Jewish Museums in Europe Put Forth Problematic Narrative

One section of these exhibitions is missing. One section, which I thought was just as obviously necessary and important as each of the previous three, doesn’t even make an appearance in one.

Everyone has their thing when they travel. For some people, it’s collecting shot glasses. For others, it’s going to every top listing on TripAdvisor.
For me, it’s visiting as many Jewish museums as possible.
Throughout my semester abroad, I’ve visited Jewish museums in Rome, Athens, Berlin, London, Paris and my home base of Amsterdam.
As a fan of Jewish history, these visits have been the highlights of my trips. Each museum has something unique to boast.
In Rome, it’s the included tour of the Great Synagogue. In Athens, it’s the structure of the museum itself, composed of nine levels that spiral from the ground floor to the top. In Berlin, it’s the Shalechet (Fallen Leaves), an art installation with more than 10,000 faces made from iron covering the floor to commemorate lives lost to violence.
Importantly, I’ve learned that Jewish museums in Europe display similar structures in their permanent exhibitions. There is always a section on Jewish traditions. Signs, cards or audio guides explain holidays, the Jewish life cycle and daily rituals. Usually the artifacts that accompany the written or oral information come from the community in which the museum is located.
Then there’s a section on Jewish history. This is my favorite section. Most of the information focuses specifically on the history of the local Jewish communities. For example, the museum in Athens displays artifacts from as long ago as third century B.C., and the museum in Paris has an entire alcove covering the Dreyfus affair.
Finally, there’s a section on the Holocaust.
Berlin’s is the most extensive — for obvious reasons. The museum not only includes plenty of historical information, but much of the building’s design commemorates the Holocaust as well. The Shalechet art is part of the museum’s Memory Void — rooms in the museum left empty to honor the Jewish humanity forever lost in Berlin.
But one section of these exhibitions is missing. One section, which I thought was just as obviously necessary and important as each of the previous three, doesn’t even make an appearance in one.
No museum has a section on post-Holocaust, contemporary Jewish communities.
All the museums touch on this topic, of course.
The museum in Amsterdam, for instance, has one modest plaque covering present-day Jewish life. The sign simply explains that “43,000 Jews live in the Netherlands,” lists the prominent areas where Jews live and details what percentage of Dutch Jews consider themselves religious. A small photo installation near the plaque shows Jewish life in Amsterdam from 1999-2005, and one film on display depicts middle-aged Dutch women discussing the importance of finding a romantic Jewish partner.
That is all.
This is shocking. It makes quite a statement that the Jewish museums in Europe end their narrative of Jewish history at the Holocaust. They include a few tidbits of information about the modern-day Jews, usually focusing on the period after the Holocaust, but if you sneeze, you could miss it.
Excluding Jewish history following the Holocaust indicates that there are no Jewish communities. This is false.
In each of the places where I visited a Jewish museum, a Jewish community exists. They are each important, resilient and fascinating. They are unique from one another, full of individual traditions, events and dilemmas. But these museums don’t show that.
Additionally, ending exhibitions with the Holocaust recalls one of the horrific Nazi plans — creating museums remembering an extinct Jewish people. Of course, the Jews are not extinct. But ending the history of the Jewish people with the Holocaust contributes to the narrative of victimization, rather than endurance.
I think about this dilemma often as I explore Amsterdam’s Jewish cultural quarter where I live. As I bike through the streets, I am reminded of the memories this section holds.
There’s Henri Polak Street, named for a socialist Jew who started the General Dutch Diamond Workers Union located there. There’s the De Castro pharmacy, an apothecary accredited for treating large portions of the Jewish quarter during a cholera outbreak. And there’s the Waterlooplein Market, today a top spot for cheap clothing and souvenirs, but formerly the center for Jewish peddlers.
As I pass the innumerable sites reminiscent of Jewish past, I become overwhelmed with sadness. Here I am, living in the city’s Jewish cultural quarter that simply serves as a reminder of the former extensive Jewish community.
Approximately 80 percent of Amsterdam’s Jews perished during the Holocaust, and the present Jewish quarter merely commemorates its vibrant past.
Yet while the Jewish quarter is no longer the center of Jewish life, Judaism in Amsterdam continues. Many Jews continue to live in the city itself as well as in Amstelveen, a nearby suburb. The city has multiple synagogues, youth movements and Jewish schools, as well as a large number of Israelis.
The Jewish community in Amsterdam is still recovering from the trauma of the Holocaust, and that impacts all facets of Jewish life. This cannot be underestimated.
Likewise, Jewish museums in Europe need to validate the presence of European Jewish communities. Permanent exhibitions must include sections on Jewish life today.
It is only through this narrative that Jewish communities will create a collective identity that transcends national borders and sparks a sense of communal responsibility for advancing Jewish life.
Rachel Sacks is a student at Oberlin College who is studying in Amsterdam. She attended Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.


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