Jewish history is a part of ours, says German historian

Kerstin Bauer and I talk about the Jewish Museum Munich, new formats, and migrants from the East.

When we enter Ukrainian museums, we often see a preserved space in which exhibitions change once every few years. The premises need repairs, and the narratives have barely changed since Soviet times. In the Jewish Museum Munich I saw a completely different picture. This hi-tech building hosts various activities and community meetings, and the inner substance is constantly being renewed. Instead of a tour guide who repeats sentences memorized ten years ago, here there are myriad interactive formats. All around are a few cafés, a children’s playground, and a lot of people having lunch on a working Friday.

I spoke with Kerstin Bauer about other functions that the museum can carry out, besides serving as a place of memory, and about the way that a complex German history of the previous century is communicated there. 

Andriy Kobalia:  What is around us right now? When I entered the museum, I saw the first floor, which is fashioned out of glass and steel, and various conversations are recorded on them [the walls], like a chat taking place on social networks. What is this? 

Kerstin Bauer:  These sentences are part of an art project that was unveiled right after the museum was opened. The idea of a glass construction lies in the fact that from the outside you can see everything that is inside, and the opposite. In other words, a person feels that her/his presence is appreciated in this museum; s/he can come and learn something new and start discussing. The conversations that you saw on the building’s façade are the work of an Israeli artist. She came to Germany and wanted to talk with people from these lands. The theme of a Jewish woman who ended up in Germany was raised in each conversation.

What you see here is not just a museum but a synagogue and a Jewish community center. Of course, we exist separately as a scholarly center, but the architecture of all the buildings is similar. Architecture is always a way of showing what everything is about. The idea is that we are open to everyone, anyone who wants to learn about Jews and their history in Munich. There are countless symbolic details here.

Andriy Kobalia:  What takes place at the Jewish center? Is it just for Jews?

Kerstin Bauer:  There is a whole infrastructure, starting with an elementary school and a secondary school and ending with a library and a center for unemployed people. In other words, everything for the community to exist. Of course, events are open to the general public. There are classes for learning Hebrew and Yiddish. Plus, there’s a restaurant.

Andriy Kobalia:  Most of the sections of this museum were built only ten years ago. The gallery owner Richard Greene owned a collection of Jewish antiquities, and in the 1980s he tried to open a museum. Here and in Berlin, for example, museums like this appeared for the most part in the 1980s and 1990s. In your opinion, why did this not start right after the Second World War and the Holocaust—in the 1950s and 1960s? 

Kerstin Bauer:  At the start of the twentieth century there was an idea to create a Jewish museum. This process began thanks mostly to the secularization of immigration. Therefore, Jews wanted to preserve important articles for posterity. That’s really when everything started. But later the Nazis came, and after them Jewish communities became very small and inconsequential. And there were questions along the lines of who would pay for this because often the state funds such centers.

Moreover, the Germans had no great inclination to talk about what had happened to the Jews during Nazi rule and the Holocaust, although this does not mean that every Jewish museum should be about the Holocaust. Ours, for example, recounts the long history of the Jews in Munich. Of course, there is also information about the Shoah. Everything really changed in the 1980s, when the American miniseries Holocaust came out; it had a huge impact on German society. And what changed specifically was the conceptualization of the history of the Jews.

Today we understand that Jewish history is part of German history. These are not separate lines. This is precisely how we try to show it in our museum because the Jews are a part of Munich.

Andriy Kobalia:  You mentioned that after the war not many Jews were left in Munich. But later a new wave arrived. Who were these new Jews? 

Kerstin Bauer:  After the war, not everyone wanted to be part of the community. But in the 1990s the USSR collapsed, and Jews got an opportunity to come here. Many took advantage of this. That’s how the number of Jews grew rapidly in the 1990s. In many German cities, Jews hailed from the Soviet Union.

Andriy Kobalia:  In the first hall of the museum, there is a comic strip painted right on the walls. It tells the story of a little boy who was born in Munich, survived a concentration camp, and was able to move to the States. Half a century passes, and he is invited to the opening of this museum in a country that has markedly changed during that period. Incidentally, the exhibition does not present these changes and the general history of the city’s Jews in chronological order, says Kerstin Bauer.

Kerstin Bauer:  If you walk through our permanent exhibition, you will not see chronology. We have various, small sections that variously recount a countless number of stories through video, audio, photographs, and comic strips, as well as ordinary items. We’re not convinced that chronology helps one truly to understand all these things and become interested. Here you can touch and play with objects. Such things involve our visitors in perceiving and analyzing the themes of our exhibits. Perhaps they have new questions after that; at least that’s what I hope.

Andriy Kobalia:  What struck me most about your museum was the hall, on the floor of which is a huge map of Munich. There are numbers in various districts of the megalopolis. On a nearby wall are screens. How does this section work and what does it recount? 

Kerstin Bauer:  Numbers are important points in the city. If you place a small figure with a number on a spot where this number is drawn, a screen turns on, and you see a photograph on the wall. What’s the idea behind this? Neither locals nor tourists know precisely where Jewish history was and is in the city. It’s like some sort of abstraction. It is precisely Munich residents who are often surprised because they supposedly know the city so well! They may live somewhere for years or go there to shop and have lunch, and it turns out that it was once a Jewish shop. Or another link to Jewish history. This installation constructs or recounts this kind of connection, so that the next time a person walks past that spot, perhaps s/he may recall what had been there once. For tourists, this is also a great way to discover the city for themselves in a new way.

Andriy Kobalia:  Could you tell us a few stories, so that our listeners can understand what this is about? Maybe they’ll come here one day, in order to see this with their very own eyes. 

Kerstin Bauer:  I’ll begin with a sad one. In 1972 the Summer Olympics were held in Munich. Germans from the city and elsewhere in the country were very proud of this. A terrorist attack took place during the Games, and several Jewish athletes and coaches were killed. In one photograph you see a room with things strewn about and a woman staring at all this. She is the wife of one of the murdered athletes. At that very second, she was looking at what had happened inside. The photo shows this situation at the critical moment, right after it happened.

These Olympic Games were also the Germans’ attempt to show the world that Germany had changed; that a lot had changed. “We have become democratic and open.” So when the terrorist attack happened, it was a great tragedy for us.

It is interesting that throughout the entire Jewish history of Munich, there were countless numbers of extraordinary personalities. One of them was Richard Willstätter, who was a chemist and won the Nobel Prize in 1915. An installation shows him in his laboratory. He looks like a real scientist. Willstätter taught at our university, but he had to leave when the Nazis came to power. This outcome tells us about a very learned individual who achieved much but was finally stopped because of anti-Semitism.

Andriy Kobalia:  What will the new exhibition be like? What other technologies will the museum be using?

Kerstin Bauer:  Our new exhibition will have a totally different theme. A few years ago we told the story of how the local beer—the symbol of our land—is connected to Jews. We learned that many Jews brewed beer in our city. The new exhibition is about visible and invisible boundaries.

This is the concept: Today many states are erecting borders; this is done by communities, too. The author of the installations reflects on this theme. He shows that borders exist not just between states. For example, I speak in a particular dialect of German. Others speak in other dialects. That’s how people understand who I am and where I’m from. That’s how I am shunted to a particular category of people. So, borders are often not just about what we see.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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