal. They keep things pretty high minded over there. Oh well. What can you do. (Sorry, my question mark doesn’t work.)

  • Silver Surfer

    Yeah, good stuff Baritone. Loved it. All of it.

    And for once it elicited a very reasoned response from Ruvy that didn’t include a denuciation of the British or an expression of his contempt for them.

    This time, it was directed exactly where it should have been: at the people who actually committed the crimes that led to Europe becoming a Jewish graveyard in the first place.


    All that aside, at least the Germans have been able to turn inwards and have a really good, long, hard look at their handiwork.

    The building and keeping of a Jewish Museum in the heart of Berlin was probably the very least they could, but at least they did it.

    Hope springs eternal …

  • Silver,

    Thanks for the comment. Glad you liked it. Ruvy is very passionate about Israel and his faith. While he is a bit (all right – very) militant for my taste, he is certainly genuine.

    We just returned to Indy earlier this evening and are understandably quite tired. I intend to continue with some posts regarding our trip, the stop at Ravensbruck, etc. I also have some things to say about international flying, some funny, some not.


  • Joseph Levin Brisbane

    I have read your articles and enjoyed them.
    Interestingly Zeev Gideon Korwan [in disguise, which he is most of the time] was a visitor to the Berlin Museum in 2007 and was identified by German security who escorted him quietly through a side door and the exit.
    A lion of Judah escorted from a House of Jewish memories when he had come to pay his respects to his Brothers and Sisters. Korwan apparently responded to the German gentile bodyguards in Hebrew with his words not complimentary!

  • Joseph,

    Sorry, I didn’t see that you had commented here until just now. I’m not familiar with Korwan.

    The museum, as I noted, is really quite stunning and informative. I’d love to go back sans my ailing knees and take more time with looking over more of the displays. Understandably, Germans are not particularly keen on discussing or otherwise dealing with the legacy of their Third Reich.

    I’m not sure when or if we will get back to Berlin. As my son is and likely will be living in Germany for some time, there is a reasonable chance we will revisit him within the next year or so. Of course, there is so much to see in Berlin and the rest of the country – let alone the rest of Europe – it’s hard to say if we will ever get back to the museum.

    Thanks for the comment.


  • Joseph Levin, Brisbane

    May Hashem shine on you and your family Baritone.
    Let us Jews remember everything that happened during the Shoah and let us forget nothing.
    As for the Berlin Museum, the fact is that these same German Gentile guards today who removed the Lion of Judah Zeev Korwan from the Museum,may be the offspring of Nazis who were involved in the incarceration of our own Brothers and Sisters during WWII. For this reason alone I would like to see only Jewish personnel involved in such a sensitive and precious memorial to our never forgotten beloved!
    Hashem Ehad

  • Ruvy


    aní Hoshev sh’atá tzaríkh l’hasbír l’kulanu mi hu Ze’év Korwan, ma shehú ‘asá, v’láma hu arí shel yehudá.

    tihyé barí, v’ha’ór HASHEM y’hagén ‘alékha,


  • MAOZ

    Why are the ONLY 2 Google links to “Zeev Korwan” to Blogcritics? (This article’s comments plus another article.)

    Just wonderin’….

    Not that I’m skeptical or anything….

  • Not a clue. Although I am the original poster, I am, alas but a gentile myself. Nevertheless, I was deeply moved by not only my experience at the Jewish Museum, but also our time spent at Ravensbruck a few days later. Pretty heady stuff.


  • Larry Cohen, Melbourne

    Baritone if you thought that the Berlin Shoah Museum was ‘Heady Stuff’ take a visit to Yad Vashem in Israel and then you will realise the unspeakable horrors that were perpetrated upon us during WWII. You will then come to realise why militant orthodox Jews are hornet sensitive about Gentiles running sacred Jewish halls of remembrance [Berlin].The Sovereign State of Israel has bent over backwards over time to make peace with the Arab. But the Arab like a rabid dog does not seek peace through his blind non-sensical hate of the peace loving Jew. We have killed off Nazism whenever it has tried to re-emerge in modern day society. We have eliminated all WWII Nazis that have come to our attention. We are Jews with a deadly purpose and are on a mission. Which is simply to ensure the survival of the Hebrew race in a world that Hashem gave to us as his chosen few! Hashem did not give Palestine to the Arab, he gave it to the Hebrew!
    Official Statement of The Jewish Defence League International-Australian Branch