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In Berlin Jewish Museum, objects tell of past

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BERLIN, Sept. 9 (JTA) — A wooden Torah pointer that survived a fire is a mystery to Michal Friedlander.

She may never know the entire story of how this delicate object escaped the destruction of the synagogue where it was used. But she will listen carefully to what it has to say.

“Objects tell stories,” said Friedlander, the Judaica curator at the new Jewish Museum in Berlin. “And particularly interesting are the stories that are missing.”

The Jewish Museum, which had its official opening Sunday, is all about such “missing stories.”

The museum’s goal is to present the history of German Jewish life from Roman times through today, for a public that by most accounts is largely ignorant, fascinated — and afraid to ask.

Material for the museum was gathered through painstaking searches. Many objects come from Jews who fled Nazi Germany and today live around the world. There are nearly 90,000 Jews in Germany today, more than half of them recent emigres from the former Soviet Union. Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, there were about half a million Jews in the country.

“For me, this whole museum” is a tribute from children of Holocaust survivors, said Leontine Meijer, who joined the museum’s research team in May 2000 and has been in touch with donors from around the world.

Their stories have special meaning for Meijer, whose own parents survived the Holocaust hiding in Holland, but “never talked about it.”

“About 200 people responded” to the international call for material, said Leonore Maier, who has coordinated outreach to survivors since coming to the museum in mid-1999.

“It is true to a great degree that German Jewish history is over, past,” Maier said. “But I find it important to pass on the story so that it can live on.”

Friedlander spoke about the special importance of those who made donations to the museum.

“You can’t reconstruct the past without a lot of cooperation,” said Friedlander, who came to Berlin in May after working for five years as Judaica curator at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif.

Her parents — Albert Friedlander, rabbi emeritus of the Westminster Synagogue in London, and Evelyn Friedlander, head of the London-based Hidden Legacy Foundation — both left Nazi Germany for England.

The personal donations — from World War I medals to family photos to letters from concentration camps — make clear the new museum’s link to the Holocaust, despite every effort to focus on preceding centuries.

It is a Jewish tradition to remember sorrows in the midst of celebration, and this museum is no exception.

But this is not the museum about an “extinct race” that Hitler had planned to establish in Prague. Rather, it is spiritually linked to one that Berlin’s Jewish community started in 1933, a project aborted by the Nazis.

Jews in pre-Hitler Germany were proud to be both German and Jewish. The ravages of the Middle Ages, when thousands of Jews were raped, murdered or expelled from Germany, were not forgotten but were considered acts impossible in the modern age.

Today, many Jews of German background still speak proudly of their deep roots here, but the Holocaust destroyed their belief that anti-Semitic barbarities can’t occur in an “enlightened” period.

Susanne Fischel’s father and uncle fought for Germany in World War I, earning medals of honor.

“The sad thing is,” she said, “both were deported to Auschwitz and murdered. That was the thanks of the ‘Fatherland.’

“I think it is very good for the German people to see how Jews contributed to the German culture,” said Fischel, who was born in Berlin in 1919, fled to England in 1938 and today lives in New York City. She donated items related to her family’s World War I service.

Henry Oertelt, who was born in 1921 in Berlin and survived several concentration camps, lives today in St. Paul, Minn.

“We were able to trace our roots nearly 200 years in Germany,” said Oertelt, whose donation includes letters from his cousin Stephanie, a young musician murdered in Auschwitz.

“When I was living in Germany, I was a German of Jewish religion,” he said. “Today, people sometimes ask me, with my accent, ‘Are you German?’ I answer, ‘No. I am an American.’ “

“My family and many others wanted to be considered Germans first and Jews second,” said Ralf Unger, whose family left Berlin in 1937 for New Zealand, where he lives today with his wife, Patricia.

They visited the museum two years ago, when it was not yet completed, and after learning “that they were looking for old things, we looked through the stuff we had from my parents and grandparents.”

Unger donated letters and photos of relatives killed in Auschwitz, photos of his father during his World War I service and a Sabbath bread cover.

These and other donors will see their material on display in the museum on Monday.

In preparation, Maier, the museum outreach coordinator, engaged psychologists from Esra, a counseling organization for Holocaust survivors and their children.

“When someone sees his photographs or letters for the first time in the ‘Holocaust Axis’ of the museum, it can naturally lead to strong emotions,” said Maier, who for years worked as a guide for former German Jews revisiting Berlin.

“Sometimes they felt great resistance, fears,” said Maier, who is not Jewish. “I learned that I can serve a purpose, sitting across from someone who tells me the story of their life, their loves and terrible experiences, and just to listen.”

Friedlander pointed out that “one aim of this museum is to be a place where people feel comfortable asking.”

She said that many non-Jewish Germans “are incredibly curious, but feel very awkward” about their curiosity.

They won’t learn much through the usual packaged tours of Berlin, which barely touch on the city’s Jewish history or its destruction, she said.

As Judaica curator, Friedlander will fill in the details of the missing stories surrounding objects in the new museum — objects like the wooden Torah pointer.

It was found in 1938 in the rubble of a synagogue in Chemnitz, one of hundreds of synagogues destroyed by Nazi arsonists on Kristallnacht, the night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, when Nazi thugs ransacked Jewish-owned shops and set synagogues ablaze across Germany and Austria.

More than 60 years later, a private donor gave the piece to the museum.

“You can’t work in this field in Germany without looking at the dark part of history,” she said. “But the survival of this piece gave me hope that something is coming through from the past.”

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