After the door clicks shut, it is dark, save the slit of gray light streaming in dully from the top corner of the room.
This empty silo is shaped like the steeple of a church, or the hull of a boat, but jaggedly cut, and stretches 79 feet high. Between hushed footsteps and a weighted silence comes the distant sound of air swirling. It whooshes and whistles and twirls like ribbon around a spool. It makes the silence all the more noticeable and uneasy, the void oppressive and haunted.
This is the Holocaust Tower, located in the zigzagging complex of the Berlin Jewish Museum. Its architect, American-born Daniel Libeskind, designed it with this emptiness in mind as an homage to the tumultuous German-Jewish history. The freestanding building is primarily underground, needing a lower level passageway to reach the permanent exhibit, and is a perfect representation of Berlin as a city and as a history. I began here while visiting, in the axes that orbited around Jewish people living in Germany between the ’30s and ’40s: the Axis of Exile, the Axis of the Holocaust, and the Axis of Continuity.
In a crisscross manner of angled windows and walls, where direction doesn’t seem to exist, it is as disconcerting to maneuver as it is to humanly wrap your head around the heaviness of this history, which saw foundations and developments right in this city. Behind glass sit collections of things. I don’t say things for lack of a better word, or to denounce their worth, but because that’s what most of these preserved pieces of people’s lives are: things. They are ordinary kitchen utensils, family photos, sculptures. They are menorahs and letters. But they breathe with lives that shared in moments, big and small, with them.
The uneven structure demands attention and caution. It is, in a way, the injustices mirrored in the floor plan that also houses everyday treasures of lives affected and, ultimately, desecrated by blind hate.
The Garden of Exile
At the end of the Axis of Exile is a door that leads visitors out to the Garden of Exile, executing the same, uncomfortable disproportion with 49 tilted towers of concrete that rise in strict rows. I tripped in places, and steadied myself in others, trying uselessly to center my balance but knowing, here, there was no such thing. and admired the olive willows that fanned out over the tops of the columns. It is the only place in the museum that creates a perfect square.
It’s similar to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, where the feeling of being in a maze overcomes, and one whose minimalism leaves the most room for reflection and understanding. Even with others around, and colliding at intersections, it hushed and isolated. But the olive willows the bloom above leave room for hope and a tomorrow that climbs above the past.
Cherchez La Femme
While I was there, a new exhibit on the next floor up, Cherchez La Femme, featured. It explored the customs of religions around the world and the controversy regarding headscarves. I’ve never considered that they are a universal tradition, worn by nuns and brides as well as women in the Muslim order, and I was happy to be made aware of that. We are more interconnected as humans than many would like to believe.
There were points made on the contradictory argument about how a woman chooses to dress herself, whether she is wearing “too little” or “too much” clothing, and testimonies through photos and videos of why women decide to wear headscarves, all of which converged at the societal uprising based on independent thought and choice. Displayed were posters from the women’s international marches following Donald Trump’s inauguration, and political cartoons of the xenophobia that has seized people globally.
I think a lot about how we are living in a juncture of history being made (seemingly) daily, and always right before our eyes. We are witnesses of the present, and bearers of the past for the future. Being surrounded by contemporary cultural and social protests, their influence on display in a museum, was and remains surreal. To look at it is to see the now, and the ghosts of eras gone, as they bleed together. But the exhibit reclaimed female identity and empowerment: it not only educated, but revived.
The Shalekhet Installation
Within the museum’s Memory Void is the Shalekhet installation, also called Fallen Leaves. Over ten-thousand open-mouthed faces, carved from iron plates, lay piled on top of one another and spread into an expanse of darkness. They symbolize the innocents victimized by violence and war, maybe scattered along the floor for that state of vulnerability. If you made a noise, it would bounce between the walls, settle into metallic faces, and return to somberness.
The Permanent Exhibit
Upstairs is centuries’ worth of Jewish history and tradition as people migrated through Europe. At the top landing, a set of stairs runs into a white wall, the story incomplete and, despite the cycle of oppression and intolerance, continuous.
A wish tree greeted me at the entrance, where a concealed staircase allows visitors to climb up among the branches and, finding a red balloon and pencil below, hung a wish of my own in the leaves.
Traditions of bah mitzvahs and Chanukah, tales of designers and artists, and various artifacts from the Holocaust took me through the religion and the tragedy–a bookend, in a sense.
I loved immersion in a religion that I really didn’t know much about at all before visiting. Most of my knowledge stems from history classes, but only those delved into the Holocaust. The context of the faith holds so much more importance to me now, and to understand their customs was a beautiful revelation.
The Berlin Jewish Museum
You can purchase tickets to the Berlin Jewish Museum here. I recommend reserving about 3 hours of your day to this museum, but if you have longer, certainly there is plenty to see here that you can satisfyingly stay longer. If I’d had another day, I would have gone back again.
Directions that best suit your route to the museum can be found here.
The Berlin Jewish Museum is, by far, my favorite thing that I did while in Berlin, and I can’t wait to pay a return visit.
Have you been the Berlin Jewish Museum?