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Empty Jewish museum a powerful draw in Germany

BERLIN, Dec. 4 (JTA) – Even though it is empty, the Jewish Museum Berlin has already attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors.

More than 300,000 people have already thronged the museum since it opened to the public in February 1999, and about 20,000 more are coming each month.

The exhibits, tracing the 2,000-year Jewish presence in Germany, won’t be in place until the museum’s formal inauguration, scheduled for next September.

What attracts the primarily non-Jewish visitors to the multilingual guided tours is the exterior and interior architecture of the building designed by Polish-born American architect Daniel Libeskind.

The building zigzags on a site near the old Berlin Wall. Seen from above, it resembles either a shattered Star of David or a bronzed lightning bolt, according to one’s perceptions.

The exterior walls are covered in zinc, with diagonal slashes across the facade serving as the building’s 350 oddly shaped windows.

Reached by an underground passage, the interior is marked by slanted corridors, one leading to the empty upstairs exhibition halls. Another points to the outdoor Garden of Exile, with its 49 rectangular concrete columns, each sprouting an olive tree. The columns are slightly tilted, leaving an impression of a world askew.

A third corridor leads through a heavy steel door into the Holocaust Tower, a high angular room of concrete walls, with a single slit of light at the unreachable top. When the door clangs shut, most visitors are gripped by a sense of oppression and suffocation.

Throughout the five-story building are “voids” – black-walled, permanently empty spaces – that embody the absence left in German life by the expulsion and murder of its Jewish citizens.

The museum’s Web site – www.jmberlin.de – offers a brief illustrated tour of the facilities.

“Few buildings have evoked the unspeakable with such clarity,” writes a Los Angeles journalist. So powerful is the impact of Libeskind’s creation that some visitors break into tears, and it has been proposed that the museum remain permanently empty as a mute Holocaust memorial.

Museum director W. Michael Blumenthal, who left Berlin for Shanghai as a young Jewish refugee and later became U.S. Treasury secretary in the Carter administration, will have none of it.

“The building’s purpose goes beyond its architecture,” he notes. “There were many Jewish citizens in this country and they were not always helpless victims. They lived here for centuries and were profound contributors to the life of their country. This is part of German history that must not be forgotten.”

A network of Holocaust memorials is in place or rising in Berlin and throughout Germany, but “without showing how Jewish Germans lived here as citizens, the picture would be incomplete,” Blumenthal adds.

The permanent exhibits will be divided into three parts. The primary one will chronicle the triumphs and tragedies of German Jewish history since Roman times. A second will focus on Judaism and everyday Jewish life, and a third will depict the Holocaust and the slow reconstruction since then of the Jewish presence in Germany.

Originally, the Jewish Museum was conceived as merely one wing of the adjoining Berlin municipal museum. It has taken more than a decade of stormy political debates and personality clashes to arrive at the Jewish Museum’s present autonomy and its status as the largest Jewish museum in Europe. The construction costs came to $65 million, underwritten by the Berlin municipality. The current annual budget is $8.2 million, of which the German federal government contributes two-thirds and the City of Berlin some one-third, says Eva Soederman, the museum’s spokeswoman.

In addition, the museum is seeking private donations to help support an information center, research facilities, interactive learning center, lectures, workshops, theatrical events and films.

Another appeal has been for personal mementos by German Jewish emigres to illustrate their former lifestyles and life cycles. The response has been so overwhelming that additional staff had to be hired to handle the incoming packages.

“Our emphasis will not be just on famous persons and names, but on ordinary people,” Soederman says. “For instance, we now have the histories of 8,00 German Jewish families.”

Adding to the research resources will be the transfer or access to the archives of New York’s Leo Baeck Institute and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

When fully functional, the Jewish Museum expects some 500,000 visitors a year. One reason for a year-long delay in its opening has been the need to install additional air conditioning and other utilities to handle the large crowds.

German interest in the museum has been intense, perhaps not surprising in a country whose media coverage of the Jewish past and present sometimes borders on the obsessive.

This preoccupation hasn’t been lost on Blumenthal, who spends a third of each month in Berlin and the rest at his home in Princeton, N.J.

“Each month, I arrive in Berlin as an American,” he noted in a frequently-quoted observation, “and I leave as a Jew.”

One Berlin newspaper interviewed visitors to the empty building, and quoted a student as saying, “I hardly know any Jews, but I want to learn about them.”

The article concludes that “the visitors are searching for continuity of the Jewish presence in Germany. They want to see Jewish life in Berlin once again.”

(Tom Tugend recently visited Germany as a guest of the European Academy Berlin.)

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