A Jewish Museum in Berlin is a memorial to the Holocaust, but not a Holocaust memorial. In the minds of some people, it is the only appropriate memorial to the Holocaust. Israeli museum director Amnon Barzel suddenly left in October 1997 after accusing the Berlin government of wanting to minimize the Jewishness of the museum, and of wanting to "show the Jewish people as a strange ethnic group." He argued for an autonomy from the Berlin Municipal Museum. Daniel Libeskind, the Polish-born American-educated architect who now lives in Berlin, is now essentially shaping the museum's future. The museum will be the first design of Libeskind's to be actually built. He is a conceptual architect--an architect whose works thus far have only been on paper. Now with the Berlin museum nearing completion and his current project--the "spiral" extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum, his work is finally being realized. Libeskind was born in Poland to a family devastated by the Holocaust. He says his designs shows that "you can't separate the histories of Berlin and of her Jews, except in catastrophe." His design is an extension of the baroque palace which houses the Berlin Municipal Museum. The two are linked by an underground tunnel, and, in both buildings, exhibits from Berlin's Gentile and Jewish communities will be shown together. He says, "If the neo-Nazis want to blow up the Jewish Museum, they'll have to blow up their own history at the same time."
And if you show them as Berliners, how do you do justice to the terrible historical fact that set their history apart from the Gentiles?
The building is shaped like a deconstructed Jewish star. Arriving in the new building from the old one, you are presented with three different routes,each one symbolic of a different aspect of Jewish Berliners' experience. One terminates in "the Holocaust void", a tall empty unheated space through whose bare concrete walls you can hear the muffled sounds of the city outside. It is lit up by a single high up slit that offers no view of the sky. Libeskind describes this space as "literally a dead-end"--an expression of hopelessness. Another passageway leads outside to the "Garden of Exile", originally called the ETA Hoffman garden, a close-packed forest of pillars open to the sky where no surface is horizontal or vertical--this creates a sense of the exile's disoriented view of the world. The third and longest route winds through the buildings interior. Its exhibits will describe the joint histories of Berlin and its Jews--it will show all sides of the story, "contribution, assimilation, then termination."
The Holocaust museum is powerful because as a record of life rather than a monument to death, it does not seek to encapsulate the unimaginable, but it also is a little kitsch with its Holocaust void and Garden of Exile. Libeskind even gives the stairwell meaning. As Amnon Barzel says, "there is no form of art that can express the holocaust," which is one reason why the Holocaust memorial project is floundering.