Berlin's Quandary: A Difficult Past
After a decade-long debate, a museum dedicated to Germany's Jews has opened in Berlin, but it's still empty. Construction on a memorial to the Holocaust is set to begin in January. Is the specter of the past getting in the way of the city's bright new image?
Now that Berlin is being reborn as Germany's capital, many awkward remnants of its tumultuous past are starting to slip out of sight. Fresh plaster and new construction increasingly cover the traces of World War II, and the hundred-mile-long wall that once divided the city has all but vanished.
Yet coinciding with the removal of these wounds are two major projects that spotlight Berlin's former role as the command center of the Holocaust. Both projects--the new Jewish Museum and a German national Holocaust memorial--have been hard-fought, entailing repeated delays and anguished debate. Both involve radical architectural achievements that mirror the quandary faced by a society made up of perpetrators, bystanders, and their descendants searching to perpetuate the memory of their country's own victims.
The museum's design, by Polish-born architect Daniel Libeskind, aims at nothing less than physically embodying the scarcity of Jews in today's Germany. From above, its jagged outline resembles a lightning bolt or a massive serpent undergoing shock treatment. Inside, the focal point is emptiness. Unusual as it may seem for a museum, that emptiness has been the primary thing on display since the institution opened its doors early this year. Even empty, the spectacular building is drawing crowds who wander through the gaping zigzag space swept up in a mix of exhilaration, bewilderment, and awe.
The five-story building will soon close again for several months while its vast galleries are filled with an exhibition due to go on view in the fall of 2000. But the searing sense that something is missing will be permanently preserved, since the zinc-clad structure has at its very core a series of unheated concrete chasms, or chambers, that Libeskind calls "voids."
The Jewish Museum has been more than a decade in the making. It was originally conceived as a separate department of the existing city museum in West Berlin. In a competition held for its design, Libeskind won first prize--just five months before the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall. After the city was reunified, it faced a burgeoning deficit, and there were calls to postpone or even cancel the planned addition. Libeskind asserted that "the conscience of Berlin as the new capital of Germany depends on this," and international protests helped ensure that construction would go ahead.
By the time the contorted façade had risen in the bomb-scarred neighborhood of Kreuzberg, the Berlin city government was embroiled in an ugly turf battle with Israeli art expert Amon Barzel, hired as the museum's first director. Municipal authorities steadfastly refused to grant Barzel curatorial autonomy. He, in turn, accused them of anti-Semitism. The city ended up firing Barzel in 1997, to the dismay of leaders of the 10,000-member local Jewish community. Meanwhile, as Berlin prepared to reassume its status as Germany's capital, what was originally envisioned as a local institution solely devoted to Berlin Jewry had taken on a broader significance.
With Berlin newspapers warning that the museum deadlock was becoming a dire embarrassment, a high-profile American team was called in last year to smooth the project's launch. The Americans have since gained full independence to run a museum encompassing the history of German Jewry at large. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal is director; Tom L. Freudenheim, previously head of the Museums Program at the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, is his deputy. Both men were born in Germany, but as children fled Nazi persecution of the Jews in the 1930's.
Sitting in his wedge-shaped office on the museum's top floor, Freudenheim explained the unusual move to open the institution to the public before exhibitions have been installed. "It's such a far-out building, and it's so eccentric in its construct," he said. "People have been watching this go up in various phases. On top of that, it was a political football. Once the building was more or less finished, it just seemed a shame not to respond to curiosity about it." Visitors must make an appointment to take a guided tour, and more than 50,000 people have done so since tours began in February. According to Freudenheim, "Some people say, 'Leave it empty! Why do you have to put anything in it?' "
Ignoring such pleas, the museum staff is currently preoccupied with assembling objects to put on display.
Although the city museum did have a small collection of Judaica and other items documenting the history of Berlin Jewry, curators are actively seeking to expand their holdings. They're hoping that Libeskind's not-to-be-ignored architecture will stimulate donations of family heirlooms. A psychologist in New Rochelle, New York, for example, recently wrote the museum to say that a visit to the building in April made her realize that "the past is, and should be, shared." She offered a box, found after her mother's death, that contained letters sent from Buchenwald. "The box is as much yours as it is mine," wrote Barbara Falk Sabbeth.
The historical interconnectedness of Jewish and non-Jewish life in Berlin is central to Libeskind's design. Access to the Jewish Museum is obtained only through the adjacent municipal museum, housed in a Baroque courthouse. But the harmony and clarity of the older structure rapidly gives way to the disruptive confusion of 20th-century calamity.
After descending a black slate staircase, visitors enter a tunnel that leads to Libeskind's addition. The underground galleries adjoin an outdoor garden, which is steeply inclined. As you walk in the garden, a nearby apartment building appears to tilt and totter--reflecting what Libeskind calls the "nausea of instability" faced by those German Jews who managed to escape into exile.
Back inside, an axial passageway leads to a soaring tower that recalls the fate of the 6 million dead. A sign advises visitors to enter individually and let the heavy steel door shut behind them. The raw concrete space within induces feelings of claustrophobia and despair, with the only light coming from a narrow slit in the hushed tower's upper reaches.
In the white-walled upstairs galleries, visitors follow a path dictated by the twisted angles of the façade and interrupted at intervals by the voids. The overall form, Libeskind says, is derived from a deconstructed Star of David. The placement of the windows, which appear to be arbitrary incisions in the walls, is based on a matrix drawn by Libeskind connecting the former addresses of Jewish and non-Jewish intellectual and cultural figures: Heinrich Heine, Hannah Arendt, Mies van der Rohe, Heinrich von Kleist.
"This building invites associations and a search for meanings," said Bruno Cadorini, an Italian architect whom I met at the entrance, clutching the libretto from Arnold Schoenberg's opera Moses and Aron in one hand and Rainer Maria Rilke's collection of poems Duino Elegies in the other. Cadorini, who lives in Berlin and works part-time as a guide at the museum, energetically launched into an explanation of how Libeskind regards his design as an architectural completion of the Schoenberg opera, left unfinished after the second act. Cadorini has found additional resonances in Rilke's poetry, and museum visitors frequently have their own interpretations, many relating to the Holocaust.
But Freudenheim insists that, although the Holocaust will be an important part of the permanent exhibition, this is not a Holocaust museum. "Because the Holocaust is so integral to the physical structure," he says, "it's important that this be balanced by a sense that we're looking at German-Jewish history and life here--and the vitality it had over time."
The museum's permanent exhibition is intended to cover the history of Jews in Germany from Roman times to the present day. Blumenthal has vowed that it will contain "the good and the bad and the unimaginably awful." The initial show will focus on the years 1848 to 1919. The museum's permanent display will then grow piece by piece, backward and forward, to encompass all 2,000 years of the Jewish presence here.
Even when the exhibits are installed, the startling building itself will remain a major draw for visitors, few of whom are likely to leave complacent or unmoved. "It doesn't tell a final, fulfilling story," Libeskind says of his creation. "It doesn't offer a catharsis, a kind of 'I've seen it, now I can go on and enjoy the rest of my trip.' It keeps everything in suspense, in tension." Speaking of his own recent visit there, violinist Isaac Stern commented, "The atmosphere of forlornness and disorientation was so strong that for me this building says more than a thousand memorials, statues, pictures, or screams."
Some German commentators suggested that the building become Germany's national Holocaust memorial, thereby eliminating the need for a much contested plan to build a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Debate over that monument has dragged on for a decade, as politicians and the public argued the merits of some 550 designs submitted in two international competitions. Architectural controversies--particularly those involving the German state and its plans for the revived capital in Berlin--are copiously covered in the German press. The memorial dispute has kept editorial writers so busy that at least three anthologies of newspaper articles and magazine essays have appeared so far.
"It's not as if the Holocaust is constantly on the minds of eighty million Germans," federal cultural minister Michael Naumann told me. "That would be unusual. But it is certainly on the minds of the intellectuals, and it is certainly a constitutive part of our national identity. You'd have to be a hard-assed person not to feel burdened by it--and people do."
The most recent stage of the debate ended with a majority vote in Germany's parliament in favor of a memorial designed by another avant-garde architect, Peter Eisenman. While Libeskind's Jewish Museum is outside the city center, the new Holocaust memorial will rise in the heart of the restored capital on a five-acre site just next to the Brandenburg Gate. Until now, Germany has had no central place to commemorate the Jewish victims of Nazi terror.
Not every German wanted one. Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen fought avidly to block approval of the Eisenman project, insisting that his city should be "no capital of remorse." In addition, many intellectuals feared that German authorities were exploiting the memorial idea as a way to bury the painful past and put it behind them. They saw their anxieties confirmed in a literal sense when the 1995 competition awarded first prize to a design for a 20-foot-thick concrete tombstone covering an area larger than a football field.
Amid a furor, the tombstone proposal was shelved and a second competition held in 1997. Eisenman's design, which he submitted with New York sculptor Richard Serra, won favor with Chancellor Helmut Kohl. But detractors felt it had some of the same drawbacks as the tombstone: it, too, covered the entire five-acre site, this time not with one huge marker but with 4,000 concrete slabs arrayed like a vast burial field. (One competition juror likened it to "the Venus flytrap of Holocaust memorials.") Serra angrily withdrew from the project after Kohl suggested scaling down the forbidding structure.
Things were complicated further when, during the national election campaign in September 1998, the Social Democratic Party came out firmly opposed to the memorial, claiming it would be better to put the $10 million (the amount earmarked for the project) toward preserving the remains of former Nazi concentration camps. Kohl stood firm in advocating the memorial's construction, arguing that it "involves the core of our national self-understanding." After soundly defeating him, newly elected Chancellor Gerhard Schröder continued to voice ambivalence about the necessity for such a monument, insisting that young Germans today "do not need to run around with a guilt complex."
But many members of his own party and opposition figures kept pressing for the monument. Eventually Naumann worked out a compromise with Eisenman. This involved reducing the number of slabs by nearly a third to some 2,700 and adding a small educational center to alleviate concerns that the abstract, undulating rows of concrete might not be understood by future generations.
Construction of Eisenman's revised design is now set to begin on January 27, the anniversary of Auschwitz's liberation. "This will always represent a cut in the fabric of the city that will remain unexplainable," the architect says. "What I wanted the project to convey is that the ground in Berlin is no longer stable, sacred. In other words, it's the plane that no man occupies without some trepidation."
By selecting such highly unconventional designs for their refurbished government seat, the Germans are creating more than just emblematic structures for a 21st-century capital. The sharp-edged form of Libeskind's museum and the labyrinthine depths of Eisenman's monument will provide uncanny landmarks in a newly gleaming city where uncomfortable memories might otherwise disappear.