The Jewish museum and Topography of terror in Berlin

Cecilia Johansson

It was a bit irritated when I finally found a way into the exhibition of the Holocaust in Berlin’s Jewish Museum. It was not easy. The Museum consists of two buildings, an older, small elegant Baroque building that has been supplemented with a high, closed dark building, which was designed by the American architect Daniel Liebeskind. The new building is close to the old one but it’s independent and has no visible entrance.

The architecture emphasizes clearly how Berlin’s Jews always lived in the city centre, close up, yet isolated from the others. The visitors have to pass through the older building. A screening of the same kind as we always pass at the airport reminds us that anti-Semitism as a figure of thought is always present. Then we headed down an underpass and into the new building that houses exhibitions. They include German Jewish history, religion and culture from the Middle Ages till today. Here I will only discuss the exhibition in the ground floor facing the visitor first.
I stood at a crossroad and wondered where I should go. Heavy concrete walls were leading the visitors in closed corridors isolated from each other, with no possibilities to turn around and take another route. I felt stressed and insecure. I only had an hour to spend and didn’t want to miss anything important.
One passage led to exile, another to “death”. I chose the passage to the Holocaust. The visitors were offered to look into showcases along the wall. Beautifully illuminated everyday objects, personal letters and family pictures accompany us along the way. Objects and text signs were small and forced us to get up close and look carefully.

When Young describes the objects connected to our collective memory of the Holocaust, he seems almost a little annoyed. He seems to believe that the piles of shoes and everyday items that meet visitors in Majdanek and Auschwitz steal visitors’ attention from the people behind the objects. They say nothing about human life, or who these people were.[3] Objects do not embody the spirit of them who made ​​or used them. But in my opinion, this story of the exhibition is unfortunately not about the lives of the Jews or who they were. The visitors are only interested in the horrible manner they died. But, on the other hand, the items have an important function as proof that people really existed and died. The Jews are gone but their belongings are still here. Then the visitor can also identify with these people and feel their despair and fear of death. Young also points out that objects can be used to create understanding, but it’s the curator who decides which story is to be told.

The exhibition at the Jewish Museum is no exception. The letters in the first showcases are talking about adapting to the camp and a feeling that everything would turn out to the best. But they also serve as a primary source and evidence that the camps really existed. After a few showcases with everyday objects, the curator slowly tightens the snare. Next to the sewing machine is a blanket from Bergen Belsen. A lonely doll lies in a suitcase. People’s ordinary lives with work and everyday chores are set against the unimaginable. Finally, we end up in a cold enclosed space with raw concrete walls and a very high ceiling. Some round holes in the walls may symbolize the gas. Through the objects of everyday character and the sequence they are presented in, the curator conveys just how incredibly unimaginable it must have been for the people who were exposed.
The architecture of the building is really an integrated part of the exhibitions story. The heavy, closed building emphasizes the isolation and allows me to imagine the confusion and uncertainty among those who did not have the answers. For a moment I become one of them, locked up and forced to make impossible choices. Which way should we go? Should we leave or stay and hope for the best? When the choice was made, you couldn’t go back. The feeling of annoyance I had because the lack of transparency in the exhibition has become a part of my experience. Architect and curators manage to actually get me to identify myself with the victims, but the perpetrators are strangely absent. What drove those people into paths ending in exile or extermination? How could this happen? That story is not told in this exhibition.
This was the first time I visited Berlin. And the thing that distinguish the city from all other European capitals I’ve been to, are all the empty spaces. Places that have not yet been rebuilt since the war or the space left by a wall that no longer exists. When I approach the Topography of Terror the enormous empty space surrounding it is very thought-provoking. The museum is about how the SS and the Gestapo worked and carried out the Nazi genocide. Today, a small inconspicuous square single-storey building is thrown on a huge area that covers several blocks in the centre of Berlin, right next to the longest rest of the Berlin wall that still stands.

During the war, the palaces standing there were SS and Gestapo’s headquarters. In the basement, there were also prison cells where people were tortured and executed. The post war history of the site is described in Young’s book.[4] The palaces were bombed 1945. Ruins remained until 1956 when they were demolished to avoid that it could become a monument to neo-Nazis. But in the ’80s people began to take an interest in the site. By not rebuild the block the government of Berlin wanted to create a dead sterile area that would symbolize the horrific activities that took place in Nazi Germany. Prison cells that remained underground were also preserved. They testified about the German people’s resistance against the Nazis. But finally in 2010 a museum was built on the site.
The big empty space surrounding the museum serves as a powerful symbol of the enormous power that these horrible terrorist organizations exerted against the German people and the peoples of the occupied countries. But today it literally creates a distance between the killers and the Germans. The topography around the perpetrators consists of a desolate no man’s land.
The aesthetics of the perpetrators Museum differs of course enormously from that of the Jewish Museum. That one created intimacy and empathy. But this one works with senses of distance and loathing. The exhibition consists of large screens with texts and black and white photographs, reproduced documents and other illustrations. Objects are totally absent. Original objects have an amazing ability to suspend time. A suitcase packed for a child on her way to a concentration camp arouses strong emotions. I think it’s very difficult to use objects when you want to create distance to the people who used them. All items related to SS are also dangerous because they can lead to cult. The museum could then attract other visitors then were intended. And this approach with no items works. I can’t identify with these men from another time in their funny uniforms and silly haircuts.

Exhibition at the Topography of Terror is open and very transparent. Screen walls are even numbered so I know exactly how I should go. The first screen is about Hitler’s rise to power. Then follows a presentation of the SS and the Gestapo and a review of how organizations were structured. Lots of black and white photographs of men in uniform are shown, mostly portraits and group images. The men in the photos are always at work. I’m caught by a group portrait on some Gestapo Department. The men are at a work trip, a picnic and they look relaxed and almost friendly. But this photo is an exception. No private photos of wives and children, no personal letters. What did these men do when they were not at work? Where did they live? Where did they come from? The exhibition gives no answers. These people are only shown because they are perpetrators. And it doesn’t explain much .Just as the victims of the Jewish Museum only were victims and not individuals with lives to live.

On a large screen wall are German women and men portrayed.  Maybe 200 small portraits of Socialists, Communists and members of Das rote Kapel are shown on the wall. They were imprisoned in the basement. Surprisingly many of them died in 1945, in the bomb raids I suppose.   Some other photos show the deportation of Berlin’s Jews. Neat ladies and men in hats and tailored coats leave an apartment building. On the balcony above, the neighbours witness what is happening. The situation is not commented. Screen Walls continue to portray how SS murdered in the occupied countries. On the Ukraine Wall a ​​man kneels at the edge of a mass grave. Behind him stands a soldier with a gun pointed at his head. He is just about to shoot. All around are some German soldiers standing and watching. The caption informs that the soldiers who watch belonged to the Wehrmacht. They were unarmed and the text says that, these were ordinary soldiers and they were generally not involved in the killing of civilians. It makes me wonder what they were doing standing there, if they didn’t have to be there.

To sum up I think that the Topography of Terror reproduces a discourse in which the Nazis and Germans are carefully separated from each other. The architecture stresses this by the location of the museum in the centre of the large open space. Exhibition design and content are also distancing visitors from the killers. All portraits of men in uniform make us feel that Germany was subjected to a vicious occupying power. For me as a Swedish teacher, it is natural to problematize the spectator and his or hers responsibility for what happened. I find it hard to understand how soldiers stand and witness a mass murder can be released from responsibility or how absence of the Jews can be explained without including the inhabitants of Berlin at that time. The museum describes a vicious external domination in which all who resisted or were murdered by the regime are considered heroes. The counter memory fits very well in the new German self-image.  Another explanation could be that Nazi ideas, unfortunately, are not history. The security check at the Jewish Museum and the closed building are a reminder of that anti-Semitic thoughts are alive and well, and there’s really nothing to suggest that it is about to disappear. As long as it remains, the Nazi ideology is a threat. Therefore it’s conceptual content, and artefacts must be treated with great caution.

However, the last monument I’ll mention, is really well integrated in the urban memory of the city. They are everywhere in the streets, the little brass plaques with Jewish names on them spread all over town. Young means that, Jews are recalled by their absence. The plates are telling us where the Jews lived and where they worked. I think it’s the city of Berlin that puts the plates in the streets but I’m not sure. I was difficult to find any information about them. The small inconspicuous plates are proof of what happened during the Nazi-times, but also a testament of that all the population of Berlin knew what was going on. The Jews lived and worked all over the city. No one could have missed their disappearance. Today, thanks to the different monuments, no one can miss that the inhabitants of Berlin care about their history and that they won’t let us forget about it, ever.

[1] Young, James Edward, The texture of memory: Holocaust memorials and meaning, Yale University press, New Haven, 1993.

[2] Young, 1993, 53

[3] Young 1993 127

[4] Young, 1993, chapter 3, The Gestapo Gelände.