Berlin, Germany


Jewish Museum Berlin


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The Libeskind-designed Jewish Museum Berlin, to the left of the old Kollegienhaus (before 2005).

The Jewish Museum Berlin (Jüdisches Museum Berlin) is one of the largest Jewish Museums in Europe. In three buildings, two of which are new additions specifically built for the museum by architect Daniel Libeskind, two millennia of German-Jewish history are on display in the permanent exhibition as well as in various changing exhibitions. German-Jewish history is documented in the collections, the library and the archive, in the computer terminals at the museum's Rafael Roth Learning Center, and is reflected in the museum's program of events. The museum was opened in 2001 and is one of Berlin’s most frequented museums (almost 720,000 visitors in 2012).[1]

Opposite the building ensemble, the Academy of the Jewish Museum Berlin was built – also after a design by Libeskind – in 2011/2012 in the former flower market hall. The archives, library, museum education department, and a lecture hall can all be found in the academy.[2]

Princeton economist W. Michael Blumenthal, who was born in Oranienburg near Berlin and was later President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of the Treasury, has been the director of the museum since December 1997.[3]


The first Jewish Museum in Berlin was founded on Oranienburger Straße in 1933, but was closed soon thereafter, in 1938, by the Nazi regime. In 1976 a "Society for a Jewish Museum" formed and, three years later, the Berlin Museum, which chronicled the city’s history, established a Jewish Department,[4] but already, discussions about constructing a new museum dedicated to Jewish history in Berlin were being held.[5]

In 1988, the Berlin government announced an anonymous competition for the new museum’s design. A year later, Daniel Libeskind's design was chosen by the committee for what was then planned as a “Jewish Department” for the Berlin Museum. While other entrants proposed cool, neutral spaces, Libeskind offered a radical, zigzag design, which earned the nickname 'Blitz'.[6]

Construction on the new extension to the Berlin Museum began in November 1992.[7] The empty museum was completed in 1999 and attracted over 350,000 people before it was filled and opened on September 9, 2001.[8]


Oleaster in the Garden of Exile with the Museum’s main building in the background.

The Jewish Museum Berlin is located in what was West Berlin before the fall of the Wall.[9] Essentially, it consists of two buildings – a baroque old building, the “Kollegienhaus” (that formerly housed the Berlin Museum) and a new, deconstructivist-style building by Daniel Libeskind. The two buildings have no visible connection above ground.

The Libeskind building, consisting of about 161,000 square feet (15,000 square meters), is a twisted zig-zag and is accessible only via an underground passage from the old building. For Libeskind “The new design, which was created a year before the Berlin Wall came down was based on three conception that formed the museum’s foundation: first, the impossibility of understanding the history of Berlin without understanding the enormous intellectual, economic and cultural contribution made by the Jewish citizens of Berlin, second, the necessity to integrate physically and spiritually the meaning of the Holocaust into the consciousness and memory of the city of Berlin. Third, that only through the acknowledgement and incorporation of this erasure and void of Jewish life in Berlin, can the history of Berlin and Europe have a human future.”[10] A line of "Voids," empty spaces about 66 feet (20 m) tall, slices linearly through the entire building. Such voids represent "That which can never be exhibited when it comes to Jewish Berlin history: Humanity reduced to ashes.”[11]

In the basement, visitors first encounter three intersecting, slanting corridors named the “Axes.” Here a similarity to Libeskind’s first building – the Felix Nussbaum Haus – is apparent, which is also divided into three areas with different meanings. In Berlin, the three axes symbolize three paths of Jewish life in Germany – continuity in German history, emigration from Germany, and the Holocaust.[12]

The first axis ends at a long staircase that leads to the permanent exhibition. The second axis connects the Museum proper to the E.T.A. Hoffmann Garden, or The Garden of Exile, whose foundation is tilted. The Garden's oleaster grows out of reach, atop 49 tall pillars. The third axis leads from the Museum to the Holocaust Tower, a 79 foot (24 m) tall empty silo. The bare concrete Tower is neither heated nor cooled, and its only light comes from a small slit in its roof.

The Jewish Museum Berlin was Daniel Libeskind’s first major international success.

In recent years, Libeskind has designed two structural extensions: a covering made of glass and steel for the “Kollegienhaus” courtyard (2007),[13] and the Academy of the Jewish Museum in the former flower market hall on the opposite side of the street (2012).[14]


In his research for the project, Libeskind read the Gedenkbuch, or Memorial Book, which lists all the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The report which he filed in the original design competition borrowed the form of the Gedenkbuch.

Libeskind, a musician himself, took inspiration from music and considered the museum the final act of Arnold Schoenberg's unfinished opera, Moses und Aron. Walter Benjamin's One Way Street's 60 sections determined the number of sections that comprise the museum's zigzag section.

Permanent exhibition

“Two Millennia of German Jewish History“ presents Germany through the eyes of the Jewish minority. The exhibition begins with displays on medieval settlements along the Rhine, in particular in Speyer, Worms and Mayence. The Baroque period is regarded through the lens of Glikl bas Judah Leib (1646–1724, also known as Glückel von Hameln), who left a diary detailing her life as a Jewish business woman in Hamburg. The intellectual and personal legacies of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) are next; both figures are flanked by depictions of Jews in court and country. The Age of Emancipation in the nineteenth century is represented as a time of optimism, achievement and prosperity, though setbacks and disappointments are displayed as well. German-Jewish soldiers fighting for their country in World War I stand at the beginning of the twentieth century. One focus of the exhibition is Berlin and its development into a European metropolis. The Jews living here as merchants and entrepreneurs, scientists and artists, were pioneers of the modern age.

In the section on National Socialism, emphasis is placed on the ways in which Jews reacted to the increasing discrimination against them, such as founding Jewish schools and social services. After the Shoah, 250 000 survivors waited in “Displaced Persons” camps for the possibility to emigrate. At the same time, small Jewish communities in West and East were forming. At the end, two major Nazi trials of the post-war period are considered – the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial (1963-1965) and the Majdanek trial in Dusseldorf (1975-1981). The exhibition tour concludes with an audio installation of people who grew up in Germany reporting on their childhood and youth after 1945. A new chapter of Jewish life in Germany began with them.

Special exhibitions

Changing exhibitions present a broad range of themes, eras and genres. Notable exhibitions are: The Whole Truth … everything you always wanted to know about Jews (2013), R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007) Obsessions (2012–2013), How German is it? 30 Artists' Notion of Home (2011–2012), Kosher & Co: On Food and Religion (2009–2010), Looting and Restitution: Jewish-Owned Cultural Artifacts from 1933 to the Present (2008–2009), Typical!: Clichés about Jews and Others (2008), Home and Exile: Jewish Emigration from Germany since 1933 (2006–2007), Chrismukkah: Stories of Christmas and Hanukkah (2005–2006), 10+5=God (2004), and Counterpoint: The Architecture of Daniel Libeskind (2003).[15]

Installation Shalekhet – Fallen leaves

10 000 faces punched out of steel are distributed on the ground of the “Memory Void,” the only “voided” space of the Libeskind Building that can be entered. Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman dedicated his artwork not only to Jews killed during the Shoah, but to all victims of violence and war. Visitors are invited to walk on the faces and listen to the sounds created by the metal sheets, as they clang and rattle against one another.

Other art installations exhibited permanently in the museum are by Arnold Dreyblatt, Minka Hauschild, and Via Lewandowsky.

Rafael Roth Learning Center

The Rafael Roth Learning Center is located in the basement of the Jewish Museum Berlin. Here, Jewish history is presented in a multimedia and interactive way at 17 computer terminals for individual visitors and groups. Under the headings of “Things,” “Stories,” and “Faces,” visitors are introduced to special highlights of the collection and can deepen their knowledge in larger-scale virtual exhibitions – for example on the life story of Albert Einstein or Eastern European immigration between 1880 and 1924. Video interviews offer insight into Jewish life in Germany today. This center is named the after the Berlin real estate entrepreneur and patron Rafael Roth (1933-2013).

Collections and Archives

The Jewish Museum's collections date back to the 1970s, when the Society for a Jewish Museum formed. The first acquisitions were Jewish ceremonial artworks belonging to the Münster Cantor Zvi Sofer. Soon, fine art, photography and family memorabilia were acquired. The collection is now divided into four areas: ceremonial objects and applied arts, fine arts, photography, and lastly, everyday culture. The museum archive safeguards over 1,500 family bequests, in particular from the eras of the Empire, the First World War, and Nazism. The library comprises 60 000 media on Jewish life in Germany and abroad.

The Leo Baeck Institute Archive

Since September 2001, there has been a branch of the archive of the New York Leo Baeck Institute at the Jewish Museum. The LBI has its principal office in New York and holds the most comprehensive collection of materials on the history of Jews in Germany, Austria, and other German-speaking areas in Central Europe of the last 300 years – including about one million documents such as local authority records, personal documents, correspondence, a photo archive as well as numerous testimonies from religious, social, cultural, intellectual, political, and economic life. The collection of more than 1,200 memoirs of German-speaking Jews (also and especially from the post-Nazi era) is unique.

The Academy of the Jewish Museum Berlin

The Academy of the Jewish Museum Berlin was opened in 2012 to create a place of research and discussion that goes beyond Jewish history and present, expanding the museum’s spectrum to include the themes of migration and diversity. Its aim is to serve as a “platform for analysis and discussion about Germany as an immigration destination and the emerging pluralistic society.”[16]


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