The bright morning sun reflects on the silver-metal building so very softly. I am hurrying along past the fresh green trees, that sway in commotion, as though they are, themselves, confused by the building´s presence. The backs of their leaves are surprisingly silver too. I am hurrying to the morning shift in the Jewish Museum, Berlin. It´s close to nine o´clock, and I have to enter by the small door at the side of the building, which is integrated into the wall, so it doesn´t attract any attention as a door. I pass the security; and flash my ID. It shows a sterile picture of me, my name with my function in the museum: host. I enter the interior of the museum, swiftly walk through the Raphael Roth Learning Centre and make my way through the underground floor. I try not to make too much noise with my black boots, but I can´t help it. The boots are part of the uniform. The granite-grey concrete floor acknowledges my presence in an undulating way. The museum is completely peaceful. In an hour´s time, it will be crowded with visitors. When I pass this section at ten, Coco Schumann will be playing his jazz from the big speakers in the Learning Centre, and the underground level will be in full swing.
I walk, the way most visitors do after they have officially entered through the baroque facade of the museum´s exterior, after they´ve descended into the underground level. The underground is the elemental space of the Jewish Museum, as designed by the architect-artist, Daniel Libeskind. Only from here, can you visit the controversial Holocaust Tower and its counterpart, the Garden of Exile. It´s not bad to work down here, but when the weather is nice outside, we usually refer to the underground as the basement. Little light comes in. Only through the glass window at the end of the Axis of Exile, is there a view which looks out onto the Garden of Exile. It is the only way directly out into the fresh air. None of us hosts ever gets the chance to stand there, since this door is covered by in-house security staff. Sadly, there is no real pleasure in being outside in the Garden. There are 49 columns where you can meander your way through like in a maze, until you feel slightly sick. The ground you stand on has such an unfamiliar inclination – an angle of thirty degrees – that walking around one column will make you feel very disoriented, to the point of giving up. Once a group of young German schoolkids went into the Garden on drugs – they sure weren´t able to walk out straight afterwards.
I turn my head briefly to check along the other axis which leads to the heavy door that opens to the Holocaust Tower. It seems to be lying in the far distance. This is where I usually get the feeling that I´m walking in a expressionistic decor come to life. There´s no straight angle, no perspective. Everything is ajar, oblique, aslant, at an angle, sloping, inclined, lop-sided, awry. I am not the only one. An older and over-perfumed security man once told me: well, when I first started working here, with everything being so crooked, I thought: this is strange – everything is crooked! Really strange, but now … . He kept tilting his head when he tried to chat a bit about work, as though he were trying to make everything straight again. He didn´t finish his sentence, he just kept his head crooked and stared mesmerised into the axes.
The axes: the Axis of Exile and the Axis of Holocaust are two lines or pathways that diverge from the only straight pathway in the museum, the Axis of Continuity. Exile and Holocaust crossect the Continuity. They form an awry triangle, the corridors acquiring a constructivist touch through the lighting contrast of black and white and the sharp outlining of the buildings inside. I wonder if I will be working in the underground today, the chances are about fifty-fifty. Standing at the crossroads and explaining the basics of Libeskind´s symbolic architectonic concept, explaining the strangeness of this place as a whole. The security men are not authorised to explain anything, they just stick to their own task of watching out for possible bombs. If there are any bombs, we are instructed to help the security men, by escorting the visitors out, with a distinctive friendly and helpful manner. It´s us, the hosts, students of all kinds of subjects, who are here to do the talking.
Or maybe I will make it out of the underground today and into the main exhibition. Then I won´t have to talk so much. The classical exhibition starts way upstairs and is spread over two floors displaying 2000 Years of German-Jewish History. I am on my way there, to the first floor, where you walk straight into the end of the exhibition, into the segment treating National Socialism. Hidden behind a banner is another one of those doors in the wall; behind it is the host room. Here we meet for our daily briefing.
24 to 26 young, black-uniformed hosts are sitting in a narrow room. On the walls, information notices are pinned up, from the official roster, to detailed maps of the museum, to dress codes, and there is also a separate post-it board for the hosts. One leaflet stands out because it is hand-written: Humanity instead of Walkie-Talkie Discipline. (Lets be nice to the visitors and help them find their lost persons!). As everyone has their first cup of coffee, the senior host checks his work roster and starts the tombola. Every host has to take one of the 24 coloured cards with numbers on them, surprising him/her on what position he or she will be working this shift. The last numbers, 24 and 25, are the best, since they mean you can be a mobile host, moving freely through the museum. Of course nobody waits their turn; everybody snatches wildly at the cards, to get it over with. Number 1 is good. That means you stand outside, in front of the entrance. Number 3 means Information Desk. The time goes quickly there, as it does in the cloakroom (numbers 2 and 5). Number 4 means ticketing and is the most tedious work of all. Meanwhile cards are being exchanged among hosts.
If it gets really crazy with the cards, one of the hosts might yell in discontent: This is like doing Polish business!. Numbers 6 to 11 are in the underground, number 12 to 21 are in the main exhibition. At the end, the hosts will almost always try to trade their positions for better ones. Although, if you are rostered on for the underground, there is no way of getting out of it. At least in the underground, you get to rotate every hour from position to position, whereas in the main exhibition, there is only one rotation. Rotation is necessary so you don´t go crazy, standing for 6 hours in one place. After the briefing of mildly interesting information by the senior host (how many people are coming, which groups, which VIPs etc.), we are off to work, after having geared up on the walkie-talkies. I am lucky, I got position 24. I am mobile, I will have the luxurious freedom of moving around the house as I please.
A normal day at the Jewish Museum looks something like a light-hearted but morbid circus opening: the individual visitors mix in amongst English school classes, Dutch architects, babbling women´s tour groups from Italy, groups of elderly Israelis, German Protestant congregations. Or the German army, or Neo-Nazis. You never know who. Anonymity is a factor. Once a visitor felt the need to inform me of the fact that the distinguished-looking, elderly gentleman was once an army officer of the Sudeten Germans. Most anonymous of all are the schoolkids who write provocative and stupid texts in the digital guestbook.
THE EXHIBITION – a scene of general, introductory confusion
There are four old blonde ladies in extreme pastel colours standing in front of me, the friendly host. All of them are one to two heads smaller than I am, and they look up at me from beneath their lilac-shaded eyelids. I know, of course, what they are about to ask: Where is the exit? How do we get out?! We want to get out of the museum, please!. It is just the most frequently asked question. Four old blonde heads gazing every which way to see if they can remember where they came from. It doesn´t help. They start to repeat their question louder, and because they are not likely to listen just yet, I let them stand there a little while longer. It is difficult to tell from a person´s face whether or not you should tell them exactly where they are, since this usually distresses people even more. I always have the feeling they would actually prefer not to know.
Where I am standing, celebrational music is coming from the Chuppa-tent; left is the bar mitzvah canopy with its circumcision instruments; to the right of the old ladies is a table decorated with plastic food for shabbat, while scenes from a mediaeval Prague cemetery are projected above their blonde heads. They are standing between the life and death of the Jewish people.
Now, although they are not aware of this, they are standing on the zigzag route that goes through the whole of the exhibition, through the whole of 2000 Years of German-Jewish History. They are now in the segment called Tradition and Change. Chronologically speaking, they are going from the 18th to the 19th century, which means they are almost through with the first floor. Well done, ladies. But what do you mean first floor….? Yes, the first floor, is actually the second floor, if you´re coming from the bottom of the big staircase. But if you´re coming from there, it is also the third entrance on your left and not the second from the bottom. This again is because you start underground, and so you have to count the ground floor in between as an additional floor.
By now I’ve decided I am not going to tell them. No explanations, nothing that tells them how they must have got here. I will just take it for a fact that they exist here, in front of me. I just have to show them the way out of what must be becoming a small Sunday afternoon hell for our visitors.
It is really not the visitors’ fault. This is what this museum does for a living. And what we do for a living is straighten them out. Because the building we are in now is, as you can see if you look at the building from above, or indeed at our plan, a zigzag line, designed by the architect to symbolise that the life and times of the Jewish people have never been straight. The broken line, the zigzag, resembles the line you would get by taking the Star of David apart, without straightening it out. Leaving it tangeld.
The mad little old ladies are beginning to get panicky, their blush becoming an additional colour on the pastel-palette their faces exhibit, and now they are worrying about arriving back at the group meeting point downstairs in the lobby late. I take them the fastest way downstairs and out, with an elevator which is supposed to be designated for use as an emergency-exit. It´s standard procedure, nevertheless, to take the emergency elevators, and we operate them like old-fashioned bell-boys from a lost age. Most of the visitors in need of them are somewhat older, and the museum with its splitting and merging paths of information masses, constant interaction, and visual multimedia displays, with all kinds of stairways, pipelines and hidden corners for the kids, just caters better for the young than it does for the old. In the lift, the choir hums a this is such a confusing museum, and when we get downstairs I send them through the Learning Centre where, once they´ve passed all the colourful computer screens, they will find the exit and their confusion will finally come to an end. (Coco is playing his jazz here, as always.)
A POETRY OF EXITS – intermezzo at work –
This place is confusing, but what could be possibly more confusing is working here. Being friendly and alert at the same time is confusing. Listening to grannies wartime memories and keeping track of the position you are on and the possible emergency-exit routes to take granny in your arms should code red blocks all elevators-not easy.
What is the life-saving difference between ‘code red’ and ‘code blue’?, asks the senior host, who has sneaked up behind your back. The senior host is always in for some worktime-terror. Where are the nearest elevators from this point again? Where is the nearest staircase? What is its number? Oh oh, I am still thinking of granny´s picture of her Polish lover that she just had to show me. We just had an emotional moment on Position no. 21 – in the National Socialism segment.
Well, it must be the Celanhof, I respond, keeping my cool. Most exits end up on the Paul Celan courtyard. This is all I remember from my first and only lesson on evacuation procedure. The magical thing is that I still don´t know exactly which ones do not end up there. Wrong, but the senior now shows some pity, because the Celanhof is a favourite mistake to make. After he tells me where the staircase comes out, which is at the side of the V.Versicherungs building, I immediately forget what he has just told me. The senior host is already moving towards his next prey, but adds: Better learn your emergency-routes by heart next time.
Lieber Besucher, vermissen Sie was? Lieber Besucher, vermissen Sie was? Lieber Besucher, … . It´s a tape, a voice fragment, a question belonging to the installation of the Gallery of the Missing. Most confusing of all are the black, parallelogram-shaped blocks, located throughout the museum, next to which are sets of headphones. They only function if you stand within reach of the oblique blocks, where you can hear frequencies, spoken words. Once, a colleague told me she had had enough of explaining these blocks to people, who put the headphones on in hope of a museum tour and start walking around with them. If I see one of those stupid people, I try to explain it to them, but they just don´t understand. If I say that there are voices of people dead, dead people talking, though, they listen! A host infuriated. Furious and mistaken – because the voices not are not the voices of the dead. Rather they represent text produced by people who once lived, Jewish people: artists, publishers, doctors who left their statements about the times that caused their disappearance.
Disappearance is a central concept in the museum. Just behind me there is a Memory Void. It is hard to explain what a Memory Void is, if you haven´t seen one, but one thing that is for sure, is that most visitors get lost when they are in close proximity to a Void. And a lot of visitors do get lost. The Memory Voids are sections of trapped space within the overall space of the building. The spaces are closed, but always have two windows into the space, in which one can see: nothing, or better put: emptiness. This is to signify the emptiness the schoah has left behind in German culture.
Is one allowed to walk over it? is another of my favourite questions. We are standing in the Walkable Memory Void, the only void you can walk inside of, which is located on the ground floor. For some mysterious reason, we don´t emphasise that it is Walkable, at all . Only when someone asks, are we to whisper the words, yes, you may walk over the round rusty brown and red metallic faces that lie on the ground. This Void is ominous. Its height, its knife-like cutting of space, its massive grey concrete are appalling and fascinating at the same time, although it is, generally speaking, an empty space. The emotional tone comes from the countless faces, which all have the same quirky but basic cut-outs: little holes for the eyes, little circles for the mouth. They are draped over the floor, in layers on top of each other and they are very, very heavy to lift if you try. And they produce a clanging sound once you start walking on them. Although it is not hard to figure out what this space signifies, it is a little harder to envision the meaning of walking over thoseleaves, for that is the name the Israeli artist has given his installation: fallen leaves.
It´s actually a very nice position up here. Once nobody is around. Just don´t let yourself be swept away, because otherwise … this will become a real horror-trip!, an older colleague advised me upon giving me instructions for the spot, position no. 11. The crazy number. Get used to the fact that not all things in the museum have meaning, or no logical significance, at least only in a far-fetched morbid way. Are the faces screaming? Oh god, this thin little old American, professor with his white pomade hair, is seriously asking me this, having already asked if the faces on the floor represented the number of people who were murdered. I have to tell myself I am not trained for these questions, although this is nothing in comparison to the most psychologically tense position in the house: the Holocaust Tower.
Standing at the door to the Holocaust Tower, the Holocaust Axis is the most steeply inclined and awry passage. Standing there, one can only gaze along it and see the people walking upwards, toward that strange exit door at the end. On one of the walls along this Axis, are the names of the Concentration camps, beginning with Groß-Rosen and progressing to Chelmo, which is right next to the door. In the opposite wall, are display-cases containing hand-written letters, landscape drawings, found wallets, neatly folded hand-towels or teddy-bears, the last signs and possessions of the owners who disappeared in the extermination of the Jews. The people in the line leading up to the door are usually quite absorbed by what they see, but there is always the moment when they look up and stare straight ahead, where a troubled curiosity mixes in with the oncoming suspicion directed toward the door. The position of doorkeeper is a very psychological and rather lonely one.
There are no colleagues standing nearby, and you can´t walk away. Your job is to regulate the amount of people going into the Holocaust Tower. However hard it is to believe, some people really don´t have a clue, but rather a kind of unstoppable indifference, and they are okay with simply going where the others want to go. (It is, in the end, just a museum.). Hardly ever does someone turn around and decisively reject going in. They all want to go in. Last time I had a Latin-American couple asking me if the people really died in there. No, this museum was only built three years ago, I try to explain subtly. At least they whispered the question and didn´t come out shouting, Wow! Amazing! That is so horrible! like a young German guy once did. So the doorkeeper regulates the flow of people. Communication with colleagues is reduced to the information about the incoming groups assembling at the entrance that comes over your walkie-talkie constantly.
The groups from the entrance have to enter the museum through a separate gate, through the sluice. They are checked for weapons, made to hand anything suspect over to security, and then off they go to the group cloakroom to hand in their bags. Groups get extra guidance from a somewhat authoritative young male co-ordinator, because groups have to be given more direction. The host outside reports the names of the groups and their size to the group co-ordinator, also mentioning whether they are already registered on the group lists that we are given in advance. Looking up from your spot at the door, you can see some old yellow deportation lists, dating back to Riga in ’44, on display. In front of the door, groups line up for the Tower. How you can stay sane here is a wonder. You tell yourself again, it´s just work, just work … . Most of all, we are there to make the museum a smooth operation: to guide the individual visitors, to direct the groups, to process as many people as possible.
And we do this by working together, by co-operating and communicating the orders and rules, the exceptions and the incidents. We help one another, enjoying small privileges like smuggling somebody into the museum past the entrance check and past the long queues with the help of the other hosts. We show solidarity with one another when one of us gets told off by the visitors at the ticket desk, where you have to see that people don´t bring their bags into the exhibition. I am not giving anything to the Germans ever again!, they exclaim, you know, you´re no different from the rest of them! Just because I have black hair …. Sometimes, we put other hosts in their place, telling them how they should work, as one of our host colleagues likes to do, standing at the main stairs leading to the exhibition, saying: Position no.10 speaking. I am standing here, and all I can see is people bringing their bags in. This is not clean work!
Good work is hard to do, with so many people, visitors, to please and protect. Coming out of the underground, proceeding up the long staircase, standing on position no.12 – the Pommerade Tree. It is here that the exhibitions really starts – 2000 Years of German-Jewish History – with a huge artificial tree, in which you can hang cards in the shape of apples. You can wish for something, write your wish on the card and hang it in the tree. It´s a Jewish symbol for prosperity, good fortune. Once I found a card, one among thousands, saying I wish for a time in which museums no longer have to be kept under the kind of surveillance that this one does. Maybe there are a lot of visitors, but there are also a lot of hosts.