The Jewish Museum, Berlin


I read about the Jewish Museum on TripAdvisor. One entry intrigued me. It spoke of a hall of fallen leaves – where one would walk over metal faces. A weird fascination took me over – I imagined a glass floor beneath which there were statues of faces of people, staring up at me, condeming the luxuy I led my life in as compared to the misery in which they had existed. So I decided to visit the museum last Sunday.

As per my wont, I took the audio guide and walked into the museum. The first few spots were a little tedious, a lot of talk about why the museum was designed the way it was, interviews with the architect and what he wanted to convey. I have heard a lot of this earlier in my visit to the museum of modern art in a previous visit, and after a point, the artist’s view seems fanciful as compared to reality.

The architect spoke of how he had designed three axis in – the axis of the holocaust, of exile and of continuity – depicting the initial horror of the holocaust, the grief of those who fled their hometowns to avoid persecution and the extension into the future.

As I wandered along the axis of the holocaust, I came to a guard standing by a door. He smiled and indicated if I would like to step inside. I smiled back. He held open the door and he shut it after me.

It was a chilling sight to behold. The room seemed not constructed with any architectural impulse in mind, rather, it seemed as if a few corners were haphazardly thrown together in free space between buildings. Walls 20 metres high rose windowless on every corner, pressing a sense of claustrophobia within. There was no window within, save a small sliver of a gap between two corners that let a little light stream in, along with distant sounds of traffic and the world outside. There must have been about 20 people in the room with me, but I could feel the desolation in the air. All of us were drawn to look at the gap that let light in, oh so high up that climbing in seemed impossible. Light, and the sounds of the outside world were precious – simultaneously streaming in visions of the past, and wishes of a future.

In that moment, I felt some of the horror that those imprisoned in concentration camps must have felt. Imagine living months in that space, surrounded by people, all gazing to that beam of light, hoping that they would walk out one day.

As I looked to another wall, I noticed a ladder to the top of roof, only that it started 20 feet above the ground, mocking those below by its inaccessibility.

How men inflict such horrors on their fellow men, I cannot comprehend. And how people maintain their spirits through it all and emerge hopeful in the end is even more incomprehensible. I just felt how petty my concerns were, and how much I take liberty for granted.

I walked out and towards a hall called a momentous void. On the outside, a note on the wall said that it was the work of an Israeli artist who had titled his work “Fallen Leaves”, using over 10000 faces in the portrayal.

I walked in to see that the room was a construction of walls enclosing a long corridor. All along the length of the corridor were strewn metal faces, shoved on top of each other so that they piled up a foot above the ground. There were no refinements in the faces, they were just thick discs of different sizes with holes cut out for eyes, a nose and a mouth. But as I stepped in and started walking through, it seemed as if I could hear the inaudible screams of a million voices, each a mute witness of a horror that erased their identities and consigned them to be remembered only in number of casualties. Yes, six million of us may have died in the war, but each of us was a person once. Now, even memories of us are mangled – we are at once all of us, and none of us, as if all we existed for was to people stories of brutality.

I came away thinking of how much our identity lies in those around us, as much as within us. When all is obliterated, what remains? Maybe all that matters was what we did with our lives. But to whom…?

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