We began our day in Berlin with a rather forgettable city sightseeing bus tour. To put it charitably, perhaps because Berlin is designed to be pedestrian and bike-friendly the roads don’t go past very interesting places? The route mostly took us past dull apartment buildings and shops rather than places of historic or artistic interest. I think it’s a shame that in a city where they had/have the opportunity for post-reunification rebuilding, their architecture is so unimaginative.
Anyway, we got off the bus at the Jewish Museum. It is a very moving experience to visit this place, which consists of two buildings. You enter through the old Berlin Museum and go downstairs to enter the new building which is a twisted zig-zag reminiscent of a misshapen Star of David. But we didn’t enter straight away: there was a cafe where they were selling real Jewish cheesecake, the kind my neighbour Mrs Kuperholz used to make, which for me is the gold standard cheesecake that is so very hard to find. But it wasn’t just the cheesecake of course, it’s also that I found it very hard to visit the Holocaust Museum in Elsternwick at home, and here in Berlin where the Holocaust was conceived and executed, I felt an even greater need to brace myself a bit before entering the museum.
(Actually, I don’t think I would ever have visited the Holocaust Museum at home if I had not met Elfie Rosenberg at the Melbourne Writers Festival, long ago when it was still at the Malthouse Theatre. There, one had coffee between sessions at convivial tables, and because I was by myself I got chatting to the elderly lady at the same table. She turned out to be the author of Serry and me, Kindertransport and Beyond and in the course of talking about her book, I confessed that I had never had the courage to go to the Holocaust Museum. I feared that I couldn’t cope with it emotionally, and was ashamed of that, because after all, how can just visiting a memorial site compare with the lived experience of its victims? They had to live through it, and I was afraid just to learn about it? Elfie understood, and she offered to take me there herself.
So we met for coffee one day not soon after that, and she guided me through the museum, and amongst the heart-rending memories I have of seeing a model of Treblinka made by one of the survivors, and of a matchbox filled with soil from the camp at which a survivor’s mother was murdered, I also have memories of Elfie chatting and laughing with one of the survivor-guides there, an inspiring reminder that life goes on, and that to let yourself be bowed down by grief, is to deny your oppressors triumph.)
The architecture of the Jewish Museum in Berlin is designed to disorientate. There is a Garden of Exile, designed to represent the experience of not belonging for those who fled Germany or emigrated afterwards, and both Tim and I could not stay in there. There are vertical columns set not quite in place, so that your brain is out of synch with your body and you feel nauseous. Literally. There is also a ’Void’ – an entirely empty four-sided space about 20 metres tall, barren and grey and lit only by a scrap of a window up above. When the door shut behind us, I felt panicky, and again we had to leave. We could, of course. The victims of the Holocaust could not.
There was also a sickening fragment of the yellow Star of David cloth they used to stigmatize Jews. I had never thought about anybody designing, manufacturing and distributing this material before. This new (to me) example of perfidy really upset me, for reasons I can’t quite explain.
But once you leave behind these awful sensory experiences, the exhibition shows you the cultural and intellectual life of pre-war German Jews. There is memorabilia which belonged to people now lost – dolls, sewing machines, Bar Mitzvah ornaments, books and photos, but also lovely photos which show the contribution that Jewish people made in all kinds of endeavours, and also that they were interesting, lively, congenial people that anyone might be pleased to have as neighbours. (As I did, when I lived in Caulfield as a teenager).
People deal with an experience like this in their own way, but I have to say that there were some American tourists there who were incredibly tactless. When they moved on from the sections about pre-war Jewry and came to the Holocaust display, one of the women announced loudly that it was ‘too much’, to which one of the men replied casually that ‘this was all familiar, they’d seen it all before’.
Bored by the Holocaust…what kind of people react like that?