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With Its Jewish Museum, Germany Seeks ‘normal’ Relations with Its Jews

Berlin’s long-awaited Jewish Museum opens its doors this week, offering the public a depiction of nearly two millennia of Jewish life in Germany.

At the inaugural gala on Sunday night, the zinc-covered, angular building designed by architect Daniel Libeskind was dressed in a veil of driving rain and lit by camera flashes.

The museum officially opens on Wednesday, but on Sunday, some 850 invited guests — including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, President Johannes Rau and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — descended a slate and concrete staircase into the museum for a preview.

The exhibit’s aim is to connect a rich history with a hopeful future, mindful of the break in civilization that was the Holocaust.

“The National Socialists wanted not only to destroy European Jewry physically, but to have control over how Jewish culture and German-Jewish relationships would be portrayed,” Rau said at the dinner, referring to the museum of an “extinct” people that Hitler planned to build after he killed off Europe’s Jews. “That is why it is so important that in this museum we find images and witnesses of the German-Jewish relationship from almost 2,000 years.”

After visiting the museum, Schroeder said he always finds it “miraculous that there are Jews living in Germany today, and that we meet together as friends.”

The museum opening was “long overdue,” said Paul Spiegel, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Noting the increase in xenophobic crime in Germany, Spiegel said, “If one does not know Jewry, one can continue to see Jews as foreign.”

It was the late Heinz Galinski, former head of Berlin’s Jewish community, who pushed for such a museum in the 1970s, Museum Director W. Michael Blumenthal said. Many debates, architectural competitions and directors later, he said, “the not-to-be-forgotten story” of German Jewry can finally be told, “with all its struggles, successes and disappointments.”

The museum may provide a counterpoint to Germany’s national Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, to be built in Berlin.

The memorial is “a signal that Germany recognizes that the Holocaust meant a loss for everybody, not just the Jewish people,” said Norma Drimmer, former cultural director for the Jewish community of Berlin. The museum, she said, is a reminder that “one cannot think about German culture without Jews, and one cannot think about Jewish culture without Germany.”

Sunday’s ceremonies featured a performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The entire event was televised live.

The sense of anticipation was heightened by the fact that virtually no media gained entrance before opening night. In addition, an international group of museum directors, not invited on Sunday, held their own anti-gala party, and visited the museum the next day.

Critics had feared it would be impossible to create an exhibit that would complement Libeskind’s building, with its long, unbroken walls, sharp turns and jagged windows. Some argued that the award-winning structure — like a lightning strike in the center of Berlin — was a monument in itself and should be left empty.

In the end, however, critics appear to agree that the exhibit, as realized by Project Director Ken Gorbey of New Zealand, works. Many display cases are recessed, not interrupting the smooth walls. Some rooms are filled with material, while others remain relatively open and light.

Blumenthal and Libeskind were beaming on Monday.

“Everyone seems to think we have accomplished our goal of combining a very complex structure and exhibit,” Blumenthal told JTA.

Libeskind said, “I feel that the exhibits were brilliantly placed, and that this is a living museum. I am thrilled.”

The exhibit has a hands-on quality and includes artwork, books, Judaica and household items. Displays are both high-tech and down-to-earth, with computer consoles and children’s corners.

The museum deals with stereotypes, such as the notion that Jews are greedy. In that case, a display explains how during a certain period Jews weren’t permitted to work at any jobs aside from moneylending, thereby perpetuating the stereotype.

The religious meaning of Jewish rituals like circumcision are explained and the ceremonial instruments are on display.

The oldest item is a 10th-century book on loan from the Vatican, whose text refers to a Jewish community in Germany. In a space devoted to accomplishments of Jews in the 20th century, there is a page from Albert Einstein’s notebook, with the famous equation E = MCý.

There is a section in which Jews living in Germany today tell their stories with texts and objects, including a pint-sized Torah scroll from Richard Chaim Schneider of Munich.

The most futuristic offering is a virtual-reality depiction of the city of Wurms in the Middle Ages, in which computer-generated images hover in space as a voice explains each item.

One of the few rooms left unadorned is the Holocaust Tower, a dark concrete chamber that functions as a place for contemplation. Its door, when shut, disappears in darkness. Entering this room, a chattering group of visitors fell silent.

The museum also has an annex of sorts. About a mile away in a former Jewish quarter is the former brushmaking workshop of Otto Weidt, who saved some 30 Berlin Jews from being deported to concentration camps by employing them.

Weidt also hid four members of one family in a small room. The family later was betrayed and deported. The small exhibit created in these rooms by Berlin students has become a part of the new museum.

The museum is federally funded, with a budget of about $10 million.

Whether loved or hated by critics, the museum, already a landmark, is sure to become a top destination for Berliners and tourists. Even the empty building drew some 350,000 visitors from the time it opened in January 1999 until it closed a year later to prepare for the exhibits.

Germany already has several Jewish museums, including those in Frankfurt and Osnabruck — the latter also designed by Libeskind — at the Berlin New Synagogue and in numerous small synagogues that survived the Nazis. In these places, one can descend the steps of an old ritual bath or, peering into an empty Torah Ark, see Hebrew letters that the Nazis tried to obliterate.

The Berlin museum is different. This is no restored Jewish building, but rather a provocative modern structure. Its mandate is to tell the history of Jewish life in all of Germany, not just Berlin. Aside from Weidt’s workshop, the museum is not what Germans call “an authentic place” where historical events took place.

But the location in Germany’s capital city is significant. It symbolizes Germany’s struggle to free itself from the Nazi stigma and to establish a “normal” relationship with its Jews, both past and present.

These goals are virtually impossible to achieve, for it is the Holocaust that has made a Jewish museum necessary in Berlin. Like the empty spaces or “voids” that Libeskind created in the building, the Holocaust divides everything before from everything since.

A “normal” life for Jews in Germany is hard to imagine, compared with the Jewish life that existed in Germany in centuries past or compared to a modern center of Jewish life such as New York, where Jews are one of many minority groups defining the city’s character.

Germany had half a million Jews in 1933, when Hitler came to power. Today, there are only about 90,000 Jews in the country, three-quarters of whom came in the last 10 years with the influx of ex-Soviet Jews.

With the recent increase in right-wing extremist crimes, some Jews use the notion of “living with packed suitcases” to describe an unease similar to that of the post-war years.

On the other hand, Jews today hold a kind of fascination for many non-Jewish Germans. Klezmer concerts sell out, even when the musicians are not Jewish. Bagels are “in,” as are other typical Jewish foods.

In the early 1990s, a major Berlin exhibit on Jewish life and culture drew record crowds. Some non-Jews attend synagogue services out of curiosity, giving themselves away by opening prayer books upside down or backward.

That fascination with things Jewish is certain to draw many visitors to the new museum. But the creators also hope to reach those who don’t know much — or who think they know it all.

In addition, they hope to be part of the renewal of Jewish life in Germany.

“Once again there are Jewish communities in German cities, with synagogues, schools and an active religious and cultural life,” Blumenthal said. “Germany’s Jews are part of German history not only as victims, but as living members of society.”

His words echoed those of a young girl who, only one day before, stood on the bimah of a Berlin synagogue for her Bat Mitzvah.

On Saturday, Rachel Libeskind, daughter of the architect, became the first person in her immediate family to observe this tradition. She did this, she said, because she was influenced by Berlin, the city where her family has lived since 1989.

Tragic history is in Rachel Libeskind’s backyard, but so is renewal and celebration.

Her father’s museum is part of that renewal — and, now, so is Rachel.

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