On August 27, our first full day in Munich, we saw two museums that could not have been more different. The first was a spare and dramatic testimony to the enduring presence of Munich’s Jewish community, and a damning record of the many efforts that have, for centuries, been intended to exterminate it. The second was (yet another) lavish demonstration of what happens when powerful people use vast amounts of public money to beautify their personal environments.
Munich’s Jewish Museum
We arrived at Sankt-Jakobs-Platz just as the Saturday morning services at the magnificent Ohel Jakob Synagogue were ending. The synagogue, the museum and a community centre, all completed in the mid-aughts of this century, form a focal point for Munich’s Jewish community. The synagogue stands a few blocks from one that was destroyed in 1938, and while it would be wonderful to think that the kind of thinking that leads to such devastation has been confined to history, that is not the case: in 2003 authorities uncovered a plot by neo-Nazis to bomb the cornerstone ceremony for this new facility, and “security concerns also led to the decision to house a memorial to the more than 4,000 Jews of Munich who were killed in the Holocaust in a tunnel between the synagogue and the community centre” (Wikipedia).
One of the people we chatted with out front of the synagogue observed that it looked like a tefillin box.
Inaugurated in 2007, the Jüdische Museum München is a stunning building with a see-through main floor that features a book/gift shop and a cafe. The permanent exhibition on the lower level is both elegant and moving. It includes an audio installation called Voices, which allows visitors to hear the stories of some of the thousands of Jews who have moved to Munich in the past 200 years. Other installations showcase the accomplishments of Jewish residents of Munich (including a Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and the lovely objects associated with Jewish rituals and traditions.
Two installations bring home the historically precarious nature of life itself for Munich’s Jews – one a chronology of significant events, another a display created by the renowned comics creator Jordan B. Gorfinkel, a former New Yorker who worked at DC Comics for many years, where he helped to create the Batman series.
The upper levels of the Jewish Museum house temporary exhibitions. One that engaged me for quite a while was called Heidi in Israel. It demonstrates how Johanna Spyri’s 1880 novel – about a young girl who is overwhelmed by loneliness when she is taken away from her grumpy but beloved grandpa and from their home in the Swiss Alps, and sent to work in the city – struck a particular chord with children living in what is now Israel, many of whom were European Jews who were coming to terms not only with homesickness, but with the whole concept of “homeland.” The novel was first translated into Hebrew in 1946, and has appeared in various forms to acclaim in Israel ever since, including as a radio drama and a play. Of course, Heidi is beloved by children everywhere and has been translated into many languages: one of the museum’s guides and I shared a moment when we realized that we had both read and loved the book within a few years of one another – she in Germany, and me in Canada.
I was intrigued to read on Wikipedia that “As an alternative to the mandatory national military service, young Austrians have the opportunity to serve as Austrian Holocaust Memorial Servants at the Jewish Museum Munich.”
Munich’s Residence Museum
The Munich Residenz is the former palace of the Wittelsbach monarchs of Bavaria, who occupied the facility from 1508 to 1918 – i.e., for more than four hundred years. This gave them time to acquire an awful lot of stuff. (Part of the palace was destroyed during World War II, but most of what was bombed has been rebuilt and restored.) It is no surprise to learn that this is the largest city palace in Germany, because it is huge. It includes ten courtyards and 130 rooms, and our feet wore out long before we tired of looking at the profusion of furnishings, artworks and decorations.
These photos depict only a small sample of the treasures on display at the Residenz.
And that was Saturday.