Can jokes be made about Jews in Germany?” Since the Jewish Museum Berlin opened in September 2001, well more than 100,000 people have encountered this audacious and puzzling question as they neared completion of the exhibition. This past autumn, when I toured this impressive institution, I became visitor number 108,642 — 60 years later you still can’t escape the number system over there — as I pushed the big green button to vote yes. Then, overcome with doubt — or was it guilt? — and the piercing voice of a politically correct Deutsche fliegel on my shoulder, I also became visitor number 108,643 as I pushed the big red button to vote no.
Frankly, I was appalled and amused all at once. After a three-hour, 3,000-square-meter journey through the heights and depths of 2,000 years of German Jewish history, culminating, of course, with the Holocaust, I wasn’t exactly in the mood for a survey, much less a comedy quiz. This question, if it must be asked at all, should be posed at the beginning of the journey: Now that would be an opening challenge to the paying customer! And if the museum operators really want to get analytical, ask it all over again at the end. See if the old funny bone is still ready for the rub.
Here’s my question: How can this entire exhibition, so intelligently and carefully assembled, be trivialized by such a question in the first place? Were museum director W. Michael Blumenthal, an American, and his cohorts sitting in his office at that very moment, tongues in their cheeks, observing on hidden cameras as we pondered which buttons to press? Were they more interested — in a morbid homage to “Candid Camera” — in seeing our reactions than the vote tally itself? (The voting results, as of the date of my last visit: 68% of respondents had voted no and 32% yes. No room for the undecided.)
Daniel Libeskind, the museum’s architect, has designed a remarkable and highly moving structure, which is itself worth the trip. In fact, the building, in the zigzag shape of a lightening bolt, was entirely empty yet open to the public for about a year before the actual exhibitions were installed. The sheet zinc exterior is chilling and stark. Once inside, his use of lines, diagonals, slits, intersecting passageways and tilted angles make walking through the museum an experience unto itself. Yet further questions in similar media displays appear at other junctures of the show, along with a running count of voting results, a preposterous polling that leaves little more than a mist of superficiality hovering over the stench of German history.
Another such question was “Can a Jew be elected president in Germany?” The totals on that one were 67% yes and 33% no. Obviously, most of the naysayers forgot that Richard von Weizsacker, president of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1984 to 1994, was of Jewish heritage. The rest, perhaps, remain in simple denial. (I’m still puzzled how the museum, itself, overlooked this detail.)
As for those who voted yes, were they merely remembering von Weizsacker and confirming their knowledge of his heritage by casting their vote, or were they affirming their belief that it’s theoretically possible? (Not necessarily probable, mind you, or even desirable, but possible, in a cheery, what-the-heck kind of way.)
Now if the museum honchos really wanted to stir the pot, they could have asked, “Can a Jew be elected chancellor?” After all, the president is largely a ceremonial position, a nice job for those who crave diplomatic tea and photo ops. But chancellor! Imagine the coup if enough people voted yes. The German people could ride a public-relations gravy train, proclaiming, “Look how far we’ve come! Only 60 years after the Holocaust, and we’ve actually elected a Jew as chancellor!”
There’s a final question posed to visitors just before they exit. “Considering German history and the potential of the Holocaust being repeated in some shape or form, is there an enduring flaw in the German character?” A quick glance at any newspaper is proof that civilization persists in perpetuating its own flaws. Germans certainly didn’t invent bad behavior, they simply mastered it. And here’s their chance to exhibit a bit of redemption.
Here’s how I see it. If they’re going to ask questions, why not go for ones that cut to the heart of the matter, such as, “Would you look the other way when a bunch of skinheads on a subway hassle an Indian guy or beat a black man down?” Followed immediately by, “Are you sure?,” “Are you sure?,” “Are you sure?” (That series would require four different buttons.)
Or “Would you marry a full-blooded Jew and make children with him or her?” “Would they be considered German Jews or Jewish Germans?” And finally, “In your view, do Jewish women really love shopping (for shoes) more than sex?” Considering the insatiable German appetite for statistics and academic introspection, we might at last be getting somewhere.
A better approach would be to avoid the big buttons altogether. Instead, end your museum experience in the void of the Holocaust Tower, a blackened, seemingly endlessly high space with a single ray of light piercing the hollow darkness. As empty as you may feel, you’ll leave quietly, full of questions that truly have no answers.
David Tabatsky, a New York-based performance artist, teacher and journalist, lived in Berlin for four years, performing original solo theatre pieces such as “How I Survived My Jewish Mother” and “Help! I Married a German!” This is his first appearance in the Forward.