From Ground Zero to the heavens — a design to heal

BERLIN — Daniel Libeskind is coming back to New York to help heal the wounds created on Sept. 11.

He won't be working with words or medicine, but with stone, cement, glass and steel.

"My hopes are that out of the tragedy that happened, from the depths of the ground, something will soar into the life of New York that reaffirms the values we share: democracy and family and freedom and independence," said Libeskind, whose architectural designs were chosen to replace the World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The decision, announced Feb. 27 in New York, means both a homecoming for Libeskind and the weaving together of themes that wind through much of his work: openness, contrast of dark and light, the interplay of memory and dreams for the future.

While Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin is a sprawling zigzag that hugs the earth, his main tower in Manhattan would soar toward the heavens.

Yet the two designs have something in common: Both contain elements of sadness and hope.

"I have learned many things" through working in Berlin, including that "one has to believe the future holds something better than the past," Libeskind, 57, said.

Like his Jewish Museum, which contains a space for meditation on the destruction of European Jewry, the design for lower Manhattan includes a memorial at the original foundation of the World Trade Center, where some 2,800 people were killed.

Relatives of some victims already have said they appreciate the fact that Libeskind did not want to build over the pit.

Libeskind was born in Poland in 1946 to two Holocaust survivors. He became an American citizen in 1965, and studied music in Israel and New York.

He was described as a musical genius but ultimately decided to study architecture, earning degrees in 1970 from New York City's Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and in 1972 from the School of Comparative Studies at Essex University in England.

Libeskind and his wife, Nina, moved to Berlin with their three children in 1989, after Libeskind won the competition to design the city's Jewish Museum.

It was his first contract, but his first completed building was the Felix Nussbaum Haus, a museum that opened in Osnabrick, Germany, in July 1998. His Imperial War Museum in North Manchester, England, opened in July 2002.

He designed a new home for the Jewish Museum San Francisco, but financial problems have put that project on hold.

The Jewish Museum, the work for which he is most famous, was completed in 1999. Its unique design drew hundreds of thousands of visitors even while the building was still empty.

The museum was to open to the public on Sept. 11, 2001, but the event was postponed two days because of the tragic events in the United States.

"When the attacks happened, I felt personally attacked," Libeskind said in a telephone interview from his Berlin office. "My brother-in-law worked for 30 years in that tower. He had just retired," and so escaped the fate of thousands of others.

Working on the Berlin museum "prepared me to compete for the project in New York," Libeskind said. "I believe the memory of what happened" in New York "is an eternal part of the place and has to be seriously addressed. And it is so important to also have something that soars."

Libeskind's museum has changed Berlin: One of Germany's most visited institutions, its exhibits on nearly 2,000 years of German Jewish life are expecting their 1 millionth visitor, according to Eva Soederman, press spokesperson for the Jewish Museum.

Berlin also changed the Libeskind family — in particular, his daughter Rachel, who became a bat mitzvah here one day before the gala opening of her father's building.

Speaking to the Oranienburgerstrasse congregation that morning, Rachel said the history around every corner in Berlin had affected her self-awareness as a Jew.

"I am the most religious member of the family," she said.

"That still is true," her father said with a laugh. "And she will bring that to New York, a city that has a vital and deeply rooted Jewish community. That is one of the reasons I am happy we are going there.''

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.