Behind the Headlines: Berlin Has Marks for Jewish Museum, but Not Nearly Enough to Build It
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Behind the Headlines: Berlin Has Marks for Jewish Museum, but Not Nearly Enough to Build It

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From Prussian -inspired monuments to buildings made infamous by the Nazis, Berlin’s architecture has always provoked debate over meaning and purpose.

The latest dispute is over a building that does not yet exist: a planned extension of the Berlin Museum to house a Jewish collection.

City officials on Tuesday approved an outlay of some $1.7 million for “further planning,” assuring continuation of a project whose future was unsure only a few weeks ago.

Heinz Galinski, leader of Germany’s Jewish community and head of the Berlin community, said he was satisfied that the city had taken “the first real step” toward building the museum.

“After so many years of talks, I’m pleased the project is taking off,” he said.

But the municipality’s expenditure for the museum is a far cry from the originally planned allocation of about $8 million, which would have allowed construction to begin in 1992.

At a minimum, the project — scheduled for completion by 1995, at a total cost of nearly $69 million — will now face a year or two of delays.

And the budget decision, which followed weeks of suggestions by local politicians that the museum would have to be delayed for up to five years until other projects are completed, has left some people uncomfortable over the city’s seeming lack of commitment to build a Jewish museum.

“It is the commitment of money that makes a project real,” said Daniel Libeskind, the architect who designed the extension.

“There are many examples of buildings planned down to the last detail which were never built,” he added.


The director of the Berlin Museum, Rolf Bothe, a staunch supporter of the project, said he feared future financial decisions that could even further delay the construction.

“But I’m not so angry anymore, because at least this means the project can now be worked on and prepared,” he said.

Berlin has been racked by financial troubles, brought on by reunification and the end of Bonn’s special economic assistance to the formerly divided city. Facing the need to invest heavily in infrastructure projects such as roadways, the city has been trying to juggle its financial requirements.

In addition, the city’s campaign to become host of the Olympic Games in 2000 has forced huge outlays. This year, the city spent more than $7.4 million toward preparing its bid, and the amount will exceed $22.8 million next year, officials say.

It is precisely this juxtaposition of the Olympic Games and the Jewish museum — whether intended or not — that has upset some people, who recall the last time the Olympics were held here amid draped Nazi flags in 1936.

Bothe and others have criticized city officials for putting Olympics ahead of the Jewish museum.

“It’s better to pay for a Jewish museum than the Olympics,” Bothe said Tuesday. “The Jews don’t need this museum. They know their culture, history. We are the ones who need this, to show the average German pupil or person the history here.”

Leading Jewish figures elsewhere have also commented on the disparity and said it is ill-advised to postpone the Jewish wing.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles based Simon Wiesenthal Center, told Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen in a letter that the Olympics come and go, whereas “a vibrant Jewish museum” in Berlin would be “a timeless message.”


A curator of the Amsterdam Jewish Museum, Rabbi Edward van Voolen, called it “scandalous that a historical museum in Berlin does not occupy itself extensively with the ominous role Berlin played during the Nazi regime.”

In New York, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, raised the specter of Nazi flags over the 1936 Olympics and said that for Germans to avoid “their own history is a disgrace.”

The debate over the museum has become a polemic over how a united Germany faces its past and the role Jews once played here. Although prewar Berlin had a thriving and vibrant Jewish community, 185,000-strong, there is no one central museum in the city that commemorates the community’s contributions and, finally, destruction.

The Jewish collection, such as it is, is spread between two museums, a poor substitute for a fitting memorial to the former Jewish presence here, said Vera Bendt, chief curator of the Jewish collection in the Berlin Museum.

“You have a museum here for dogs, for dolls and lots of things, but nothing for Jewish history,” she added.

When the city, after a decade of discussion, decided to move ahead with plans for a Jewish museum wing, the proposal picked was the disturbing, jagged creation by 45-year-old Libeskind.

Polish-born Libeskind, whose parents lost many relatives in the Holocaust, is an internationally acclaimed architect with an illustrious teaching and design career. Educated in the United States, Libeskind brought a unique perspective to the needs of such a museum.

“Even though I am not German,” said Libeskind, “I am really from here. It is as if I have worked on this project my whole life.”


Libeskind’s design is aimed at confronting and shocking the museum-goer: shaped like a lightening bolt, a long corridor running through the center creates a “void,” to represent the city’s missing Jewish presence. Visitors will enter the extension by an underground passageway connecting to the main museum.

For Libeskind, it was important to create a structure which would force the viewer to confront the role Jews once played here and then the emptiness their forced departure created.

On one side of a wall, for example, one might find a painting by renowned Jewish painter Max Liebermann. On the other side, there could be his deportation order and the suicide note by his wife, explained Libeskind.

“The delay of the museum plays into the hands of everyone who doesn’t want it,” he said.

“As if the implications of the Holocaust could be counted in terms of money — it can’t be calculated. To calculate with a red pen is to use the same logic that led to the Holocaust,” Libeskind said.

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