Places in Berlin

The Jewish Museum

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I first visited the Jewish Museum in 2001 when it opened. The building was empty, a vessel, the collection not yet installed; architectural tours were offered. I am still grateful to have experienced this sculpture with its insides uncluttered. The sense of disorientation was profound, one struggles to find direct ways through its discontinuous floor plan. Daniel Libeskind, the American-Polish-Jewish Architect, likens the imprint to a shattered Star of David.

Walking through the tilted space of the ‘Garden of Exile’, where olive trees encased in concrete blocks are the only elements aligned symmetrically, invites nausea. It evokes so poignantly the experience of forced emigration. The ‘Holocaust Tower’, where a blinding shard of light pierces far above, suggests both the infinite and the suffocating with its darkened edges. The exterior, meanwhile, is a knife edge, the zinc scratched with wounds, as if the incision did damage to the weapon. The building speaks of the perseverance and the trauma of a persecuted people.

In 2001, Libeskind guided the response of visitors with allusions to ETA Hoffmann, Walter Benjamin, Paul Celan and, most notably, Schoenberg’s unfinished opera Moses and Aron. His music ends with the words:

O Wort, du Wort, das mir fehlt!
Oh Word, you Word, that escapes me!

Moses is looking for an absolute perception of God, but it is beyond his understanding. It is entirely appropriate that the opera is unfinished, with only two full acts, and that no word can fill the void. 

Libeskind says of his Jewish Museum ‘I sought to complete that opera architecturally.’

Wait! I need a moment to recover. I am a secular person, but I am still stunned by the claim that the building is the architectural completion of Schoeneberg’s third act, that it is Moses’ missing word.

The zinc has weathered blue over time, the museum has filled with a collection that cannot live up to the building, and many of the heavy-handed interpretative cues have been tactfully removed. Now a panel states simply: the architect says the interpretation of the building is open.

I love the way light plays on the zinc. It reflects clouds. Look closely.

Größere Kartenansicht

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

2 thoughts on “The Jewish Museum

  • Almost twice a week I drive by the museum. From the outside its architecture seems quite strange, unusual and experimental. I have the impression that it tries to communicate/provoke/intercede feelings rather than admiration for its design.

    I visited the museum twice. I had mixed feelings about it. The documentaries where very interesting and informative. Other exhibits where quite sterile…

    One thing is for sure. It's not what visitors expect and its worth a visit…


  • As for coverage of the Holocaust (admittedly only a part of the Museum’s mission) the same omission is made that I have found in 27 other related museums in Europe and the USA – little or no attention is paid to ways victims tried to help one another, only to ways perpetrators harmed them. This one-sided account deprives visitors of warranted reason to take heart from the ability of some victims to resist dehumanization, a model of behavior of great value in these stressful times. The Museum should right this display wrong.

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