Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Jewish Presence in Berlin

Exterior of the Jewish Museum Berlin 
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin 
Getting to the Judisches Museum we not only got lost, but for the first time,  people (well, the bus drivers) were not very helpful, and when we tried to ask if we were on the right bus before boarding, some were even outright annoyed. It wasn't until we got on our third bus that the driver was very helpful and assured us that we should get off his bus and take another that would take us directly where we wanted to go. The raw and rainy afternoon was not helped by the time we spent riding to and fro, but we were determined to get to the Jewish Museum and fortunately they were open til 9 pm that night. 

When we arrived, we were surprised to see a small booth with a guard outside and that once inside, the security was much like that at an American airport
 — empty pockets, put bags and bookbags through a conveyor screening, walk through a metal detector. Like the Deutsches Historiches Museum, this museum covers 2000 years of German history but more specifically “gives an overview of the settlement and cultural history of Jews in Germany from late antiquity to the present.” 

The enormous complex of the old building, the new building, and the glass courtyard between, was filled with wonderful exhibits of the Jews from the Middle Ages up through the 21st century, but as with most of my museum experiences, just a few things stay with you from the overwhelming spread. Though it's only skimming the surface of riches of the Judisches Museum, here are mine: 

One of the very first things I saw was a ceramic seder plate depicting each of the foods that symbolizes a tradition of religious importance, but this seder plate had a very modern addition — an orange to symbolize the contributions of women and homosexuals to Judaism “as well as their historical exclusion and their continuing struggle for equality.” 

There was a tree built inside the museum with a spiraling staircase that went up inside the branches across the canopy of leaves and then onto another floor
 — a wonderful up-and-down exercise for kids, but even better was the writing station nearby with cards and pens asking, “What’s your wish?” — write it down and attach it to the branches of the tree. You could pin your hopes for your family and the world on that tree (I did) and you could read the wishes of everyone who had passed through that museum and taken the time to write theirs down. 

There was a special exhibit containing a grouping of impressionistic portraits all done by Leonid Pasternak, (the father of Boris Pasternak, who wrote Dr Zhivago).  To give you a taste of his talent, here is his 1928 painting of the writer Rainer Maria Rilke.

Aerial Jewish Museum Berlin, Libeskind-old building and construction 
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Günter Schneider
The exhibits contained many touching artifacts of those who had perished in the holocaust — a cup, a letter, a photo, a scarf, a drawing, a suitcase —  each wrenching in its own way, but beyond all of these, particularly memorable, was an architectural feature of the museum (built by world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind), the holocaust tower — an empty, 79-foot-high concrete tower that engulfs you in an austere and hollow solemn darkness punctuated only by the eerie whoosh of the wind outside and a sliver of light far, far above you and way, way, way out of reach.  Being enclosed in that silence, seems a fitting way to momentarily remember the millions of Jewish lives lost during a bleak and painful period in human history.

We were very fortunate to see a special exhibition,

about Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe in the 1920s.  Because this tells it better than I could, this from the museum’s website: 

“The exhibition tells the story of the family Kahan – exemplary for Russian-Jewish bourgeois Berlin – which amassed a fortune with an international oil company in the Russian Empire. Exotic studio photographs and objects of applied art from the Bezalel workshops in Jerusalem allow insight into the cultural and social life of the family.

Chaim Kahan made his fortune in the Russian oil business. He owned oil fields and refineries in Baku and Saratov and set up subsidiaries in Yekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk), Kharkov, Warsaw, and St. Petersburg.

After World War I, the Kahan family put down economic roots in Berlin. It was here that Chaim Kahan’s sons founded NITAG, one of Germany’s largest oil importers in the mid-1920s. In addition to storage facilities in Wilhelmshaven, Hamburg, Cologne, and Hanover, they built a nationwide network of gas stations. In 1924, a branch opened in Palestine as well.

After the Great Depression, under pressure from the Nazis, the Kahans sold their shares in the company and emigrated. Some went to Palestine, others to the U.S.”

I can only say it was magnificent. The showcases were filled with the objects of their wealth and family life
  a feathered fan, silver serving pieces, beautiful china, an array of calling cards; the shelves held pictures and mementos of the grandparents and parents and children and cousins, aunts, uncles — decades of their gatherings and celebrations and Shabbat services in their apartment, sometimes attended by 100 guests! 

The hat says it all...
Among the many exquisite belongings of the Kahan family, best of all, was a set of dollhouse furniture made by a boy cousin for a girl cousin: two beds, nightstand, an armoire, even a chest of drawers with mirror  and all of it could be packed away in an old Georges Borman confectionary tin from Russia that had been fitted with dividers to carefully place the pieces upright inside. The furniture  intricately detailed (the drawers opened!) and wonderful  was all made of PAPER. 

I realized that this is why the exhibit of the Kahan family meant so much to me. After all the horrific tragedies of the Holocaust, all the exhibits in museums everywhere memorializing so much loss, this family escaped that history.  This family prospered and partied and prayed.   And these precious pieces of lovingly crafted paper furniture, made over a hundred years ago — are still here, still with us, bringing us joy.   

UPDATE:  The museum sent me a photo and the text of the lovely furniture!
Bedroom dollhouse furniture
Nachum Kahan (1897–1985)
St. Petersburg 1907
Cardboard, paper, ink, metal
On loan from Efrat Carmon, Jerusalem 

For the Dollhouse  "Ten-year-old Nachum Kahan made this paper furniture for his cousin Rachel Rosenberg. While recovering from an illness, he found time to furnish an entire bedroom. Nachum sent the furniture to Warsaw, packed safely in a cookie tin. Rachel took it with her each time she moved and today Nachum’s great-grandchildren play with it in Israel."

* If you'd like to see more about this exhibit, there is a YouTube film
at this link (including a quick shot of the set).


  1. Thank you for sharing this. I am so glad you went to these locations in Germany to see more about the Jewish people and what they have been through. On a much smaller scale, in Naples, Florida, there. Is a Holocaust Museum that is very educational and the volunteers are wonderful. I understand what you say about security. My daughter lived close to a Synagogue in Chicago and I was amazed when I passed there during services that armed guards were outside. What a shame that is to see it is necessary to have armed guards protecting families in the United States.......a free country.

    1. I agree...there was also a guard in a small station at the Jewish Ghetto in Venice...