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  • Writer's pictureHester Vaizey, PhD

A Brief History of the Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum)

What is the Jüdisches Museum?

The Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum) in Berlin focuses on the social, cultural and political history of Jews in Germany. It was first opened in 2001 and is housed in both a distinctive Baroque palace and an innovative modern building.

Jüdisches Museum History

A museum dedicated to the Jewish people in Berlin, the capital of the nation state that perpetrated the Holocaust in which roughly six million Jews died during the Second World War, was always going to attract scrutiny. It was no surprise then, that the process of taking the idea of the museum and making the permanent exhibition a reality in 2001 was a controversial one.

Since the fall of the Third Reich, Germany has been on a journey to make amends publicly for the actions committed at the initiation of the anti-Semitic Nazi Party. The National Socialists aimed to make Germany completely ‘judenfrei’ or free of Jews. Following violent action on so-called ‘Kristallnacht’ on the 9th of November 1938, when Jewish shops and synagogues were violently attacked by Nazi Brownshirts, many German Jews decided to emigrate. But for those who did not, life was made increasingly unpleasant by a growing raft of restrictions imposed against them – from bans on working in certain professions to exclusion from certain public places such as swimming pools. Many shops also displayed signs declaring that Jews were not welcome.

Under the veil of war, the Nazis took the opportunity to step up their discrimination against Jews, whom they had always demonised as an existential threat to Germany’s economic prosperity and moral health. Jews were rounded up by the Gestapo and deported to concentration camps, mostly in Eastern Europe, where they were murdered or worked to death. The sheer scale of the Nazi’s crimes against the Jews was revealed, beyond doubt, when these camps were liberated at the end of the Second World War. Yet for the Jews that survived these camps, liberation was not usually the end of the story. Many suffered from the trauma of what they had witnessed and others endured survivor’s guilt. The Holocaust cast a long shadow, affecting the children of survivors too, as their own lives were also affected by their parents’ mental suffering and the inheritance of trauma.

Memory Void with installation Shalekhet by Menashe Kadishman, Jewish Museum Berlin

Superchilum, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Berlin has developed numerous civic initiatives to commemorate the Jewish people murdered in the Holocaust. Since 1996, ‘Stolpersteine’ (or ‘stumbling stones’), measuring 10 cm by 10 cm, have been laid into the pavements of the capital to mark the last voluntary residence of victims of the Nazi regime, among whom the most numerous were the Jews. The monumental Holocaust Memorial in central Berlin, made up of 2,711 concrete slabs, was also unveiled in 2005.

The Jewish Museum, however, elects not to focus solely on the Holocaust. Its exhibits cover the general social, cultural and political history of Jews in Germany, examining the enormous contributions made to Germany by its Jewish citizens. It’s composed of an old Baroque building and a new addition by American architect, Daniel Libeskind. It’s chiefly Libeskind’s work that makes the museum world-famous. It’s thanks to his design that visitors have a unique, physical experience, designed to convey insights about the history of the Jews through the architecture.

After entering the 18th-century Baroque Kollegienhaus, you’ll go down by stairway through a dramatic Entry Void, into the underground. The descent leads to three connected, underground routes, each of which tells a different story. The first leads, poetically, to a dead end – the Holocaust Tower – where daylight penetrates the unheated concrete tower only through a narrow slit. The second leads out of the building and into the Garden of Exile, which was designed to commemorate those who were forced to leave Berlin. The third and longest path leads to the Stair of Continuity, then up to the main exhibition. Libeskind’s disorientating architectural design, coupled with a broad range of emotionally moving installations and pieces, create a powerful and memorable experience.

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