Saturday, July 13, 2013

Jewish Berlin and Daniel Libeskind

A piece of cloth from which was cut the stars that Jews had to wear on the outside of their clothes
When I asked one of my close friends, a well known architect and planner, whether he had spent any time travelling around Germany, he said no....he had 6,000,000 reasons not to go.

I did not lose any immediate family in the holocaust. My grandparents had moved to England in the late nineteenth century from Russia and both of my parents were born in UK. In fact, my father served in the English army as a member of the King's Royal Rifle Corps, was captured and was taken to a German prisoner-of-war camp near Munich. He didn't hide his Jewish religion, and was probably lucky to survive...but he did, albeit with some lingering cardiovascular illnesses, till the ripe age of 92.

Like so many of his generation, he often told war stories; but sadly after a while I stopped paying enough attention. But I do remember him telling me that as a prisoner-of-war he was marched through one of the main squares of Munich; and forty plus years later, he, his brother and my sister sat in that same square having lunch and drinking wine, while he joked about how much better everyone was treating him compared to his previous time there. (After the war, he stopped eating sauerkraut.)

So I arrived in Germany not quite sure how I would feel about being both English and Jewish. The fact is, much of the time we have been here, Sally and I have been not only upset about what Hitler did, but what the allies did to so many of the beautiful historical places around the country, especially Potsdam near Berlin, Dresden, and even Rothenberg, that I'll write about later.

The Jews and Berlin
At one time Berlin was New York…that is to say it was the centre of world Jewry. That changed following the war when the Jewish population of Germany was dramatically reduced. However, today Berlin is the site of a number of significant Jewish facilities.
a view of the Libeskind addition, with a corner of the original building on the left. Unlike many other buildings in Germany, no effort was made to relate the new building to the old.
Perhaps the most famous is the highly acclaimed geometrically-styled new wing of the Jewish museum designed by Daniel Libeskind. It opened in 1999 and a glass courtyard was added in 2007. Much is made of the fact that many people go there as much to see the building as its contents.
The original museum was housed in a converted building and still serves as the main entrance to the complex, which is linked by underground tunnels and walkways
What is often not as well known is that there is also an older museum building which forms part of the museum complex.

The other major site is the Holocaust Memorial designed by US architect Peter Eisenmann, which opened in 2003.
It is a maze-like structure, comprising 2,711 grey concrete blocks, and occupies a prime 4.7 acre site near the Brandenberg Gate. (I'm not just saying this as a real estate person...it's something that is often highlighted in guide books!). There is also an exhibition centre.

The same guide books and architectural reviews often describe the zig-zagging forms of Libeskind's museum as being designed to evoke the feeling of loss and disclocation. These are interspersed by voids that represent the vacuum left behind by the destruction of Jewish Life". 

The jagged structure is likened to a deconstructed Star of David.

Nowhere did I find any commentary on whether Eisenmann was influenced by Libeskind, or whether it was the other way around. However, the two works are strikingly similar!
"The Garden of Exile, comprising 49 tilted pillars represents the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 plus one for Berlin. The garden also symbolizes the forced exile of Germany's Jews"

I just hated this long stairway, which at the top leads nowhere. Yes, it may remind us of the cruel journey which many Jews were forced to take, but I did not enjoy seeing many people struggling to climb the stairs. There is an elevator, but it was not easily found.


The floors and walls are at different angles that after a while made me, and no doubt others, somewhat dizzy.
I need to read more to find out why this particular cross form was selected
I found the tilted pillars, floors and walls and long vertical stair at the Jewish museum very uncomfortable. I did not like the arrangement of the spaces and was bothered by the angular slotted windows. I also did not buy all the commentary on why Libeskind chose these particular forms.

Sally noticed that at least someone really liked the slotted windows....a pigeon
I think it is important to note that many of the same stylized features are found in Daniel Libeskind's other buildings, including the ROM museum addition in Toronto and the War Museum in Manchester. The fact is, the excessive use of angles has as much to do with what I believe is Libeskind's discomfort with rectangles as it has to do with a desire to use non-rectangular forms to give special meaning to the buildings. 

I say this because in 1972 I sat next to Daniel Libeskind in the back room at Irving Grossman's architectural office in Toronto. 

It was his first architectural position and I'll never forget how he disliked my design concept for a provincial HOME (Home Ownership Made Easy) single family lot subdivision near Bramalea Ontario, that was laid out on a very rectalinear grid. Daniel felt it should be much more angular, and did a rough sketch that laid the lots out in a zig-zagging pattern. He justified this layout to our boss by saying that just as the homes in Rosedale, Toronto's most affluent neighbourhood, were often on irregularly shaped lots, there was no reason why the modest homes being built by our client, Consolidated Building Corporation at 12 units per acre, shouldn't be laid out in a somewhat similar angular way.

Irving accepted Daniel's story (in part since Daniel had been recently hired as a favour to his father-in-law David Lewis, then the leader of the NDP in Canada) and shortly after the first phase was built, the development was almost universally proclaimed to be a disaster. I left Irving's office shortly thereafter and joined CMHC while Daniel stayed on for a short while, before moving on to other much greater things!

So whether it's our personal history together, or a clash of aesthetics and attitudes about architecture, I did not like Libeskind's museum. I also dislike the Toronto museum addition and much of his other work based on the illustrations. But I do admire what he has accomplished as an architect, and the attention he has brought to the role and importance of design.

What is a Jew?
I really liked the clever and humorous exhibition in the old portion of the building, which challenged visitors to describe the essential characteristics and qualities of Jews, and to play a game we often played as kids...guessing who is Jewish and who is not!
This exhibition addresses, in a very clever way, a question on the minds of many Jews when they arrive in Germany
Visitors are invited to vote with coloured chips on whether they think Jews are particularly attractive, intelligent, influential, etc.
How can you recognize a Jew? He's the one in the BMW yarmulka!

Jews often take great delight in discovering who is Jewish and who isn't.
While Hitler was not Jewish, some believe Charlie Chaplin may have been. There seems to be some debate on this!
Of course Elvis was not Jewish, but his hairdresser Larry Geller was, and introduced Elvis to Judaism....which prompted him to wear a Star of David

I will be leaving Germany with much less discomfort about the relationship between Germany and the Jews than when I arrived. The fact is, most Germans seem to have a special relationship with the Jewish people and while there is some neo-nazi activity, it is very minor in the overall scheme of things. But it's hard to find a good smoked meat sandwich here. Perhaps someone should open a good delicatessen!

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Chaplin wasn't Jewish.

Michael Geller said...

Thanks for this response. I must admit I don't know whether Chaplin was Jewish or not. However, the material in the museum display implies he was born Jewish. Do you have information on his original name?

Anonymous said...

Charles Spencer (Charlie) Chaplin. Those stories have been around for a while, especially when he married Paulette Goddard (Levy). He would often say he was Jewish, and of course admired the culture, but there's no definitive proof that he was Jewish himself.

Judy Rudin said...

FYI A scholarly article on the subject...

http://jewishquarterly.org/2010/11/charlie-chaplin-jewish-or-goyish/

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