Berlin Museum Launches Search for Artifacts That Tell of Jewish Life
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Berlin Museum Launches Search for Artifacts That Tell of Jewish Life

The walls of the new Jewish Museum here are bare, except for shard-like windows that let in slashes of light.

From the top floor, it seems the city’s pre- and postwar buildings unfold outward like petals around this silvery, zigzag heart.

Currently, it is a museum without exhibits, but Michael Cullen hopes to change that soon.

As coordinator of research, Cullen is appealing to the public for “stuff” for the first exhibit, which is scheduled to open in October 2000.

An ad campaign is due to start in June in German Jewish publications and major newspapers here, and in Israel, the United States and Britain.

Cullen wants material pouring in from all places where there are people with German roots.

“We are looking for everything and everybody and everywhere we can,” says Cullen, who was born in New York in 1939, son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He has lived in Berlin since 1967.

Cullen wants people to search their attics and basements for documents, photos, paintings, you name it — photocopies are acceptable.

If something is valuable, like a painting, the museum will consider purchasing it.

Cullen hopes to receive items related to the 1848 revolution in Germany, which was one in a wave of democratic uprisings across Europe at the time. He also wants items on Jewish life in the countryside and cities, assimilation and conversion, and Jewish cultural life.

“Religious life is only one facet of Jewish life in Germany,” said Cullen.

How will he convince people to part with such material? He simply quotes Barbara Falk Sabbeth of New York, who has been holding on to a box of papers about her family’s life in Nazi Germany.

“I realized while at your museum that the history that I have been trying to come to terms with is not mine alone, and that the past is, and should be, shared,” wrote Sabbeth after visiting Berlin this April with her sister, Eve Haberman, who was born here.

“The box is as much yours as it is mine.”

“Everything we get can be used to help educate,” Cullen says. “People should remember that there are stories behind these things that we should know.”

The first exhibit will focus on German Jewish life from 1848 to 1919. But Cullen hopes to receive items from all periods of history.

Cullen said 500,000 visitors are expected each year at the museum once exhibitions open.

Already, tens of thousands have visited the celebrated building, designed by Polish Israeli architect Daniel Libeskind, since it opened in February for weekend tours.

Some have called the building a sculpture in itself. Representing a broken Star of David, the museum is covered in gray zinc panels and is pierced by jagged windows.

It took six years to build the museum, and the road to its opening has been rocky, with fighting over who should direct it and what it should contain.

The city government fired the previous director, Israeli curator Amon Barzel, reportedly because of his universal and contemporary approach to Jewish art and history.

After former U.S. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal was hired as a replacement, he won administrative autonomy for the museum, so that he and Assistant Director Tom Freudenheim — both of whom come from families that escaped Nazi Germany — are free to make decisions about exhibits rather than work under the thumb of the Berlin city museum.

The museum’s mandate has likewise changed.

Instead of focusing on the history of Jews in Berlin, it will cover German Jewish history from Roman times to today.

Blumenthal has made it clear that although the Holocaust will be one theme, exhibitions will also focus on the vibrancy of Jewish life and culture.

Chief adviser to the museum is Shaike Weinberg, and Israeli museum designer who turns 81 in July. Weinberg was responsible for the design of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, in addition to several Israeli museums.

The estimated operating costs of the Berlin museum will be about $11 million.

Critics have said it does not own enough objects to cover its walls and fill its halls.

In fact, grass-roots collecting is under way. A team of researchers has been poking around flea markets, visiting archives and museums, picking up items that may become centerpieces of a display.

Each week, team members gather in the museum library for a show-and-tell.

This week, an old face-cream can, an enamel sign, cigarette tins, a folder of sheet music and a company log book were among the items set out on the black wood table. Each tells a story about Jewish businesses in the prewar years.

“It’s really a lot of fun to find things,” says historian Karin Grimmer, a member of the team. “Preparing for the exhibit is detective work.”

Grimmer said she hopes the public appeal will help her find descendants of William Buchheim, who had a small shop in Hessen. The family emigrated to Cincinnati. All traces stop with the names of his granddaughters, Hella, Esther and Rebecca, born in America during the 1950s.

“We need information about their life,” says Grimmer, who wants to create a display of this family business.

“It’s a huge project and it will take a long time,” says Freudenheim, “and hopefully it will go on forever.”

He is currently trying to contact Jewish former citizens who have been invited to visit their German hometowns over the past decades.

Cullen knows the museum’s search might conflict with the collection efforts of other institutions, such as New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

“I don’t want to irk or bother them in their quest for material,” says Cullen, noting that he is looking only for Germany-related items. “We know there is going to be competition.”

But there is also cooperation, including with the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, which focuses on German Jewish history, and with the Jewish museum in Frankfurt. Plans are under way for cooperation with the Jewish museums in Paris and in Vienna.

Why are Germans in general so interested in Jewish history? Why, some five years ago, was Berlin’s exhibit on Jewish life one of the most visited shows in recent memory?

“There is a large population which is desperately trying to find out what went wrong with its history,” Cullen says.

What went wrong does seem to be always in the background. But, he adds, quoting Blumenthal, “We are talking about Jewish life, not about Jewish death.”

If the current search goes as planned, it won’t be long before these empty walls and halls are filled with objects — and the stories behind them.

To contact the museum search team, write Michael Cullen, Jewish Museum Berlin, Lindenstrasse 9-14, Berlin 10969, or e-mail

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