My guidebook had this to say about my last museum: "Berlin's Jüdisches Museum, the largest Jewish Museum in Europe, celebrates the achievements of German Jews and their contribution to culture, art, science and other fields... [T]he exhibit also includes one section about the Holocaust, although this is by no means the museum's entire focus. In fact, what makes Berlin's Jewish museum different is that it looks at Jewish history beyond the very narrow context of the 12 years of Nazi rule." I’m sure that’s true. In fact, I wanted to see the special exhibit on Jews in comics, but it cost extra and so I somehow only saw the Holocaust section, and while I guess it shouldn't be surprising that it was an emotional experience it was emotional in a way I wasn't expecting.
What was so profoundly disturbing had somewhat less to do with what I was seeing than with where I was seeing it. The exhibit itself, on the lower floor of a very unassuming building, is surprisingly sparse: a handful of windows set into the walls, each with a small token from somebody's life and a note describing their eventual displacement or murder. There are two longer hallways, the Axis of Exile and the Axis of the Holocaust, and they are intersected by a third hallway, the Axis of Continuity, which leads back to the surface. Many museums attempt to somehow thematically link themselves to their subject via architecture, but this was the only space I’ve ever been in where the intent was to make the visitor uncomfortable, unsettled. The three axes intersect at odd angles, and the floors subtly slant; the walls are perfectly white, the lighting cold, and display windows are set flush with the walls so that the long hallways appear unbroken and clinical. That’s it: three hallways, some exhibit windows, a few artifacts.
The Axis of Exile, which deals with displacement during World War II, leads to the Garden of Silence, a square of twenty-foot-tall stone pillars—the only right angles present anywhere in the exhibit, I was informed—reaching towards the open sky and filled with low-growing trees. Teenagers were playing hide-and-seek between the columns, their echoes surrounding me, and I could see blue overhead; even though I was stumbling over the rocky ground, thrown by the endless columns and the still-slanting floor, the air took away a little bit of the disorientation I was feeling, and I stayed there longer than was necessary, craning my neck to see the clouds. Then I went back inside, to the Axis of the Holocaust.
At that point I was still okay. I walked slowly, reading each plaque and looking at every artifact. I’ve been to a few concentration camps, and what I remember from those is their attempts to overwhelm me: rooms full of shoes, hairbrushes, hair. They try to tell me that I can never understand the number “six million”, that I can’t even come close. The Jüdisches Museum took the opposite approach, sneaking in through tiny details and abstract representational force. The end of the Axis of the Holocaust is an empty room, the Holocaust Tower, with tall grey stone walls and a completely black ceiling. The angles were so completely wrong and the silence was pushing every sound back; the echoes, unlike the almost friendly ones from the teenagers in the Garden of Silence, came at me so loudly that I fled in a panic after less than a minute. There was nothing there, but somehow I was more horrified than it is possible for me to express because there was nothing there. It was shocking, the emptiness of that chamber.
I left not only the room but the exhibit, fumbling for my backpack in the locker, in a rush to exit this nauseating place that felt so quietly and viscerally horrifying and be back in the normal world. In my haste I stumbled out the wrong door and ended up in a garden that seemed benign but which I couldn’t seem to find my way out of, although I could see people in deck chairs, presumably at the museum café, sipping drinks and watching me as I stumbled around. Every gate was locked; every stairway led back to where it originated. At first I laughed, nervously, and acting nonchalant because of the drink sippers—who, frankly, seemed more menacing by the second—but after ten minutes I was walking faster, tugging at doors and trying not to run. After fifteen I was nearly in tears. When I finally found the door I had come out of I burst through, breathless, disoriented and wild-eyed. I ran to the actual exit without caring if I was drawing looks, ran out the doors and to the children’s playground next door. I wrote and sat and ate some bread and cheese and blueberries—blueberries were a great comfort, somehow—watched ants run around on the bench beside me, recovered. Eventually I left, quietly, and went home, went to bed. It was all I could do.