Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ich Bin Ein Berliner (4)

4. The Jewish Museum

Oranienstrasse from Moritz Platz to Manteuffelstrasse in the Kreuzberg district has an old Berkeley/Haight-Ashbury buzz.

It is a low-rent area with a mixed crowd of young people in the shabby-hip cafes, old people on park benches and at bus-stops, an eclectic potpourri of gays, students, artists, shopkeepers and a high percentage of Turks who call this neighborhood home. There are Thai and middle-eastern and tapas and Indian restaurants, an all-hemp store, fashion forward clothing and shoe stores, and a mosque; Turkish women in headscarves and long coats push strollers up the boulevard, past the the shoe stores and the Bateau Ivre coffeehouse, the newsstands and Turkish markets.

This end of Oranienstrasse seems poised for redevelopment; its grubby pre-War look will turn with the city's fortunes and, as in every other metropolis, this particular scene will move on, finding some remaining neighborhood where the rents are low and the prices correspondingly cheap.

After shopping for shoes and browsing bookstores, I lunch at Papa Nô, one of a small chain of Japanese/Asian/Fusion restaurants. My large platter of sushi rolls is fresh and tasty, with generous servings of pickled ginger and wasabi. It satisfies a craving that is hard to slake in Venice, where sushi is very expensive. I order way too much food and beer and eat for less than 15 euros. At the table next to me three white-haired women eat Thai noodles, and beyond them a mother and her four-year-old son are eating toro maki. The restaurant fills with a lunchtime crowd you would see in a university town.

Beyond the Moritz Platz subway stop, Oranienstrasse becomes more upscale; this area is part of the ongoing redevelopment of the Kreuzberg district, a vast wasteland after the war, and, since the eighties, the locus of intense residential development.

At Lindenstrasse, Oranienstrasse becomes Rudi-DutschkeStrasse. It is a short walk from there to Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing into West Berlin, but if you turn south onto Lindenstrasse the avenue fills with innovative, postmodern, often controversial blocks of apartment buildings arranged around gardens and courtyards. The decision was made to retain the war-ravaged Victoria Insurance Building (1906), an ornate Italianate red-stone palazzo in a style seen throughout the northern Midwest of the US, from Chicago to St. Paul. I walk through a bomb-scarred entry portal that resembles a Roman mausoleum. Across the green interior courtyard is a modern palazzo by Arato Isozaki.

The Jewish Museum is a couple blocks beyond the Victoria Insurance Building. The entrance is an elegant Courthouse built in 1735; Daniel Liebsekind's complex zinc-walled structure rises beside and behind it. The zinc, over time, will change and discolor, but for now it has a brilliant silver sheen.

Once you pass from the old to the new building, your are in a foreign and challenging geography. The building does not function like normal buildings, but it draws you into its surprising and enigmatic interior.

According to the Museum:

"The façade of the Libeskind Building barely enables conclusions to be drawn as to the building's interior, the division of neither levels nor rooms being apparent to the observer. Nevertheless, the positioning of the windows – primarily narrow slits – follows a precise matrix. During the design process, the architect Daniel Libeskind plotted the addresses of prominent Jewish and German citizens on a map of pre-war Berlin and joined the points to form an 'irrational and invisible matrix' on which he based the language of form, the geometry and shape of the building."

Initially the building is a series of conceptual experiences, "voids" in the architect's terminology. The "Holocaust Tower" is a blank concrete space. Only one thin shaft of sun falls through its high and narrow window and the sounds of traffic from outside and of children playing in a nearby park echo quietly. That is all there is. It is neither air-conditioned nor heated; today it is cold. I imagine in the summer it is hot. It resonates with prison spaces and cattle cars. Liebeskind calls it "a place of remembrance," a "voided void."

A group of German elementary schoolers enter the void with their teacher in a respectful silence. They will know what this all means by the time they leave.

The Garden of Exile lies along an upwardly sloping axis. I step outside into a grid of forty-nine tall columns filled with earth; shrubbery sprouts from their tops overhead. It is the only square space in the entire building. Liebeskind: "It represents a shipwreck of history."

The "Memory Void" is on an axis between the Holocaust Tower and the Garden of Exile. This concrete void rises over a sea of faces that cover the floor like a layer of autumn leaves on the sidewalk in October. The faces are welded from sheets of iron and as you walk over them they clank loudly, echoing on the concrete walls.

In addition to these conceptual spaces around which the building unfolds are galleries that tell a long tale of Jewish history. The walls are filled with archival historical material and family photos, inventions and portraits, books and furniture carefully assembled to tell a story of Jewish history, of German Jewish history, of Berlin Jewish history from antiquity to Kristallnacht and beyond, the mad world of the Third Reich and the historical fact now known as the Holocaust.

More German students, elementary schoolers, watch and listen as guides walk them through. It has taken a lot to reach this point; the collection, which you are at first barely aware of behind the towering voids, is vast. I can barely take it all in, and focus on the bits that speak to me most. These children are being shown everything. No punches are pulled. It is all carefully explained.

A group if Italian school kids slowly moves past me. I am writing in my notebook, transcribing the some text from a museum placard. A saucy ragazza of 16 or 17 saunters up, looks, whips out her cellphone, snaps a picture of the text, glancing at me -- the megalithic old geezer with pad and pen -- and moves on, smiling, on as I finish writing.
The typescript in the case is dated April, 1945, the month and year of my birth. The paper is yellowed; the typing, heavily scribbled over in blue ink, is in black all caps, like a teletype:


Beside the typescript is the typewriter upon which it was written and the camera with which Levin's photographer companion took first pictures of the horror.

A bit beyond, on a large flat screen, Hannah Arendt, in a 1964 television interview, describes first hearing about Auschwitz. The key date, she ways, was not 1933 -- the Reichstag Fire, the Enabling Act, the Nazi coup. The key date was 1943, when they first heard about Auschwitz and couldn't believe it. "But half a year later," she continues, "it was proven to us. That was the real shock. We knew they were capable of anything; but not that..."

""I'm not referring to numbers. I am referring to bodies."

"This should never have happened," she says. "And none of us can come to terms with that."

It is hard to remember and easy to forget. There are few living who can remember the war, and the generations since are many. I am surrounded by school children as I stand here weeping, as they are being told the same story. I can't stop it from happening again. They can. At least, if learning history prevents repeating it, they are being given a leg up.



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