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Jewish Museum Opens in Berlin - 2001-09-10

Berlin's new Jewish museum opened to invited guests Monday. The building, rather than the exhibition as a whole, is intended to disturb and unsettle - a reminder of what Jews went through during the Holocaust or in exile. But the exhibition itself covers 2,000 years of Jewish history on German soil.

The entry to the new Jewish Museum is through a baroque palace, then through a bare, steeply sloping underground passage into architect Daniel Libeskind's extraordinary new building. It is a reminder of the separation and dislocation Jews experienced in Germany, being both part of the society and alien from it; accepted at times in its best circles, cast out and persecuted at others.

Once out of the tunnel, the floors continue to slope and lead along narrow passages into a garden of sloping pillars and the stark, empty Holocaust Tower. These represent the disorientation, loneliness and fear of exile and the terror of the Nazi extermination camps.

Yet the exhibition on the upper floors is neither devoted solely to the Holocaust nor exclusively somber.

It traces the little known history of the Jews who are thought to have come to Germany with the Roman empire - through the good times and often terrible times of the middle ages, the intellectual salons hosted by the fashionable Jewish ladies of the 18th century enlightenment and, of course, to the Holocaust and the return of a small Jewish community after the second world war.

But the museum's director, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal, who was born and grew up near Berlin, says the museum is about the future as well as the past. "The hope that is expressed through the museum," he said, "and the lessons that are taught in that which is seen in the museum, for the evolution of peaceful relations not only between Jews and non-Jews, but between the majority and various minorities who willy-nilly have to live together and live peacefully together in a modern, 21st century society - that's the meaning of the museum."

Ever since the museum was first opened as an empty building two years ago, some people have said it should be left that way, to allow Mr. Libeskind's powerful architecture its full expression. But having seen the exhibition himself for the first time over the weekend, the architect would have none of that view. "I have to tell you that the exhibitions in this building were brilliantly placed. It was a fantastic exhibition, I thought," he said. "The spirit of the exhibition, the fact that this is a living museum, verifies the fact that architecture was never just a building but a living museum in which the public will encounter extraordinary history, which is not only history of the Holocaust, but the history of German Jews, their achievements and celebrations and their presence in this city historically. So I'm thrilled."

Nevertheless, as Mr. Blumenthal said, the museum has a special significance for Germans, because it allows Germans to remember Jews as they were, as contributors to the nation and as fellow citizens, and not just as the unfortunate victims of a criminal regime.