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April 18, 2004
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Two Cities, Two Tales

BERLIN — A great deal of attention has been paid in the last few years to the monumental new  Jewish Museum of Berlin, which opened empty in 1999, and filled up with exhibits two years later.

The controversy is not only about the way Berlin remembers the millions who were murdered, and the way of life that Germany destroyed. The building’s architect, Daniel Libeskind, has been chosen to design the memorial on the site of the former World Trade Center in New York — “Ground Zero” — as well.

To put it bluntly, the Berlin museum is not a success. The problem begins with the building itself. It is an enormous metallic zig-zag structure, irregularly slashed with window slits, entered as if a world apart through an 18th century courthouse that stands next door. The structures are situated in the southeastern fringe of the inner city that possesses little connection to its downtown life.

Inside is a jumble of exhibits. Almost any one of them would be interesting if you were to come upon it by itself in modest circumstances — as a restored shop, say, or a as part of a once-private home. But since the artifacts are isolated and strewn without order along a maze of intersecting corridors, ramps and staircases which, taken together, more nearly resemble steam tunnels than rooms, seldom does any exhibit rise to the level of the memorable.

Instead, the presence of a trio of statements about the Holocaust itself overshadow all the rest — a high-ceilinged Holocaust Tower, lit by a single slit; a Memory Void, in which visitors tramp on thousands of small cut-steel “faces” arrayed on the floor in gloom, as if at the entrance to an abandoned mine; outside, a Garden of Exile, consisting of 49 tall stone planters topped by a mass of verdant growth. These are moving installations, but they have little to do with the rest of the exhibits.

In other words, the museum is a classic case of an architect willfully ignoring the task he was given in order to do what he pleased. When it first opened, there was talk of simply leaving the building empty, or nearly so, since agony was so clearly what it was about. It would have been better if they did.

But since the building cost so much, and since a graveyard-like memorial to the victims of the Holocaust was already being built in the center of the city, the Libeskind building was transformed, as planned, into a museum. And since the topic is considered so important here, the museum has turned since into one of the city’s top tourist destinations.

Michael Kimmelman, a critic of the New York Times, put his finger on the problem in a review last week. It was true enough, he wrote, architect Libeskind had succeeded in creating “a formal rhetoric of suffering and disaster, of quasi- religious shapes and voids” such that it could be applied equally to German Jews as to New Yorkers. But as a museum, his design did not work. “Even pared back from the 3,900 objects it had at the opening, the exhibition is a smorgasbord of tidbits,” he wrote. “Visitors graze. Here are the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s glasses next to recipes for kosher food; there is a display about medicine next to one about Jews being burned.”

Having been conceived as a survey of 2000 years of Jewish life, the Berlin museum in the end has turn into “the epitome of kitsch,” he wrote, kitsch having been defined in the 1930s by the critic Clement Greenberg as a substitute sentimentality designed for masses “who, insensitive to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.”

Visitors to Berlin would do better at the Centrum Judaicum, wrote Kimmelman, the former New Synagogue in the city’s old Jewish quarter. The building was sacked by the Nazis, then bombed by the Allies; today it is operated as a small museum, with its own small permanent collection of artifacts. “New York, take note,” he concluded. “Substances trumps spectacle, or at least it should.”

* * *

Another illuminating contrast with the grandiosity of the Berlin museum is the Contemporary History Forum (Zeitgeschictliches Forum) in Leipzig. This little museum commemorates the other momentous story that Germany has to tell, the period of the country’s bitter division between East and West between 1945 and 1989, but it receives a good deal less attention. In fact it is superb.

Tucked in next to the famous Mþdler Passage, an 18th century arcade which contains the Auerbach Keller in which Goethe set the student drinking scene in Faust, the museum is part of vibrant life of the city around it. There are many reasons to visit Leipzig — Johannes Sebastian Bach’s St Thomas Church is there, the university is the second oldest in Germany — but the museum is designed to bear witness to its status as a “hero city.”

It was when 70,000 persons turned out after a regular evening church service on 9 October 1989 to chant “We are the people!” that the events were set in motion that barely a month later led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was the evening that the East German government first declined to use its water cannon and its armored cars to quash the demonstration. .

The museum in Leipzig is decidedly unsentimental. It sets itself firmly in opposition to the tendency to “Ost-algie” — the wistful itch that many Germans feel to explain that life in East Germany was not all bad after all. A brochure declares that its witness “stands against all trends towards minimizing and justifying the facts of Socialistische Einzeitpartei Deutschlands dictatorship, against the forming of legends and myths.”

The museum’s organizing core is a timeline wound around a central court, marking world events from the vantage point of Leipzig — mainly the Superpowers’ periodic confrontations, space races, foreign wars and internal dissent. The exhibits themselves focus on German history: the post-war devastation, the uprising of June 1953, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Warsaw Pact troops’ occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the expatriation of protest singer Wolf Biermann in 1976, events leading up to the fall of the Wall in 1989.

The usual mix of objects, film and sound-collage is strangely effective in telling this story. A hand-sewn party flag and the hopeful faces of at early meetings contrast sharply with photos of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald recycled as a holding center for political prisoners. Tanks crush the 1953 uprising. Three million East Germans flee to the West in the decade before the Wall is built. A television monitors displays scenes snipped by a censor from Czech films. A Bierman song calls out as hauntingly as any Bob Dylan ballad. A Stasi office is recreated, down to the most mundane details, the forms with which agents reported the behavior of their neighbors. The first tentative East German television commercials are played over and over again. Scenes from the giant military parade with which East Germany celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1989 are cross-cut with scenes of people fleeing the Wall. Willy Brandt stands atop it to proclaim the peaceful reunification of his city, his fine old face rendered youthful again by joy.

The most forceful image in the museum, however, is probably the one which first greets visitors as they enter. It is a photograph of “the Big Three,” Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and Harry Truman, seated outdoors in armchairs as they met in Potsdam in 1945 to carve Germany into spheres of influence — two old men exhausted by their wartime leadership and a bright-eyed, combative bulldog leaning forward in his chair.

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