Munich. For many Jews, the first name associations may be the 1972 Olympics, or the destruction of the main synagogue during Kristallnacht, or the concentration camp Dachau. However, a city that once was a hotbed for anti-Semitic activity is now home to a thriving Jewish community, partially thanks to the former Soviet Jewish emigration trend. The Jewish Museum of Munich chronicles this past and tackles questions of Jewish identity in Germany.
Located in the heart of the city, St. Jakob’s Platz contains three ultra-modern, geometric, stone, cube-shaped buildings, visually set apart from the surrounding, traditional Gothic architecture. The contemporary exterior reflects the young Jewish population in Munich and the rebirth of Jewish life. A plainclothes Israeli soldier casually patrols the area — a hint of the security precautions common in Germany ever since the 1972 Olympics. The buildings house the Ohel Jakob Synagogue, the community center (with the only kosher restaurant in all of Munich), and the Jewish Museum. There are no large signs, lights, or obvious Stars of David; to the unaware passerby, the only clues indicating Jewish life are the two enormous metal doors to the synagogue (locked, except on Shabbat) that display the Aleph-Bet.
Remnants of the Shoah are inescapable in Germany. On any given car ride, it is not uncommon to spot road signs labeled “KZ” (Konzentrationslager or concentration camp). Cities are memorial sites for Holocaust victims and Jewish history. These memorials are often plaques with names of previous Jewish inhabitants, copies of Nazi decrees limiting Jewish life, or the name of a concentration or extermination camp.
With such a dark history, my first step into the museum was a bit of a surprise: lining the walls are enlarged comic strips from artist Jordan B. Gorfinkel’s series Everything’s Relative. In typical Jewish fashion, humor is used to deal with a dark subject. The comics confront sometimes-taboo subjects from the get-go. Characters in the comics ask: Why do Jews choose to live here? How do different Jewish generations view their relationship to Germany? Is purchasing German goods verboten?
The remainder of the museum is organized into six categories: Objects (Sachen), Times (Zeiten), Places (Orte), Rituals (Rituale), Images (Bilder), and Voices (Stimmen). The museum’s philosophy is to present a wide range of Jewish history and culture, purely by using facts and primary sources rather than trying to recreate historical events to make visitors “feel” as though they had been there themselves. This allows each visitor to interpret events for him or herself. For example, the Pictures/Places exhibit involves putting a sign on a floor map of Munich, which in turn illuminates a photograph on a screen of an event that took place there. One such picture is of a group of women on an airplane in 1947. They appear flushed with excitement at the prospect of immigrating to Palestine. The description reads that in the six years following WWII, more than 120,000 Eastern European Jews travelled through Munich, making it a temporary center for the Sche’erit Hapleta (the “saved remnant”) whose aim was to emigrate.
Each exhibit is introduced with a broad, open-ended question. In the Objects section, a Torah scroll cover is on display. It had been donated to the Ohel Jakob Synagogue in 1887 and was later saved from the temple’s destruction in 1938. The accompanying text asks very generally: to whom do items in a collection belong? To the museum who bought it, to the Jewish community in Munich, or to the descendants of the family who originally donated it? In the latter cases, is it really even a loss if the museum gave the object away?
Being exposed to a timeline of Jewish history in Munich was surprisingly fascinating. It traced the earliest mention of Jewish life (1229: a Regensburg document mentions an Abraham of Municha) to the most recent developments (November 6, 2006: reconstruction of St. Jakob’s Platz Synagogue is completed 68 years after its destruction). The timeline documents not only anti-Semitic incidents, but also the rich history of Jewish life in Munich (Germany is, after all, the birthplace of the Reform and Modern Orthodox movements).
The very last exhibit of the museum was a kind of tunnel, with audio speakers hidden in the walls. Recordings of Jews who choose to live in Munich whisper all along the tunnel, telling their personal histories and explaining their connections to the city. By allowing Jewish voices to speak for themselves and Jewish artifacts to stand alone, the museum is leaving interpretation up to its visitors. And when dealing with the deeply tragic — as well as vibrant — history of the Jews in Munich, this unbiased approach is best.