The Museumification of Jewish Life in Europe

The Libeskind-designed Jewish Museum Berlin, to the left of the old Kollegienhaus (before 2005); photo Wikipedia.
The Libeskind-designed Jewish Museum Berlin, to the left of the old Kollegienhaus (before 2005); photo Wikipedia.

By Liam Hoare

There is no bigger event this month – indeed, this year – in terms of Jewish life in Europe than the unveiling of the $55 million core exhibition of the History of the Museum of Polish Jews in Warsaw today (October 28).

The culmination of almost twenty years of work – the project having its origins in the early 1990s – the exhibit will convey a thousand years of Jewish life in Poland, interactively, within a 43,000-square-foot space. It will after its opening become, as I have previously written, a point of light, wisdom, and reflection in a country that will forever be associated with the midnight of the twentieth century and the great catastrophe of Jewish history.

For that reason, the museum is significant in and of itself. But far more interesting, perhaps, is not what it means for Poland to have a museum of Jewish life in Poland (which was, after all, a axis within Jewish Europe for hundreds of years up until the Holocaust) but what it means for Europe as a whole. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is one part of an ongoing, modern trend in Europe: the museumification of Jewish life.

Notwithstanding the present challenges to Jewish life, Europe remains home to a rich and diverse Diaspora culture, including centers of Jewish revival. But the Holocaust was the conclusion of Judaism as a ubiquitous presence in Europe. In 1933, 9.5 million Jews lived in Europe, making up 1.7% of the continent’s population. Jews constituted almost 10 percent of the population of Poland, 5 percent in the Baltic states. Today, there are 1.1 million Jews living in Europe (1.4 million, if the former Soviet Union is included).

Jewish communities themselves, thus, are shrunken, but in the course of the last twenty years the cultural presence of Judaism in European cities can be said to have expanded, through the museumification of Judaism. The presence of Judaism is larger than Judaism itself. As Ruth Ellen Gruber observed in her study, Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Jewish heritage having been “marginalized, repressed, or forgotten” for decades hence the Second World War, the late 1980s onwards has seen increased recognition of Judaism, Jews, the Holocaust, and Israel as part of the European experience.

For example: the Irish Jewish Museum was opened in 1985 by then-President of Israel Chaim Herzog. On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Jewish Museum Frankfurt am Main opened on November 9, 1988. In 1988, Jüdische Museum der Stadt Wien GmbH was established, the founding company for a new Jewish museum in Vienna. And, it was in the late 1980s, too, that the city government in Berlin announced its intention to found a new Jewish museum.

More than any other, the Jüdisches Museum Berlin has changed common understanding of what the museumification of Judaism can do for Jewish life itself. It put an end to the tendency to clad Jewish museums in the non-descript, to turn the music down and shy away lest too much attention be attracted. Designed [by Daniel Libeskind] in a bold, deconstructivist style, with sharp edges, marked lines, with imposing edifices clad in grey steel, it is a building that in no way apologizes for itself. It isn’t meek. It cannot be avoided. It must be seen.

It is, moreover, a decidedly Jewish building. The main structure is shaped as a Star of David pulled apart and stretched at its joints, in order to create a jagged and disorientating route through the museum, one which emphasizes the contours and junctures, breaks and schisms in the Jewish story. The zigs and zags in the structure in turns create voids, spaces for what is missing. Libeskind has said of the Jüdisches Museum Berlin:

The new design was based on three conception that formed the museum’s foundation: first, the impossibility of understanding the history of Berlin without understanding the enormous intellectual, economic and cultural contribution made by the Jewish citizens of Berlin, second, the necessity to integrate physically and spiritually the meaning of the Holocaust into the consciousness and memory of the city of Berlin. Third, that only through the acknowledgement and incorporation of this erasure and void of Jewish life in Berlin, can the history of Berlin and Europe have a human future.

The success of Libeskind’s Berlin museum was the catalyst for a new wave of constructions and renovations across the continent. Libeskind utilized the complexity and perplexity present in the design of the Jüdisches Museum Berlin for the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen, opened in June 2004. The freestanding cube structure housing the Jewish Museum Munich opened in March 2007. The Jewish museums in Amsterdam, London, and Vienna all underwent major rejuvenations and reconfigurations during the 2000s; Macedonia unveiled its Holocaust Memorial Center in 2011. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews in the next chapter in this story.

“Jewish museums, which often serve as anchors for broader Jewish tourism itineraries, are among the most significant tools with which Europeans seek to ‘fill in the blanks’ regarding the Jewish phenomenon,” Ruth Ellen Gruber writes. “As institutions that can easily be visited by the public, Jewish museums play an educational role that is of particular importance. They often become the public face of Judaism.” Indeed, in the absence of Jews, and therefore the absence of Judaism, the Jewish museums of Europe have become the new temples.

Of course, the potential pitfall of this museumification of Judaism in Europe is evident. As the fragments and shards of Jewish life are accumulated and curated, and above all centralized having been displaced and removed from their original homes, these Jewish museums become repositories of memory. They become houses of memory, or in the case of magnificent constructions like the museums of Berlin and Warsaw, palaces of memory.

But palaces of memory, museums, are by their very nature inert. They are a collation of life, or the elements of life, but they are alive themselves. Rather, they are spaces to be interacted with, to be engaged with, to be challenged by. Palaces of memory, in order to come to life, have to be understood, appreciated, indeed even loved.

The proliferation of Jewish museums in Europe has been met by a demand to visit them. The Jewish Museum in Prague has been, consistency over the course of several years, the most frequented museum in the Czech Republic, attracting between 500,000 and 600,000 per annum. In the first ten years after the Jewish Museum Berlin opened to the public, it received over 7.2 million visitors, include 760,000 in 2010.

In Prague and in Berlin, in London and in Amsterdam, visiting a Jewish museum, then, is not a niche interest, the preserve of Judeophiles on the one hand and those in search of the remains of a destroyed past on the other. Visiting a Jewish museum has become a regular and necessary part, an entirely normal part, of any visit to the great centers of Europe. What the museumification of Jewish life has done, therefore, is help bring down the wall of separation which exists, existed, between Jewish history and the histories of our cities, between Judaism and common culture.

Through these museums, Jewish history has become fully absorbed into the narrative of European history. Jewish history is European history, and the other way around.