Jewish museum stands empty

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BERLIN HAS a new Jewish Museum. Given the history of the city, where the last such dedicated building opened its doors five days before the Nazis came to power and was closed for good after Kristallnacht in 1938, that is quite an achievement. On Friday, the keys were handed over to the museum's director in a style befitting so momentous an event, launching a week-long celebration of galas, receptions and seminars. Only the public was missing.

The people, too, will be admitted this Saturday, and later, guided tours will be organised intermittently for their benefit. And then they will be banished again, for there is nothing to see except the building itself. The Jewish Museum, designed by the architect Daniel Liebeskind in the shape of a mangled Star of David, is the sole spectacle, be-cause no one has any idea at the moment what should be hanging on its crooked walls. Only in October 2000 will the museum really open, hopefully with a comprehensive display on the long history of Germany's Jews.

Why this should be so - after 25 years of debate over its form and content - has to do less with a shortage of suitable artefacts, and more with contemporary architecture and the space-generating power of the "Shoah industry". A collection of sorts already exists, cramped into another museum's annexe. In its sprawling new home, though, the old display will be lost in Liebeskind's warped space.

The critics have not been kind to Mr Liebeskind's "House of Horror," to quote Spiegel, or "lecture in concrete and steel", according to a Munich daily. The zig-zagging grey structure has had an atrocious press. It has been variously called "claustrophobia" and "vertigo". "May God protect us and architecture from such people," exclaimed Amnon Barzel, the former director of the Jewish Museum, when he first saw the design.

God heard him not, and the Liebeskind building now stands proudly at the fashionable end of Kreuzberg. "A jewel in the treasure chest of Berlin museums," enthused the city's "Senator" in charge of culture, Peter Radunski, at Friday's ceremony. "New architecture for the new Berlin," gushed Jurgen Klemann, the city official responsible for construction.

The critics wonder, however, how conventional displays can be squared with the crazy geometry of such a novel structure. Putting a collection together "in the context of the building is a huge challenge," admits a spokeswoman for the museum. Michael Blumenthal, the former US Trade Secretary who is the museum's new director, is said to be brimming with ideas.

Fortunately for him, Mr Liebeskind has laid aside vast empty spaces for contemplation - so-called "Voids" - signifying the years when Jewish life was all but extinguished in Berlin. Beside the permanent collection, Mr Blumenthal plans to fill the remaining rooms with a library and archives. There is also talk of bringing Steven Spielberg's Shoah Stiftung, which consists of 50,000 videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors, to Berlin.

Unfortunately, Mr Blumenthal was unexpectedly lumbered this week with a few more acres of empty walls, crying out for the very things he had been trying to entice to his museum. For in Germany's desperate search for ever more impressive symbols of atonement, the barren field near the Brandenburg Gate that was to become the Holocaust monument has sprouted a museum. To Mr Blumenthal's embarrassment, he has been asked to fill that, too, with - yes - a library, archives and maybe the Spielberg collection.

No decision has yet been made, but it looks as though the 2,700 concrete pillars designed by architect Peter Eisenman will be reduced to 2,000. This field will be enclosed by a "House of Remembrance", to placate those who had criticised Mr Eisenman's "abstract" monument and bemoaned its lack of educational content.

One day, if all goes well, Berlin will be able to boast not only the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on its outskirts, as well as the world's biggest Jewish museum, but also a Holocaust memorial and museum of unrivalled proportions in its midst. Sachsenhausen, it has to be admitted, is a little run-down, because funds for wartime memorials are being diverted to the Holocaust prestige projects in the city centre. Meanwhile, Mr Blumenthal will gratefully receive ideas about filling his rooms.