In order to culturally cleanse ourselves from a 3-day-Netflix binge (Christmas is not a big deal in my household), we decided to take a trip to the Jewish Museum on boxing day. I’ve often passed the remarkable building on Lindenstraße, wondering what it would be like on the inside. The Jewish Museum is much more than just a display of historical artifacts: it’s a highly sensitive and immersive experience of history.

Designed by Libeskind

American architect Daniel Libeskind created an overwhelming building (an addition to the pre-existing building) for the Jewish Museum Berlin. It’s a gigantic complex of titanium steel, stretching in confusing ways through the junction between Kreuzberg and Mitte, alienating the passers-by, looking displaced itself. A spaceship that bears no resemblance to a dusty museum.

With his “Between the Lines” design, American architect Daniel Libeskind did not want simply to design a museum building, but to recount German-Jewish history. Even before the Jewish Museum Berlin opened in the fall of 2001, almost 350,000 people had toured the empty building, which continues to fascinate innumerable guests from Germany and abroad. (JMB)

Libeskind is known for his disruptive, geometrically impossible and sensually disorienting designs. The Jewish Museum profits a lot from the aesthetic experience of his work: it makes a very difficult subject matter – the history and plight of the Jewish people – approachable. Visitors can physically experience what words cannot convey so easily. The museum’s architecture transcends history. The Voids that Libeskind built are ultimately the pinnacle of any visit.

The Voids are little niches and corners of the building that are empty rooms that stand apart from the exhibition. They are bare concrete “voids” without heat or air-conditioning. Only a few of them are accessible.

Libeskind uses the voids to address the physical emptiness that resulted from the expulsion, destruction, and annihilation of Jewish life in the Shoah, which cannot be refilled after the fact. He wanted to make this loss visible and tangible through architecture.

The Garden of Exile, the Holocaust Tower, and the Schalechet installation are other immersive experiences at the Jewish Museum. They all transcend a feeling of grief, loss, disorientation and confusion. Libeskind’s architecture and planning succeeds in delivering a message: there are things that cannot be put into words, images or artifacts. Only an experience can transcend the facts.

Unfortunately, the disorienting, seemingly unsystematic building structure – although helpful as an aesthetic bridge between time and space – is not very forthcoming for the permanent exhibition. Although meant to describe the history of German-Jewish traditions, it kind of falls short on the most interesting facts.

Awkwardly, you have to shuffle back and forth between the indiscernibly changing levels of the museum, and there is literally no visible path to lead you at all. At best, following the exhibition – even with an audio guide – feels like an unplanned trip to IKEA on a Saturday afternoon. At worst, the exhibition is so fragmented that you want to skip it entirely.

And that’s a pity. Even though the architecture is meant do disorient the visitor, it should not come at the cost of education. The Jewish museum is very modern, offering incredible installations and informative gimmicks – videos, audio, etc – , but I felt it needed more stringency and more chronological compactness.

Berlin history from a Jewish perspective

History is a tricky thing. It seems to be only interesting when it’s part of one’s identity. But living in Berlin gives you that common ground quite easily. Jewish history is so intertwined with Berlins culture that it’s worth taking a closer look.

Many cultural habits, German words or cross-cultural rituals stem from the unity and mix-and-match of different cultures. Berlin wouldn’t be the same without the influence of the Jewish people, before and after the horrible mid-century episode.