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The Jewish Museum Berlin (Jüdisches Museum Berlin) is one of the largest Jewish Museums in Europe. In two buildings, one of which is a new addition specifically built for the museum by architect Daniel Libeskind, two millennia of German Jewish history are on display in the permanent exhibition as well as in various changing exhibitions. German-Jewish history is documented in the collections, the library and the archive, in the computer terminals at the museum's Rafael Roth Learning Center, and is reflected in the museum's program of events. The museum opened to the public in 2001.
Princeton economist W. Michael Blumenthal, who was born in Oranienburg near Berlin and was later President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of the Treasury, has been the director of the museum since December 1997.
The original Jewish Museum in Berlin was founded on Oranienburger Straße in 1933, but was closed soon thereafter, in 1938, by the Nazi regime. In 1975 an "Association for a Jewish Museum" formed and, three years later, mounted an exhibition on Jewish history (1978). Soon thereafter, the Berlin Museum, which chronicled the city’s history, established a Jewish Department, but already, discussions about constructing a new museum dedicated to Jewish history in Berlin were being held.
In 1988, the Berlin government announced an anonymous competition for the new museum’s design. A year later, Daniel Libeskind's design was chosen by the committee for what was then planned as a “Jewish Department” for the Berlin Museum. While other entrants proposed cool, neutral spaces, Libeskind offered a radical, zigzag design, which earned the nickname 'Blitz'.
Construction on the new extension to the Berlin Museum began in November 1992. The empty museum was completed in 1999 and attracted over 350,000 people before it was filled and opened on September 9, 2001.
The museum adjoins the old Berlin Museum and sits on land that was West Berlin before the Berlin Wall fell. The Museum itself, consisting of about 161,000 square feet (15,000 square meters), is a twisted zig-zag and is accessible only via an underground passage from the Berlin Museum's baroque wing. Its shape is reminiscent of a warped Star of David. A "Void," an empty space about 66 feet (20 m) tall, slices linearly through the entire building. An irregular matrix of windows cuts in all orientations across the building's facade. A thin layer of zinc coats the building's exterior, which will oxidize and turn bluish as it weathers.
A second underground tunnel connects the Museum proper to the E.T.A. Hoffmann Garden, or The Garden of Exile, whose foundation is tilted. The Garden's oleaster grows out of reach, atop 49 tall pillars.
The final underground tunnel leads from the Museum to the Holocaust Tower, a 79 foot (24 m) tall empty silo. The bare concrete Tower is neither heated nor cooled, and its only light comes from a small slit in its roof.
Similar to Libeskind’s first building, the Felix Nussbaum Haus, the museum consists of three spaces. All three of the underground tunnels, or "axes," intersect and may represent the connection between the three realities of Jewish life in Germany, as symbolized by each of the three spaces: Continuity with German history, Emigration from Germany, and the Holocaust.
The Jewish Museum Berlin was Daniel Libeskind’s first major international success.
In his research for the project, Libeskind read the Gedenkbuch, or Memorial Book, which lists all the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The report which he filed in the original design competition borrowed the form of the Gedenkbuch.
Libeskind, a musician himself, took inspiration from music and considered the museum the final act of Arnold Schoenberg's unfinished opera, Moses und Aron. Walter Benjamin's One Way Street's 60 sections determined the number of sections that comprise the museum's zigzag section.
„Two Millennia of German Jewish History“ presents Germany through the eyes of the Jewish minority. The exhibition begins with displays on medieval settlements along the Rhine, in particular in Speyer, Worms and Mayence. The Baroque period is regarded through the lens of Glickl bas Judah Leib (1646–1724, also known as Glückl von Hameln), who left a diary detailing her life as a Jewish business woman in Hamburg. The intellectual and personal legacies of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) are next; both figures are flanked by depictions of Jews in court and country. The Age of Emancipation in the nineteenth century is represented as a time of optimism, achievement and prosperity, though setbacks and disappointments are displayed as well. German-Jewish soldiers fighting for their country in World War I stand at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the section on National Socialism, emphasis is placed on the ways in which Jews reacted to the increasing discrimination against them, such as founding Jewish schools and social services. After the Shoah, 250 000 survivors waited in “Displaced Persons” camps for the possibility to emigrate. At the same time, small Jewish communities in West and East were forming. The exhibition concludes with the migration to Germany of 200 000 Jews from the former Soviet Union, opening a new, yet-unwritten chapter of Jewish life in Germany.
Changing exhibitions present a broad range of themes, eras and genres. Notable exhibitions include R.B. Kitaj (1932–2007) Obsessions (2012–2013), How German is it? 30 Artists' Notion of Home (2011–2012), Kosher & Co: On Food and Religion (2009–2010), Looting and Restitution: Jewish-Owned Cultural Artifacts from 1933 to the Present (2008–2009), Typical: Clichés about Jews and Others (2008), Home and Exile (2006–2007), Chrismukkah: Stories of Christmas and Hanukkah (2005–2006), 10+5=God (2004), and Counterpoint: The Architecture of Daniel Libeskind (2003).
10 000 faces punched out of steel are distributed on the ground of the “Memory Void,” the only “voided” space of the Libeskind Building that can be entered. Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman dedicated his artwork not only to Jews killed during the Shoah, but to all victims of violence and war. Visitors are invited to walk on the faces and listen to the sounds created by the metal sheets, as they clang and rattle against one another.
The Rafael Roth Learning Center on the underground level of the Libeskind-Building is a media lounge with computer terminals, offering stories, interviews, and in-depth explorations of objects designed to supplement exhibitions.
The Jewish Museum's collections date back to the 1970s, when the Association for a Jewish Museum formed. The first acquisitions were Jewish ceremonial artworks belonging to the Münster Cantor Zvi Sofer. Soon, fine art, photography and family memorabilia were acquired. Manuscripts and assorted documents are preserved in the Leo Baeck Institute Archive, housed in the museum building. The library comprises 60 000 media on Jewish life in Germany and abroad.
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