Berlin: Jewish Museum


Although most of the museums I visited in Berlin ranged from mediocre to downright disappointing, I’ve saved the best one for last: the Jewish Museum. Not only was it air conditioned (a bonus in itself), it was also huge and well thought out.  However, you shouldn’t go expecting a Holocaust Museum (though there is one of those elsewhere in Berlin).  While there is obviously some content relating to the Holocaust, the primary focus of the museum is the history of Judaism.  It kind of reminded me of the Maltz Museum in Cleveland, which is also very good (although I haven’t blogged about it yet!), only much bigger!  The museum consists of two buildings, an old and a new; the new one contains all the permanent art installations.

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You have to go through a full-on airport security style checkpoint upon entering the museum, but I do understand the reason for that.  However, I was irked by (and uncomprehending of) the different admission options.  A single adult ticket was 8 euros, but a family ticket, for two adults and up to two children, was 14 euros!  If they want to let children in free, then fine, but the family ticket should at least cost the same as two regular adult admissions.  So, because my boyfriend and I don’t have children, we had to pay 2 euros more than a whole family would, which I really don’t think is fair.  People shouldn’t be penalised for not having children (even though that does seem to be the trend…I notice the same thing going on with discounts for English Heritage and the National Trust).

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Anyway, you enter the museum down a flight of stairs, which in retrospect seems a bit backwards (although we just went the way the guy working there told us to go), because I feel like the museum makes more sense if you go to the upstairs galleries first.  The downstairs part is really the artsy half of the museum, but it is pretty cool.  It’s made up of long intersecting halls (axis) that are meant to represent different aspects of Jewish life under Nazi Germany.  There’s an Axis of Continuity, Axis of Exile, and an Axis of the Holocaust.  The last one leads to the Holocaust Tower, which is a bunker-like room with only a single shaft of light coming down from the ceiling.  It really is kind of overwhelming being in there, especially because the door is really heavy and slams shut with such finality.  The axis leading up to the Tower is full of objects belonging to families who perished in the Holocaust, with a little paragraph telling their story.  The Axis of Continuity has a learning centre attached with some WWI artefacts (which I appreciated, because WWI tends to get a little lost compared to the even greater horrors of WWII, but I still find it extremely interesting), and a lot of computer modules where you can learn more about certain aspects of the Jewish faith, like keeping kosher.  The final Axis tells the story of the families that successfully emigrated before the war, and leads to the Garden of Exile, which is meant to mimic the experience of being set adrift in a foreign land.  It’s made up of a series of columns set over an uneven pavement, so that wandering around feels disorientating.  It was neat.

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To represent the victims of the Holocaust, the museum also has “dead spaces” built into it; basically passages that lead to nowhere, or halls with nothing in them.  The largest of these is filled with metal plates in the shape of faces, all piled up on top of each other.

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The room next to it had a robot that was copying the Torah at human speed, which was fun to watch, and a distraction from the bleakness of this opening section.  We then progressed upstairs to start exploring the main galleries, which tell the story of Judaism from its beginnings thousands of years ago, up until the present day.  At the start of it, there was a wish tree, meaning you could write down a wish and pin it to the tree, but I was too embarrassed to let other people read my wishes (which probably goes against the whole principle behind it).  Most of this first floor was geared towards Judaism in the Middle Ages (and the Early Modern period), when much of the persecution began in Europe, particularly following times of plague.  There were lots of fun interactive games and activities throughout this floor, and I found it enjoyable and educational (everything was in both German and English, and they appeared to have a range of audio guides available as well).

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The next floor talked more about Judaism in the 19th  and early 20th century, and all the changes that happened in Germany around this time, like the First World War, and the reforms of the Weimar Republic (which were subsequently all reversed when the Nazis came to power).  It was sort of shocking to see how rapidly the rights given to Jews changed during this period, and I can well see what a horrible and confusing time it must have been to live through.

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It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, as they included some more playful aspects of the modern faith, as well as some amusing stories about prominent Jewish philosophers and thinkers.  There was a quirky selection of yarmulkes in one case (apparently you could get a Friends yarmulke when the show was popular), one of those machines that transform coins into flattened out coins that was free (!), and even a vending machine selling kosher Haribo (they sub the pork gelatin with fish gelatin)!

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Unfortunately, because these galleries were so large and full of detail, I was feeling tired by the time I got to the end of them, and kind of rushed through the last sections (which were of course about the time just before and after the Holocaust, so maybe it was good I was able to properly appreciate all the relevant installations before I started looking at this section).  Everything here was incredibly informative, and very well put-together, however, and there were enough interactive things to generally hold my attention quite well.  I was honestly very impressed with this museum, and for once, I think the admission price was a fair one (except for the fact that we had to pay 2 euros more than a family! ugh!).  I’d definitely recommend stopping by this one if you’re in Berlin, because it really is about so much more than the Holocaust, and touches on human experiences common to all of us.  I’m not Jewish, or religious in any way, but I still found it very interesting!  4/5

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  1. I visited here 10 years ago. Strangely, I recognise your descriptions of the axes and the Garden of Exile really clearly but have no recollection of the other stuff at all. Maybe we didn’t go to it all? Maybe only the sombre part sticks in the mind? Strange.

  2. I haven’t been, but my German film professor last semester recommends visiting the museum twice, going through the exhibits one day and the different axes another. They are very different experiences and seem to be a lot to process in one visit.

  3. we didn’t make it to this one, but it looks great. It sucks that some of your Berlin Museum experiences weren’t up to scratch. I agree that some of the pricing is a bit off!

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