In Berlin: A Tale of Two Museums

STANDING ALONE IN THE HOLOCAUST TOWER, by some uncertain primal instinct, I drew my arms around myself and shuddered. I don’t remember thinking about it. It was cold, as cold as Berlin gets in November, and without a jacket or scarf or direct sunlight I hugged myself immediately, shrinking up. The Holocaust Tower is an enormous and empty stone triangle that shoots up from an unheated basement, unlit but for a single sliver of daylight two dozen metres overhead, well beyond reach. I have rarely felt colder or more alone during this entire trip.

I’ve learned about the Holocaust, sure; in school, in museums in Jerusalem and Budapest, and from my own grandmother, who lived through the damn thing. It seems every Eastern and Central European nation has a Jewish or Holocaust museum. I have skipped many, but anticipated Berlin’s, since the modern metropolis is so famous for museums that they have an island in the middle of city devoted to them, called, appropriately, “Museum Island”.

The Jewish Museum is not on Museum Island because it is newer, designed by David Libeskind, an architect internationally famous for being weird, in the 1990s. The whole building is odd and terrifying, but the Holocaust Tower, whose purpose is so palpable that it feels dumb to even describe it in words, is by far the most affecting space. It forces silence and fear upon you like nothing else.

The permanent exhibit, then, is refreshing, not just because it sits under lightbulbs, but because it is impeccably well designed. Signage makes the route clear and unconfused, taking its audience on a physical tour through Jewish history, in Germany and elsewhere. This came in contrast to the Checkpoint Charlie museum a few blocks north, which I’d visited an hour earlier, and which is so astoundingly awful in its execution it’s a wonder anyone, at any point in history, has ever approved its design. (To make nothing of the fact that it cost 12 euros and the Jewish Museum is seven; what the hell are we even paying for?)

Checkpoint Charlie was the American-given nickname to the border crossing between East and West Berlin. Today it’s just a tourist attraction in the middle of a busy main street, and a house next door vomits up a maelstrom of information in four languages (Russian, German, English and French) on placards splattered across every inch of wall. The info is absolutely dizzying: at one point begins a mini-exhibition on a generous Swedish diplomat without any proper introduction, while the upstairs shoots off in every direction, mystifying visitors as to whether chronology even continues to exists after 1975.

So it was refreshing to walk into the main exhibit of the Jewish Museum and find directional arrows on the floor, a logical progression of facts and some neat interactive gadgets, like a dial of light that you can point to any country in the world to learn about how many Jewish refugees they accepted during World War II, or two big wheels that rotate to show the old Yiddish origins of modern Germanic words.

By the end of the exhibit I was exhausted and the sun was beginning to set, so I walked downstairs to the coat check but stopped to look at a crowd of employees and a few guests gathered in the main lobby. They were huddled around a short-haired woman reading Hebrew, which I recognised as a prayer, which is when I realised holy shit it’s Hanukkah. The woman raised her head and smiled, turning to grab the tall central shammash to light the first candle of the holiday, and suddenly a wave if sadness washed over me that I wasn’t home in Toronto, because I always liked that holiday as a kid, when my mom would light our old golden hannukiah that seemed so big, with the big rusty flaps that opened and closed on the mini-torah like one of my toys.

When the ceremony finished the crowd petered out, so I walked to the nearest metro, rode the train over to the Jewish district, found a nice quiet restaurant and ordered a bacon cheeseburger, because, what the hell, I’m still not that religious, y’know?

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