In Quest for Open Dialogue, Germans and Jews Thinking Outside and Inside the Box
by Jeffrey Barken
Here in Berlin, there is a simultaneous sense of urgency and growing patience. While Germans embrace the cultural history of the Jewish people, who they persecuted during the Holocaust, they are seeking additional forums through which they can break down barriers to dialogue with Jews in their communities today.
This quest can lead modern Germans to challenge what is considered politically correct. The most striking recent example of this trend is “The Whole Truth,” a controversial current exhibit at the Berlin Jewish Museum that confronts many Germans’ shame about the Holocaust as they explore their own curiosities about Judaism and the Jewish people. Subtitled “everything you always wanted to know about Jews,” the exhibit employs a large glass box installation positioned in the center of the hall. Each day, one or more Jewish guests volunteer to sit in that box, fielding questions about their identity as museum patrons pass by.
“Germany needs a lot of boxes, because different groups of people don’t have the chance to meet and mingle as much as they should,” Bill Glucroft, an American Jew living in Berlin who has volunteered to sit in the box on several occasions, tells JNS.org.
The exhibit, which opened in March and will close in September, is now about halfway through its scheduled run time. Michal Friedlander, its curator, believes a misinformed press has hyped up controversy about the exhibit, but is pleased by what she says is the overwhelmingly positive experience most American visitors report after touring the museum.
“The harshest criticism initially came from the U.S., where there was some misunderstanding about the exhibition concept,” Friedlander tells JNS.org.
“It is very important to understand that the showcase with the Jewish guest is not an exhibition in isolation,” she adds, explaining that the box with a live person in it “is situated within the context of an entire exhibition and is a response to just one of over 30 questions which are posed throughout the show.”
The immediate question posed by the exhibit – “Are there still Jews living in Germany?” is answered resoundingly by the presence of resident German Jews who volunteer to sit in the box. The span of religious devotion among the volunteers runs from the totally non-observant Jew to the ordained rabbi.
“They are simply people who happen to be Jewish,” Friedlander says.
This personal and private interaction between museum visitors and volunteers who sit in the box fulfills the museum’s primary goal of introducing Germans who may never have met a Jewish person before to a real and approachable member of their society.
Asked how he conducts himself while in the box, Glucroft says, “I’m just myself. I answer questions to the best of my ability. If visitors expect some grand answer to their questions, then they don’t understand Jewish culture – the best answer to a question is another question.”
Critics have labeled the exhibit “dehumanizing,” believing that the show made a spectacle of a human being and stirred up distasteful memories and vulgar stereotypes of a past era. Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, rhetorically asked when the exhibit opened, “Why don’t they give him a banana and a glass of water, turn up the heat and make the Jew feel really cozy in his glass box?”
But exhibit organizers are seeking to move the display past its inflammatory image, and hope for it to be regarded as an important and positive teaching tool. The box toys with memories of Germany’s troubled past with the goal of provoking new honesty and open dialogue.
That being said, volunteers like Glucroft proceed with a certain level of caution.
“When the young groups come by – the student groups – you want to be on your best behavior,” Glucroft says, admitting to some trepidation before greeting different audiences while in the box. “Teenagers are so impressionable and who knows what lasting effect the experience may have on them.”
Neverthless, openness remains the prevailing theme of the exhibit, according to Friedlander.
“One day I got a call from the information desk, a Holocaust survivor was on the line,” Friedlander recalls. “He told me that he’d seen the exhibition showcase empty and offered to go immediately and sit in the box. From his perspective, it was imperative that we make the most of the opportunity for Jews to interact with non-Jews and he was prepared to share his story.”
Bold techniques that force public dialogue will be successful as long as the discussion “is self-generated and not imposed by some government office of integration,” Glucroft says.
Despite the growing interest and enthusiasm surrounding the exhibit, it may be important that the display not overstay its welcome in Berlin, says Glucroft, with an eye on the exhibit’s scheduled closure in September.
“The exhibit is meant to be in your face and controversial, and that sensation rubs off after a while,” Glucroft says.
Until September, the exhibit will continue to pursue its objective of fostering a larger dialogue on the moral imperative to engage and accept minorities worldwide. But for those who sat in the box, a different process is underway. Glucroft seems emotionally exhausted from the experience, and needs time to reflect on the questions he was asked by museum visitors before being able to ask new questions himself.
“My Jewish identity ebbs and flows,” Glucroft concluded after his third and final stint in the box. “At the moment, I’m actually getting a little tired of talking about and debating this.”