Yesterday I went to the Jewish Museum. I learned heaps!
I’ll start with the outside: The museum was designed by Daniel Liebeskind, and my Berlinian friend Michael says the modern section is shaped like a slightly skewed Star of David when seen from above. There’s no outside entrance, and the floors, walls and windows are deliberately skewed to give you a sense of disorientation.
My kneejerk reaction to this kind of high-concept architecture is usually eye-rolling. Liebeskind’s preservation of a few empty rooms inside the museum to symbolize the void created by the Holocaust, for example, is the kind of thing that sounds slightly cheesy when your audioguide tells you in the introduction.
But it’s executed incredibly well, and it is a visual reminder that what you’re contemplating this afternoon is one of humanity’s ugliest moments, perpetrated at a time not a long time ago or in a galaxy far away, but where you’re standing, in the lifetime of your parents and grandparents.
On the inside, the museum traces the history of the Jewish people in Germany from their arrival in 341 CE until now.
As someone who basically knows nothing about this, a few threads of this history stood out to me:
First of all, it seems that for as long as anyone can remember, Jews occupied a sort of third rail of European life. They were seen as weirdos for their religious beliefs (the concept of race and ethnicity didn’t really exist in Europe before about 1850, it seems, so they weren’t originally mistrusted on those grounds), and they were barred from civil service and other professions. Throughout the middle ages in Germany, they were prohibited from living in cities.
This separateness, however, made them remarkably efficient economic actors. Due to the constant pogroms and geographical restrictions, their labour mobility was higher than other demographic groups’, so they could move to the economic hotspots more efficiently. Their wide ethnic ties, in an era where credit depended on informal relationships, allowed them to become remarkably successful international traders. When you’re not allowed to be a worker, being an owner or a manager are the only options available.
The second thing I was struck by was how Jews became a stand-in for whatever the political establishment was opposed to at the time.
When Christian hegemony was sacrosanct, Jews were infidels. When euguenics was in fashion, Jews were genetically inferior. When the Russian revolution threatened to spread into Germany, Jews were communists. When the political right became obsessed with Germany’s glorious past, Jews were modernizers. When the fatherland had to be protected, Jews were too foreign. Once the contempt was there, any ammunition would do.