By Jeffrey Barken/JNS.org
BERLIN—Here in Berlin, there is a simultaneous sense
of urgency and growing patience. While Germans embrace the cultural history of
the Jewish people, who they persecuted during the Holocaust, they are seeking
additional forums through which they can break down barriers to dialogue with
Jews in their communities today.
Click photo to download. Caption: The Berlin Jewish Museum’s “The Whole Truth” exhibit, in which Jewish men and women sit in a glass box and answer questions from visitors about Judaism. Credit: © Jüdisches Museum Berlin/Linus Lintner.
This quest can lead modern Germans to challenge what
is considered politically correct. The most striking recent example of this
trend is “The Whole Truth,” a controversial current exhibit at the Berlin
Jewish Museum that confronts many Germans’ shame about the Holocaust as they
explore their own curiosities about Judaism and the Jewish people. Subtitled “everything
you always wanted to know about Jews,” the exhibit employs a large glass box
installation positioned in the center of the hall. Each day, one or more Jewish
guests volunteer to sit in that box, fielding questions about their identity as
museum patrons pass by.
“Germany needs a lot of boxes, because different
groups of people don’t have the chance to meet and mingle as much as they
should,” Bill Glucroft, an American Jew living in Berlin who has volunteered to
sit in the box on several occasions, tells JNS.org.
The exhibit, which opened in March and will close in
September, is now about halfway through its scheduled run time. Michal
Friedlander, its curator, believes a misinformed press has hyped up controversy
about the exhibit, but is pleased by what she says is the overwhelmingly
positive experience most American visitors report after touring the museum.
“The harshest criticism initially came from the U.S.,
where there was some misunderstanding about the exhibition concept,”
Friedlander tells JNS.org.
is very important to understand that the showcase with the Jewish guest is not
an exhibition in isolation,” she adds, explaining that the box with a live person
in it “is situated within the context of an entire exhibition and is a response
to just one of over 30 questions which are posed throughout the show.”
The immediate question posed by the exhibit—“Are
there still Jews living in Germany?” is answered resoundingly by the presence
of resident German Jews who volunteer to sit in the box. The span of religious
devotion among the volunteers runs from the totally non-observant Jew to the ordained
“They are simply people who happen to be Jewish,”
This personal and private interaction between museum
visitors and volunteers who sit in the box fulfills the museum’s primary goal
of introducing Germans who may never have met a Jewish person before to a real
and approachable member of their society.
Asked how he conducts himself while in the box, Glucroft
says, “I’m just myself. I answer questions to the best of my ability. If
visitors expect some grand answer to their questions, then they don’t
understand Jewish culture—the best answer to a question is another question.”
Critics have labeled the exhibit “dehumanizing,” believing that the show
made a spectacle of a human being and stirred up distasteful memories and
vulgar stereotypes of a past era. Stephan Kramer, general
secretary …read more