Jewish Museum Berlin exhibit stirs controversy

A challenging and controversial new exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin is raising questions about whether the publicly funded museum is exploiting Jewish people to make a point.

Debate over whether so-called Jew in a Box exhibit is educational or offensive

The Jewish Museum Berlin is getting emails every day from Jewish Germans volunteering to sit in the showcase and answer questions. (Linus Lintner/Jüdisches Museum Berlin)

A challenging and controversial new exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin is raising questions about whether the publicly funded museum is exploiting Jewish people to make a point.

The exhibition, entitled The Whole Truth … everything you always wanted to know about Jews, poses the 30 questions most asked by visitors in the 12 years since the museum opened.

They include:

  • How do you know if someone is Jewish?
  • Are Jews good business people?
  • Are you allowed to make jokes about the Holocaust?
  • Do Jews believe in Satan?
  • Are Jews a chosen people?

But the question – and response – most people are talking about is: Are there still Jews in Germany?

The answer is the "exhibit" sitting in a three-sided glass showcase – a Jewish person who responds to visitors' questions for two hours a day.

"What better way to show that Jews are living in Germany than to show real-life people – and to talk to the public about their experience," said Michal Friedlander, the museum’s curator of Judaica.

"It's been presented in the press like we’re putting a Jew into a tiny glass cell and dropping him or her in the grass on the Reichstag like a zoo exhibit, but this is a very open showcase with a wide bench, it's comfortable, accessible and the guest is welcoming. I don't think there would be this fuss if we said, 'Come and meet a Buddhist.'"

Nearly 70 years after the Holocaust, there are fewer than 200,000 Jews in Germany, a country of 82 million residents. Depending on where you are in Germany, you may never meet a Jewish person.

"I think there’s been silence for so many years and there are questions in people's heads, but Germans are quite sensitive and don't want to hurt the feelings of the other person, so there's an awkward feeling that is created," Friedlander said.

"It's a general need, a curiosity and an ignorance. We're about education and we hope we can reach out to people, no matter where they come from."

Since it opened March 22, the so-called Jew in the Box exhibit has drawn sharp criticism in Berlin’s Jewish community and from Jewish people living in the United States. The museum is receiving petitions daily, demanding it close the exhibition.

CBC in Berlin

Karen Pauls is in Berlin to enhance CBC's European coverage at a time when the continent is struggling through one of the most unpredictable periods in recent history. Germany's prosperity is being closely watched as the ongoing fiscal crisis puts the European Union under great strain.

Pauls has covered national affairs in Canada for CBC Radio, and has been previously posted in London, U.K., and Washington, D.C.

Follow her on Twitter @karenpaulscbc.

Some say the museum is using Jews as "exhibition objects" and subjecting them to voyeuristic curiosity – especially since the exhibition is reminiscent of the Final Solution architect, Adolf Eichmann, sitting in a glass booth at his 1961 trial.

"Why don't they give him a banana and a glass of water, turn up the heat and make the Jew feel really cosy in his glass box?" Stephan Kramer, of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, asked The Associated Press.

"They actually asked me if I wanted to participate. But I told them I'm not available."

Kramer could not be reached by CBC News. But in an email response, his personal secretary wrote, "Mr. Kramer already made some remarks on this subject, not as the Secretary General but as a member of the Jewish Community of Berlin. There's nothing more to say at the moment."

Other critics say the exhibit objectifies Jewish people, isolating them and treating them as the "other" – which is exactly what the Nazis did.

"I feel revulsion and a sense of betrayal," said Alexa Dvorson, an American Jewish correspondent who has been living in Germany for 27 years, half of them in Berlin.

"A Jewish Museum that says it's about education is actually reinforcing the misguided notion that Jewish culture and identity is a singular, monolithic entity, and nothing could be further from the truth. Who are they kidding? It's an embarrassment."

There is no intention to offend, Friedlander said, but she adds the exhibition is meant to be provocative, ironic and even humorous. Friedlander invites critics to come see it for themselves before condemning it.

Exhibit confronts treatment of Jews

Meanwhile, many of the volunteers say Jews in Germany are already treated like specimens under glass – and this exhibit confronts that head-on.

"Whenever it comes up in conversation that you're Jewish, non-Jewish Germans have a lot of questions. But they don't know how to ask, so every time you have to decide, ;Do I want to talk about this, do I start a psychological conversation about what did your parents or grandparents do during the Second World War? What did mine do?'" said Signe Rossbach, who took her first "slot" in the showcase earlier this week.

Showcase 'creates a dialogue'

Rossbach, whose mother is a Jewish American and whose father is a German, grew up in a small town near Frankfurt.   

"There's this feeling somewhere between shame and insecurity and reservation, but an awareness of something terrible, so a lot of people don't know how to ask. That's why I work at a museum, and sitting in showcase is exactly what I wanted to do. It creates a dialogue that wouldn't otherwise take place," she said.

"I find it amazing Germany is a country that confronts its darkest hour in this way. There probably aren't many other places where that happens, where the past is analysed, investigated, talked about to this day and I think the Jewish Museum plays a role in that."

The exhibit, which is scheduled to run until Sept. 1, seems to be well-received by many visitors, although it's not always comfortable.

"I have seen this lady sitting in a sort of cage. You are seeing a human figure sitting there and it gives you a sort of quiver, shivers, makes you tremble. You feel something is wrong. So I started talking to her," said Maria, a German woman who didn’t want to give her last name.

"Now I get the idea of this exhibition and now I think it’s better. It’s a nice idea to ask and find information. I have no Jewish friends. There are very few Jews left."

San Francisco resident Richard Caplan said he didn't like the description of a "Jew in a Box," but wasn’t offended by by the actual exhibit.

"It's well-meant," he said.

"She's there to answer questions and since the Jews were eradicated from Germany, I'm sure there are many people who don't know if Jews have horns, or a tail or anything like a normal human being.… I think more of this should be done."


  • A previous version of this story stated that Germany has the largest Jewish population in Europe. The U.K. and France actually have more Jewish residents.
    Apr 09, 2013 2:41 PM ET