For nearly 300 years there were no Jews in Munich. None.
Those 300 years without one Jew is made real at Munich's newest museum, Judisches Museum Munchen (Jewish Museum of Munich), where displays are presented in both the German and English languages. The museum opened a year ago.
On the main floor of the museum a timeline stretches along one long, white wall. When visitors walk past the timeline, they can't help but feel the length of all those years without one Jew in Munich.
It seems that in 1442, Duke Albert III ordered all Jews expelled from the Dutchy of Bavaria. (That's where Munich is located, in the Bavarian portion of what is now Germany.) A handful of Jews were allowed back in 1725.
According to city records, Jews from Vienna were invited back as "court Jews," or moneylenders. Christians believed that collecting interest was a sin, but paying it was not and, in 1725, the royalty was in need of some loans
The timeline also shows how Jews were persecuted for several hundred years before their 1442 eviction. They were blamed for everything from killing Christian babies to causing the plague. (Of course in those days no one understood how the plague was actually spread, so it was said that the Jews put a plague-inducing poison in the town's well.)
When something went wrong in medieval Munich, the townsfolk knew what to do. They gathered in a mob to burn the synagogue. Sometimes they killed a few Jews as well.
As you keep walking along the timeline, you learn there were only 20 Jews in Munich in 1750, but that in 1777, under the reign of an elector named Karl Theodor, the bans were lifted and thousands of Jews moved in. In 1871, with the unification of Germany, Jews were granted full rights of citizenship.
The stark design of the timeline, and the way it requires a bit of a stroll to view it, gives the visitor a sense of space. Your mind is freed a bit in this museum. It is almost as if you are encouraged to let your thoughts wander.
Americans who stroll along the timeline might find themselves realizing that, in 1777, we were fighting for independence from a country that treated us as second class. We might realize that Jews in Germany got citizenship at about the same time that slavery was abolished in the U.S..
There are other displays in the museum as well. The displays are few and simple and, like the timeline, all the more dramatic for their simplicity.
One interactive display features a large map of the city spread out on the floor. When you place a large signpost on a site on the map, a photo appears on the wall. It is a photo of a family who lived at that address before World War II. A caption tells you about their accomplishments.
You learn about scientists, business owners, college professors. At this site, among other things, you'll learn that the entire Kraus family fled to Palestine in 1936.
Another display consists of a line of speakers in the ceiling. Visitors pause underneath a speaker box and hear first person accounts of what it was like to be Jewish in Munich.
Letters and diaries of the dead are read by actors. But those who are alive today tell their own stories.
At this display, English speakers will hear the voice of Gigi Hoelin who says she arrived in Munich from America in 1990. Now, 16 years later, she knows the language and is raising two children here. Her children are half German, she notes.
She says she tells her children that Germany today is different than it was. Her voice chokes as she adds, "In my heart I hope this is true." She doesn't often tell anyone she is Jewish, because, she says, Munich is such an overwhelming Christian city. Hoelin doesn't think the people who live in Munich understand other religions.
And of course, that is the challenge of building a Jewish Museum in a place where the Jewish population has been obliterated, not once but twice.
As a scholar named Bernhard Purin said at a 2004 conference on the future of Jewish Heritage sites, "There is a significant difference between Jewish museums in Germany and elsewhere." In Germany, museums have been established for a largely non-Jewish public, people who don't know much about the Jewish religion, culture or history.
Jewish museums in Germany face three challenges, Purin said. First, they have to decide how to deal with the subject of looted art. Second, descendents of Germany's Jewish families, from all over the world, want to feel a part of the museum community because it is all they have left of their heritage.
And third, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, 10,000 Jews immigrated to Germany. Now there is great diversity within the Jewish communities in Germany. At some point, the stories of the newest immigrants will need to be included, Purin believes.
The Jewish Museum of Munich is up-front about stolen items, or "disappropriations." Names are named.
As for the challenge of including descendents, the museum contains a library and online connections so that visitors can do genealogical research right on site.
But when it comes to the inclusion of the Soviet immigrants' stories, perhaps more could be done. A few of them, certainly, can be heard on the recordings. Yet, Munich's Jewish community is one of the fastest growing in Germany.In 1989, there were 3,000 Jews in Munich. Today there are more than 9,000. The story of the community's diversity will no doubt be the subject of future displays within the museum.
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