On our last full day in Berlin, we decided to check out the Jewish Museum, an enormous museum designed by Daniel Libeskind, chronicling Jewish history over the past two millennia. Besides our bunker tour with Berliner Unterwelten, entrance into the Jewish Museum was the only other time we had to pay admission fees anywhere in Berlin. At only €14 for a family ticket for 3, it was worth every euro, though!
As soon as we entered, I knew right away that this museum was going to be different. I had expected something akin to the Topography of Terror with more interesting architecture, but the Jewish Museum is much more than just a history museum. I’d classify it as an art museum, as well. I’ll show you what I mean in a second.
We visited on a weekday morning in October and were very pleased to discover we were there with only a handful of other people. In certain sections of the museum, we even felt like we had the place all to ourselves, which made the extra-wide hallways and tall ceilings feel that much more empty. As it turns out, that was actually Libeskind’s intention behind the design – the slanting walls, wide walkways, sharp angles, and empty voids are meant to symbolize part of Jewish history. Had it been overcrowded, it would have been much more difficult to see the significance.
The Jewish Museum is enormous, and since neither you nor I care to see this drag out over multiple posts, I’ve decided only to share my favorite portions of the museum. Just keep in mind what you see below isn’t even a fraction of everything that is exhibited here. You’ll need a good 2-3 hours or more to make it through the whole thing!
The museum begins on the basement floor where three different axes intersect – the Axis of the Holocaust, the Axis of Exile, and the Axis of Continuity. At first, I was surprised to see so much wasted space, but then I realized that was the intention. It lends to the feelings you’re intended to experience down here. This is where real people’s stories from the Holocaust are told through photos, items lost and found, first-hand stories, and other ways designed to pull at your heartstrings. This was my favorite part of the museum. I’ve never been the best of storytellers, but hearing or reading others’ stories is something I truly enjoy, even, like in this case, when those stories rarely have a happy ending.
Two things in particular stood out to me down here – first, the Holocaust Tower. It is, quite simply, a 24-meter-tall, empty room with no heating, where only a small amount of natural light filters in through a diagonal opening near the top. On a deeper level, though, this “voided room”, as Libeskind called it, is a commemorative space for the victims of the Holocaust. Similarly related, the other area that caught my attention was the outdoor Garden of Exile. Similar to the Holocaust Memorial, but on a much smaller scale, the Garden of Exile is made up of row after row of tall, concrete blocks. The ground beneath them is purposefully uneven, designed to create a feeling of disorientation. It is things like this, and everything in the next section, that I was talking about when I said this place is a bit of an art museum as well. It may not be art in the typical paintings/sculptures sense, but art nonetheless.
Back inside, we began to explore some of the other areas in the building, all full of interesting things I never would have expected to find in a history museum. There was an extra large room whose only occupant was a robot arm, steadily inscribing the words of the Torah on a long ream of paper at the same, slow pace a human hand would be able to write it. Then there was the Memory Void, containing the work of Israeli artist, Menashe Kadishman. In this installation, 10,000 iron plates that have been cut to resemble faces completely cover the floor, honoring the innocent victims of war and violence. Another favorite, of Lexie’s as well, was the pomegranate wishing tree where visitors are encouraged to write their wishes on a single pomegranate and hang it for display on the wishing tree. A winding staircase leads to the top, so the entire tree ends up filled with bright red pomegranate wishes. Walking through and reading the wishes of strangers was a real treat. (Especially the one that wished for a date with Bradley Cooper. Me, too, sister!)
While the majority of the Jewish Museum so far was more on the artistic side, we eventually did make it to the parts focusing on a chronological Jewish history. Now, I love history, like a lot, but even I can admit that at a certain point, it can stop being interesting. For me, pretty much anything over 1,000 years old will put me to sleep faster than a lullaby and a warm glass of milk. So the beginning of this part of the exhibit? Pretty boring for me, actually. Luckily, the deeper we got into it, the better it got. I particularly liked the sections on Jewish culture, popular culture, and the Holocaust. The section on the Holocaust was quite small, though, so if that’s the sort of history you were expecting to see here, you best look elsewhere. (In Berlin, a good place to start would be the Topography of Terror museum I mentioned earlier.)
So, while the contents of the Jewish Museum were radically different than what I was expecting, it was a welcome surprise. Our entire trip had focused almost solely on history, so doing something a bit out of the ordinary was nice. If you plan on visiting, keep in mind this isn’t really the sort of museum you can just wander around in and leave after seeing a few of the exhibits. It’s really meant to be visited and explored as a whole, so allowing enough time to do that is important. All of the information in the museum is in German and English, but if you want a little extra information and more stories behind the museum, grab an audio guide. We didn’t, but after being in the museum for less than ten minutes, I began wishing we had! Also, a few rare parts of this museum may be inappropriate for children (unless you’re looking for a good way to torture your children, in which case the circumcision exhibition is excellent!), but as a whole, especially with all the interactive exhibits and games, it’s a perfect place to bring the kids!
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