In Berlin, Teaching Germany’s Jewish History





— There may be worse Jewish museums in the world than the Jüdisches Museum Berlin, which opened in 2001. But it is difficult to imagine that any could be as uninspiring and banal, particularly given its pedigree and promise. Has any other Jewish museum been more celebrated or its new building (designed by Daniel Libeskind) so widely hailed? Is any other Jewish museum of more symbolic importance?

This is the largest such institution in Europe, a national museum devoted to exploring the history of a people this country was once intent on eradicating. Is there any museum of any kind more laden with the baggage of guilt and suffering, of restitution and tribute?

So many museums now deal with recollections of trauma that Berlin’s fraught examples are illuminating. Ruin and relics are part of renovation here. When the destroyed Neue Synagoge was being restored, it was clear that the original 19th-century structure, with its ornate echoes of Alhambra, could never be reconstituted. So its extraordinary facade, rededicated in 1995, frames not a house of worship but a modest exhibition about a particular Jewish community and its once-thriving synagogue, while fragments of the original building’s altar are pieced together like an unfinished puzzle.

The Jüdisches Museum inverts the formula. Here it is the new — the building created by Mr. Libeskind — that invokes scars and wreckage. The old is suggested by its contents, consisting largely of text, images, reproductions and interactive displays that are meant to conjure a past worthy of celebration.


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