The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The story of the Jew is an important one to the 20th century

Not very long ago, it seems, I was walking down a corridor of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, accompanied by an anxious colleague from the Freie University who'd arranged a guided tour for us. I'd underestimated the time it would take to the Hallesches Tor U-bahn, and was late; he was anxious. Running with passes in our hands, we met with, first, a guide addressing a large contingent in German; then saw the small, straggly group attending to the guide speaking in English.

Our company had a provisional air; chance had brought us together, and we took on some of the uncertainty of movement that had imperceptibly and suddenly visited, at one point in its history, the community to whom this museum was erected. Two women, a brunette and a small, golden-haired one, two young men, one rather gangly, the other pink-faced, of medium height, and ourselves, the latecomers ' I, with coat on one arm and bag slung across my shoulder, not having had time to deposit these in the cloak room. A tall, angular, bespectacled woman kept joining us and leaving during our wanderings; I couldn't make up my mind if she was with us or not.

Our guide was a slightly florid young man with thinning hair and glasses; when we arrived, out of breath, he was instructing his small audience about the significance of this particular corridor, or axis (the museum is made up of axes), at whose end we found ourselves situated. He accepted us graciously; pointing to his left, he indicated where the corridor ended in a glass panel, through which long, slanting stone slabs could be seen. That vision was meant to simulate, said our guide, what Manhattan looked like as Jews (the ones who'd managed to leave before the pogroms began) approached America: the tiny shift of the centre of gravity that occurs when you confront the new. This, at least, was the guide's interpretation; I soon discovered that he, loquacious but never quite boring, proffered not information but a view of the world; that he carried this view with him and probably repeated it a few times a week; occasionally, he quizzed his listeners ' in a not unpleasant way ' to check if they were keeping up with his thoughts.

A man of theory, then, our guide; but not out of place in a building that was theory reified, that had been designed by a theorist-architect, Daniel Libeskind, to allegorize, in stone and space, the journeys and transitions of European Jews. The philosopher-aesthetician Croce, who thought that the work of art must be fully formed in its creator's head before it comes into the world, would have approved; but visitors here (my colleague included) have been both curious and uneasy about the interpretative burden.

Our guide almost immediately took us to the 'tower', where Libeskind's anguished didacticism is at its plainest ' the tower, a narrow room on which the door shuts firmly, grimly, a room meant not so much to recreate as invoke the experience of living through the holocaust. Libeskind has striven, here, to give to the visitors who stand and stare at the walls, as in a gallery in which the paintings have gone, or a prison they mistook for a gallery, the shock of the dismantling of the museum as a viewing space (this is the only instance I feel I sympathized with the adjective some critics have used, 'deconstructivist', for Libeskind's architecture), but also to involve us in a theatrical narrative about the impossibility of escape, of egress. The already narrow walls converge and taper off into infinity at one end; the lowest rung of a ladder screwed on to a wall, a ladder that leads up to where the wall appears to end, promising the world on the other side, is only just too high for any human, even a champion basketball player, to reach; above the high wall at the other end is an inexplicable gap that lets in sunlight for no particular reason. Not deconstructivist, then, but absurdist; Libeskind obviously belongs to a generation that absorbed the paradoxically portentous minimalism of a certain kind of theatre, in which nothingness and the void were the principal repositories of value; with Beckett, that dour but contagious aesthetic even received an injection of humour. It's an outmoded aesthetic now, though, in the museum, it served to remind me of what I already knew but had almost forgotten, as I've almost forgotten the Beckett I read avidly as a teenager: the extent to which the landscape of the holocaust provided a metaphysical foundation for absurdist literature; and that not to create a holocaust literature, not to directly represent the holocaust, was somehow indispensable to that metaphysic.

Libeskind's building, then, has one story to tell, of cosmic contingency and meaninglessness; what's housed in the museum, though, tells another one, a narrative that largely refuses to be subsumed under Libeskind's conception. Mementoes, drawing-room decorations, diaries, a child's doll, an iron and a hair-dryer, a shop sign, a family picture: how banal these objects are! The holocaust has released them into the dubious significance that we always, passionately, suspected they had. These are things our lives are still made of, which occupied the shelves in the houses of our childhood, and are exhibited here. Have you noticed, when we visit museums to gaze upon, and educate ourselves in, the remnants of vanished civilizations and races, that the highest examples of art are on display; statues, religious icons, fragments of temple frescoes ' even the comb is gilded and made by a master craftsman, and is a gift to an emperor' The Jewish Museum is the only museum, perhaps, devoted to a race whose members were recently alive, and, in many cases, are still living. It is about ourselves, though what 'ourselves' might be is put into question as we survey the exhibits. Who'd have known that the secret but proficient banality of modern man ' our parents, grandparents, ourselves ' could excite such affection and wonder'

In the end, I'm not sure which is more daring: Libeskind's building, or the enshrining of this ordinariness. To move from one parameter to the other has, for me (and I say this aware of the dangers of presumptuousness), the awkwardness I'd felt when making the transition, as a young writer, from the constellation of suffering and anxiety comprising, among others, Camus and Beckett (so ubiquitous in the Seventies), to a subject that seemed too frivolous, too inconsequential: my own experience of the world. And the question that posed itself to me might have occurred to some of the people looking at the exhibits: surely this is not enough' Or, phrased differently, with the benefit of hindsight ' who would have dreamed of its importance; or known the more trivial contours of these lives were so precious'

Then the indefatigable guide brought us to representation of a drawing-room in a Jewish household in the early 20th century ' a piano, furniture, photographs, including one of the family of the great literary publisher Samuel Fischer, and a tall Christmas tree in the centre ' perhaps because it would be Christmas soon. The Christmas tree, said our guide, denoted the pluralism of bourgeois Jews of the time; he pointed out to us a newspaper cartoon from 1911, framed on the wall, in which the hanukiah, the candelabrum with which the Jews celebrate Hannukah, the 'feast of lights', was mutating, stage by stage, into a Christmas tree. Astonishing metamorphosis that had once taken place in the world, among so-called 'marginal' peoples! Here, in the drawing and the tree juxtaposed, was an example of the creation of 'ourselves', and the debate about what that 'ourselves' constituted. I was reminded of the Christmas trees of my childhood, of course, and my discovery, on trips from Bombay, of the lights in Park Street; and, further back, of Gaganendranath Tagore's savage but effervescent lampoons of the babu, and the compound creatures of Sukumar Ray's weird utopia. The story of the Jew is a common but important one to the 20th century, and it's still not fully acknowledged: of how ethnicity, or non-European identity, silently inserted itself into, enlarged, and forever changed European cosmopolitanism, and vice versa. It happened in Jewish homes in Europe; it happened elsewhere; it happened in Bengal. 'I've begun to think like a Jew, to feel like a Jew,' said Sylvia Plath, ventriloquizing her own theatre of self-destruction, a little archly, through the theatre of the holocaust. In the husk of that drawing room, I began to think like a Jew as well, but without a role assigned in the theatre; our histories and legacies ' the legacy of 20th-century ethnicity ' had been drawn together, unexpectedly, but decisively, in invisible lines, leading, in some places, to the creation of nations; elsewhere, to extinction.

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