New Jewish Museum Berlin tells tales of past, present that unfold 2,000-year history of Jews in Germany

BERLIN — For some 20 years, Mary Harber has had in her possession a precious object — a Torah decoration found the day after Kristallnacht, among the ashes of Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse Synagogue

A German Jewish boy who found the object entrusted it to a woman, requesting that it be sent to his uncle in New York, or at the very least, that it end up in Jewish hands. For whatever reason, the woman never sent the decoration to New York, and she held onto it for some 40 years. That woman wound up in Melbourne, Australia, bringing the object into a secondhand store where Harber was working. When she learned that Harber was Jewish, she decided to give it to her.

When the Jewish Museum Berlin opened Sunday, the Torah decoration was included in its permanent collection. The museum was designed by Daniel Libeskind, who is also the architect of the San Francisco Jewish Museum.

“My granddaughter is a little cross with me,” said the German-born Harber, whose family fled to Australia in the late 1930s. “She liked to wear it as a necklace. But it belongs here.”

Harber, who was born in Bremen in 1923, was honored Monday at Berlin’s City Hall, where Mayor Klaus Wowereit thanked a number of former German Jews for their contributions to the new museum. Some 160 Jews with German roots from around the world donated objects to the museum, and many of them were here for the opening this week.

“In many cases, it is not easy to part with these objects because they bring back personal memories of a beloved person or a significant moment in life,” said Wowereit, to an audience of several hundred. “In the case of some of the exhibits, one can even say you have given a part of yourself in order to make it accessible to the museum’s guests.”

Wowereit was one of many German politicians involved in the festivities surrounding the opening of the long-awaited museum. Both Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President Johannes Rau attended a celebratory dinner for some 850 people on Sunday night, following a concert of Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The museum made the right decision by celebrating the contributions of Jews to Germany without focusing exclusively on the Holocaust, said Rau. “Today, it is not just young people who know only one thing about the history of Jews in Germany and Europe, namely that the National Socialists planned and carried out the genocide of European Jews,” he said in a speech on Sunday night.

“We must keep the memory of the Shoah alive. This building will help to do that, as will the exhibition we are opening today. However, that should not lead us to draw the false conclusion that the Holocaust is the sum total of German Jewish history.”

Raymond Wolff, the son of German immigrants to the United States, agreed. He moved to Germany from New Jersey in 1970 to escape the draft during the Vietnam War. Now, a streak of white and another of yellow run through his fire-engine red curls, a sign of the passage of time. His picture appears in the museum in a lighted display, along with many faces from the German Jewish community, past and present.

Today, there are nearly 90,000 Jews in Germany, 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.

Wolff admits that Germany was a strange choice when running away from the draft. But since he never cared much for America and he spoke only German until he reached kindergarten, to him it was a natural choice — as was that of the museum to not focus exclusively on the Holocaust.

The section on the contributions of Jewish musicians and artists from 1890 to 1930 was Wolff’s provenance, as a curator at the museum, and he was disappointed he couldn’t do justice to his subject.

“It’s a big story, 2,000 years of German Jewish history,” he said, lighting a cigarette from the one about to be extinguished. “It’s a big building, but there’s not that much space and it was painful making decisions to leave some things out.”

When asked whether he thought the museum devoted enough space to the tragic chapter of the Third Reich, Wolff practically exploded. Naming all the other exhibits and memorials in Berlin that already tell that story, Wolff said that Americans focus too much on the Holocaust. “Is that our heritage?” he asked. “To concentrate on those miserable f——g 12 years out of 2,000 is bad for the Jewish psyche.”

Wolff, who donated a dresser that his mother brought to America from Germany, added that his entire family thinks of him as a traitor for choosing Germany over the United States. While others are not as outspoken as Wolff, those involved with the museum did say that telling the long, embittered story of German Jewry should, in this case, take precedence over that of the Holocaust.

“The history of German-speaking Jewry is German history,” said W. Michael Blumenthal, at the opening celebration. The German-born American director of the museum spent the war years in Shanghai. “In this museum we attempt to tell it accurately and fairly…It is a history filled with enormous paradox, ambiguity and contradictions.”

One of the main goals of the museum is to be “a place where people feel comfortable asking,” said Michal Friedlander, the curator of Judaica. She said that many non-Jewish Germans “are incredibly curious… but feel very awkward” about their curiosity. And they won’t learn much through the usual packaged tours of Berlin, which barely touch on the city’s Jewish history or its destruction.

Friedlander came to Berlin in May after working for five years as Judaica curator at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. 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.

“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.”

However, 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 impossible acts in the modern age.

The museum, which has served as a source of controversy since the idea was born 30 years ago, is welcomed by most Berliners, Jewish and non-Jewish.

“It’s very necessary, especially as the Holocaust gets farther away and the survivors die out,” said Nicola Galliner, the head of Jewish adult education in Berlin and the daughter of German Jews who fled to London. Galliner returned to Germany 30 years ago, intending to stay two years. Today she is the organizer of the Jewish Film Festival here.

“It’s very important for Germans to learn about the contributions of Jews, and we can’t do enough on that level,” Galliner said.

Wolfgang Benz, the director of the Center for Anti-Semitism Research at the Technical University Berlin, called the museum opening the “cultural event of the year.” Benz said that Germans he spoke with at the celebration hoped that the museum would signify a new Germany, one that is “morally rehabilitated.”

“It is the hope of German politicians that the museum will serve as a symbol that Jews are welcome here now,” he said. “That this is a point of absolution.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."