© Elan Fleisher / Time Out
The ground plan of Libeskind's remarkable building, completed in 1998, is in part based on an exploded Star of David, in part on lines drawn between the site and former addresses of figures in Berlin's Jewish history, such as Mies van der Rohe, Arnold Schönberg and Walter Benjamin. The entrance is via a tunnel from the Kollegienhaus next door. The underground geometry is startlingly independent of the above-ground building. One passage leads to the exhibition halls, two others intersect en route to the Holocaust Tower and the ETA Hoffmann Garden, a grid of 49 columns, tilted to disorientate. Throughout, diagonals and parallels carve out surprising spaces, while windows slash through the structure and its zinc cladding like the knife-wounds of history. And then there are the 'voids' cutting through the layout, negative spaces that stand for the emptiness left by the destruction of German Jewish culture.
The permanent exhibition, which opened in 2001, struggles in places with such powerful surroundings. What makes the exhibit engaging is its focus on the personal: it tells the stories of prominent Jews, what they contributed to their community and to the cultural and economic life of Berlin and Germany. After centuries of prejudice and pogroms, the outlook for German Jews seemed to be brightening.
Then came the Holocaust. This part of the exhibit is the most harrowing. The emotional impact of countless stories of the eminent and ordinary, and the fate that almost all shared, is hard to convey adequately in print. The museum is a must-see, but expect long queues and big crowds. Last entrance is one hour before closing time. There are also some excellent temporary exhibitions to visit.