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  • “I would never want to be the head of a Holocaust museum” Hetty Berg on the Jewish Museum Berlin


“I would never want to be the head of a Holocaust museum” Hetty Berg on the Jewish Museum Berlin

An interview with Hetty Berg, the head of the JMB an the author of several books on Jewish cultural history.

Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

Running a Jewish Museum in the capital of the former Third Reich would have put most people off. Add a pandemic and an atmosphere so rife with suspicion that your predecessor quit, and it must feel pretty overwhelming. But the Dutchwoman took up the challenge in April 2020 with quiet determination, even gusto. We met with Berg for a chat about the future of one of Berlin’s boldest museums.

When you took office in April 2020 and you said – “it won’t be an easy task” – what exactly did you mean? The political context following your predecessor’s controversial departure or the fundamental challenge of running a Jewish museum in the land of the Shoah?

Even before I applied, people were saying: “Who wants to sit on a burning chair?” And then, when I got the job, many told me: “Oh, this is the most difficult job in all of German culture.” Of course the JMB has a huge symbolic meaning for Germany. So that was already a bit intimidating. I thought, oh, I’ll be walking on eggshells all the time.

Was the fact that you were coming from Amsterdam as an “outsider” a little liberating – you weren’t involved in the internal feuds your that led to your predecessor’s departure (who had to quit following accusations of anti-Israel bias).

I didn’t know anybody, so I was totally without preconceived ideas about people. I just had to be very clear about what I think our task is, and what our topics are. Of course, everything to do with politics in the Middle East is extremely complicated and sensitive, especially here. But I don’t see this as a theme of the Jewish Museum Berlin. What is important for us, and for Germany, is to engage with topics and questions that relate to the society that we’re part of, here. Not in the Middle East.

Israel once complained about the JMB with an official letter to Angela Merkel demanding that Germany stop funding a Museum “that reflects the Palestinian-Muslim view of Jerusalem”.

It wasn’t that Israel complained but prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu. But as I said, I don’t expect something like that to happen again. Let’s just say there are many stakeholders, or many people that maybe have opinions about this institution, and they’re totally entitled to have their opinion. Luckily, as an independent institution, we can set our focus and our programming ourselves, independently.

As JMB director, do you feel you have a duty to represent the local Gemeinde? The Central Council of Jews accused your predecessor Schäfer of not representing the community …

This museum isn’t there to represent anyone, that’s not our task. I want this house to be a place where the Jews also like to come and where they recognise themselves. This place is for everybody, for non-Jews and for Jews. It would be very, very strange to have a Jewish Museum to which Jews don’t want to come! But we don’t represent them. That’s something totally different.

Coming from Amsterdam, do you think people relate to Jewish issues in different ways here?

Yeah, it is different, which is also logical because of Germany’s National Socialist history. Many people still find it difficult to deal with this past. Even if these people are not those responsible for what happened during Nazi Germany.

You don’t believe in collective responsibility or collective guilt?

Well that depends what you mean by responsible: they are not personally responsible for what happened. But I think it’s good that there’s this consciousness, and that they feel this responsibility to deal with this past. That’s very important. But when individuals today start to feel guilty about it? I wish that weren’t so. You have people that are extremely conscious of it, and that sometimes even say that they feel guilty about it. Then I think: it wasn’t you. You also have those who don’t want to have anything to do with it anymore. They say they’ve had enough with the Holocaust and want to move on and forget about it – that’s not a good idea either. Now that the last survivors are dying, it could be a good moment for people on the side of the perpetrators to look again into their own family history, because I think these are necessary impulses.

Some years ago the JMB had a pretty bold exhibition about Jews and prejudice, including polling visitors about how intelligent/handsome/ business-savvy Jews are – you could drop a coin in transparent canisters – and surprise surprise, the “intelligent/smart” and “money-savvy” ones were full – “beautiful” wasn’t. So it was a joke – but in the end, it wasn’t.

These are prejudices you keep encountering. That they are still so prevalent shows there’s a lot to do. Hopefully by visiting our museum, people get some food for thought or some counter information to the prejudices that they maybe have. If we can get them to think about it… to maybe change a bit of what they know about Jews. But we’re also not a place to fight anti-semitism. Because I think that’s the task of the non-Jewish society.

You’re definitely among the very narrow circle of women heading a major museum in Germany. Do you think women bring a different managerial approach?

I’ve brought a very different approach, this may have to do with being a woman but also very much with being Dutch and not German. This means being much less hierarchical: I prize discussion and a consensual process with colleagues to a top-down approach. I also like giving responsibility to people. I think the culture within the house has changed already. And I’m very happy about that.

The JMB isn’t a Holocaust museum, but a museum dedicated to Germany’s Jews. You’ve been adamant about that. Can you explain?

Absolutely, It’s not that we want to present ourselves as having nothing to do with the Holocaust. But we’re not a Holocaust Museum. Really not. I would never want to be the director of a Holocaust Museum. In my eyes, the period of the Holocaust has to be presented in the context of what happened before, and what continues as Jewish life after. Especially here in Germany, where the one thing that people know about Jews is that they got killed. It’s extremely important to present Jewish life, the richness of Jewish history and culture. That’s what we do in the permanent exhibition. And hopefully, visitors get this feeling like oh, there are still Jews living here and they’re very diverse. And they get a notion of what it means to be Jewish in Germany today… from many Jewish perspectives.

But the Libeskind building is very much linked to the Holocaust narrative… with its Holocaust Tower, Menashe Kadishman’s ‘Memory Void’, The Garden of Exile…

Yes, that’s all very loaded with this particular history. But people also go up to the permanent exhibition to experience this big historical context of 1700 years of Jewish life. And there are also the changing exhibitions, to do with Jews here in Germany, as with the work of Yael Bartana or Frédéric Brenner… Or it can be art exhibitions, like the upcoming one this year about the École de Paris, those Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine etc – those exiles from Eastern and central Europe who went to Paris in the early 20th century.

Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

Does giving Jewish people a voice also involve shifting the Holocaust narrative from Jews as victims to Jews as subjects of that history?

Exactly. So even when we present the Holocaust period, or the Shoah, or as we call it the Catastrophe, we tell the story from the Jewish perspective. We try to show that even in those terrible times, where there were more than hundreds, almost thousands of Gesetze, Verordnungen, against the Jews, and violence was committed against them, we also show how they reacted, and how they tried to make their own decisions, as long as it was possible. It became more and more difficult, there was less and less room to take agency, but this is still what they did.

We grew up with a very binary narrative of WWII made of perpetrators one side whose were victims tracked down and killed, and a courageous Schindler’s List few on the other. That’s the vulgate, right?

Exactly. But Jews are not just these people getting killed. There’s so much more to it. So, this is what we show: the diversity of experiences, and of voices. We also show a diverse picture of contemporary Jewish life, because people have often quite a limited idea about what being Jewish means.

What does it mean to be Jewish?

That’s what we show at the end of the permanent exhibition you have this Schlusschor in which all these different Jews today to share their own unique experience. It’s very important to get a diverse, pluralistic message across. It depends who you ask. It’s like asking what does it mean to be a woman, you’ll also get many different answers, but we’re still women.

Do you remember the first time you came to the JMB?

When, after 30 years, I had to empty my office in Amsterdam to come here, I found notebooks with the notes that I made in 2002. That’s when I’d come with a group of colleagues from Amsterdam’s Jewish museum to see Berlin’s brand new museum.

So what were your impressions back in 2002?

What struck me of course was the building. I scribbled many notes about Libeskind’s concept: I was interested by his idea that the void supports the construction of the building. And how the windows are a projection of all these address lines of important Jews in the city. He collected all these addresses of Jews that had been living in Berlin and then he drew the lines that make up this architectural pattern. So that’s why he called his architecture Between the Lines. Libeskind says the voids are holding the two museum parts, holding something together that cannot be held together. That’s what I found interesting!

Especially when you think the JMB was only supposed to be an extension of the old city museum…

Yes, initially they just wanted a Jewish section in the City Museum of Berlin. Then Libeskind designed this building. And his project was chosen. And then the Wall fell. And then under the founding director Michael Blumenthal, it became the Jewish Museum it was never meant to be!

Now you spend most of your time here, what is your favourite part of this crazy building?

I like the garden a lot. Outside, in between the buildings. It’s the best way to experience how special the building is – even more than when you’re in it. And if you go up those long stairs, and see all those beams that connect the walls to each other? I find it very, very beautiful. And the glass courtyard is, of course, also a great space.

When you took office was there anything particular that amazed or surprised you about this place?

The amount of visitors and the age of the visitors. How young they are, much younger than all the other museums that I know, an age group that in the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam we could hardly get.

Like DHM, entrance to the JMB is now free of charge since 2021. Are you expecting even more visitors?

I’m very pleased about that. It’s extremely important, especially with a place like our new Children’s Museum ANOHA, that everyone can come to us, not only those who can afford it – especially in this neighbourhood. We have outreach programmes, also for specific communities such as the Arab and Turkish populations, and one for Eastern European populations. We hope kids can have fun here. And adults as well of course.

ANOHA has been a big success since its opening last year. It’s booked out!

Yes, everybody that gets in really loves it, because it’s so beautiful with those 150 amazing life-size animals made by artists out of recycled objects, and while you are visiting the museum, you are diving into the story of the Ark of Noah. The guide interacts with the children on topics like climate change and sustainability and talks with them about what they enjoy or fear, how we want to live together. It’s really amazing! We always had an offer for schoolchildren, from aged ten upwards, but we did not have anything for younger kids, like in Amsterdam, where we had this successful children’s Jewish museum for more than 20 years. I’m glad we have ANOHA here.