Nov 2001 Journal

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The Jewish Museum Berlin Opens

' … and now the Germans love you to death!' That has been my mantra for a number of years, but I was compelled to reconsider it when the new Jewish Museum Berlin opened. In the light of what occurred two days later in the USA, the significance of such a gala event does pale somewhat. Nevertheless, the museum is a bold assertion that life does indeed go on - a sentiment in need of repetition in these difficult times.

Though unco-operative weather had settled on Berlin, arrangements, handled by the phenomenal Gräfin Isa von Hardenberg (Germany's première party manager), were close to flawless. Daniel Barenboim conducted 'his' Chicago Symphony Orchestra, playing Mahler's Seventh Symphony. Museum Director Michael Blumenthal had long ago invited Barenboim to the celebration and I loved having an American orchestra inaugurate the celebrations.

A seemingly endless bevy of young blond debutantes took care of keeping the guests dry with umbrellas. The former Berlin Museum, of which Daniel Libeskind's extraordinary new architecture is really 'just' an extension, has also now been allocated to the Jewish Museum and beautifully renovated. As Blumenthal explained in his talk, celebrity guests were distributed everywhere, so that no one should feel prejudicially placed. Although the 850 guests included an impressive array of celebrities (from Gerhard Schröder to Henry Kissinger), the elegant three-course dinner served was punctuated by only two speeches. The first, by Bundespresident Johannes Raue, was eloquent, recounting the entire history of German Jews al regel achat - which was well-intentioned, if excessive, for a dinner talk, and reminded me of being loved to death. Philosemitism lives! Michael Blumenthal spoke beautifully about the meaning of the museum and its significance for a Germany still uncomfortable with issues of 'the other' or with strange ethnicities and so-called foreigners.

Guests were invited to view the museum exhibition, the first time anyone had had access to the museum. So the element of surprise was something in which everyone shared.

The museum itself must be understood in the context of a reality different from all the hype surrounding its opening. First of all, there is the near-impossible achievement of having mounted a complex exhibition in the Libeskind building in little more than a year. This is a major accomplishment by any standards. Second, we need to remember that the opening of a museum is only a beginning: endless adjustments are made once the place is open to warm bodies using it, while labelling and object placement are constantly being rethought. Moreover, the complex technologies, which enliven most history museums these days, need a fair amount of shakedown time, and that is no different in Berlin.

Given all this, the museum is impressive. One may argue with this or that historical interpretation, or feel that the urge to make arguments on behalf of feminism and/or multi-culturalism is a bit heavy-handed. But every museum reflects its moment of creation, and those nuances will presumably change in accord with our own shifts in priority. I was especially impressed with a couple of low-tech vignettes: the 3-D stereopticon images of German soldiers in Jewish settlements on the Eastern front during the First World War (better than today's virtual reality!), and the full-sized Christmas tree, surrounded by photos of German Jewish families with their trees and a discussion of this issue in the early part of the twentieth century, not unlike the discourse one might have read about late-twentieth-century American Jews. I was personally happy to see that the German Jewish history as recounted here dealt with the porosity of borders that makes the entire concept of 'German Jews' a good deal less precise than the classical Yekke definitions would have it. Menasha Kadishman's overwhelming installation of faces lying in the largest of the Voids is also memorable.

As for the integrity of Daniel Libeskind's building - a matter of great concern to many - I was thrilled to see it enlivened by an exhibition, by a real museum. Having listened for many months to visitors asking whether it would work as a museum (I was never in doubt), or why it should not be left empty (a dreadful prospect), I was thrilled to see the building engaged in the business of being a museum - imperfect (was there ever a perfect one?), but engaging and challenging, ready for its real life as a dynamic institution in a complicated society. Will it keep the Germans from loving us to death? One can only hope.

Tom Freudenheim is the Director of the Gilbert Collection, London.
Tom Freudenheim

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