December 17, 2018

Berlin’s Jewish Museum

The walls of the new Jewish Museum here are bare, except for shard-like windows that let in slashes of light. From the top floor, it seems the city’s pre- and postwar buildings unfold outward like petals around this silvery, zigzag heart.

Currently, it is a museum without exhibits, but Michael Cullen hopes to change that soon. As coordinator of research, Cullen is appealing to the public for “stuff” for the first exhibit, which is scheduled to open in October 2000.

An ad campaign is due to start in June in German Jewish publications and major newspapers here, and in Israel, the United States and Britain.

Cullen wants material pouring in from all places where there are people with German roots.

“We are looking for everything and everybody and everywhere we can,” says Cullen, who was born in New York in 1939, son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He has lived in Berlin since 1967.

Cullen wants people to search their attics and basements for documents, photos, paintings, you name it — photocopies are acceptable. If something is valuable, like a painting, the museum will consider purchasing it.

Cullen hopes to receive items related to the 1848 revolution in Germany, which was one in a wave of democratic uprisings across Europe at the time. He also wants items on Jewish life in the countryside and cities, assimilation and conversion, and Jewish cultural life.

“Religious life is only one facet of Jewish life in Germany,” says Cullen.

How will he convince people to part with such material? He simply quotes Barbara Falk Sabbeth of New York, who has been holding on to a box of papers about her family’s life in Nazi Germany.

“I realized while at your museum that the history that I have been trying to come to terms with is not mine alone, and that the past is, and should be, shared,” wrote Sabbeth, after visiting Berlin this April with her sister, Eve Haberman, who was born here. The box is as much yours as it is mine.”

The first exhibit will focus on German Jewish life from 1848 to 1919. But Cullen hopes to receive items from all periods of history.

Cullen said 500,000 visitors are expected each year at the museum, once exhibitions open. Already, tens of thousands have visited the celebrated building, designed by Polish-Israeli architect Daniel Libeskind, since it opened in February. Some have called the building a sculpture in itself. Representing a broken Star of David, the museum is covered in gray zinc panels and is pierced by jagged windows.

It took six years to build the museum, and the road to its opening has been rocky, with fighting over who should direct it and what it should contain. The city government fired the previous director, Israeli curator Amon Barzel, reportedly because of his universal and contemporary approach to Jewish art and history.

After former U.S. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal was hired as a replacement, he won administrative autonomy for the museum so that he and Assistant Director Tom Freudenheim — both of whom come from families that escaped Nazi Germany — are free to make decisions about exhibits rather than work under the thumb of the Berlin city museum.

The museum’s mandate has likewise changed. Instead of focusing on the history of Jews in Berlin, it will cover German Jewish history from Roman times to today.

Blumenthal has made it clear that although the Holocaust will be one theme, exhibitions will also focus on the vibrancy of Jewish life and culture.

Why are Germans, in general, so interested in Jewish history? Why, some five years ago, was Berlin’s exhibit on Jewish life one of the most visited shows in recent memory?

“There is a large population which is desperately trying to find out what went wrong with its history,” Cullen says.

What went wrong does seem to be always in the background. But, he adds, quoting Blumenthal, “We are talking about Jewish life, not about Jewish death.”

If the current search goes as planned, it won’t be long before these empty walls and halls are filled with objects — and the stories behind them.

To contact the museum search team, write Michael Cullen, Jewish Museum Berlin, Lindenstrasse 9-14, Berlin 10969, or e-mail