Berlin Exhibition on Judaism Hits a Nerve

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BERLIN -- Bill Glucroft is not an expert on the Torah, Israeli politics or the Holocaust. But on Thursday afternoon he fielded questions on each of those subjects from visitors to the Jewish Museum here in the German capital as part of a new exhibition.

To critics of the show, called "The Whole Truth" and intended to demystify Jewish life for a curious but largely uninformed German public, it was neither the questions nor the answers that were controversial, but where Mr. Glucroft sat: in a glass box, like just another exhibit.

For two hours every day except Saturdays, a Jewish person sits in the box and answers questions. "It's not 'Planet of the Apes.' I'm not Charlton Heston," said Mr. Glucroft, 27, originally from Fairfield, Conn., and for more than three years a resident of Berlin.

He conceded that the situation -- sitting on a white bench with a thin, hot-pink cushion inside the transparent box while visitors not only peppered him with questions but also chipped in observations and confessions about their attitudes toward Jews or the Nazi period -- was a bit "contrived." But he added that he was happy to participate.

Mr. Glucroft said that, as a Jew in Germany, he often felt as if he were on display and constantly answering awkward questions. The invitation from the museum just formalized the process.

For others, the idea of a living Jew serving as a museum exhibit in the former capital of the Nazi Reich touched a nerve, as evidenced by some of the comments on the museum's Facebook page. "Our grandparents and friends spent enough time in boxcars on the way to concentration camps," wrote one user who gave the name Debra Wewer. "How dare you!"

Some said the scene reminded them of Adolf Eichmann in a bulletproof box at his trial in Israel.

Stephan Kramer, a prominent Jewish figure here, said that while such an unorthodox presentation was bound to attract attention, he felt that the curators had gone too far. "I think this is a degradation of a Jew," Mr. Kramer said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Thursday was Mr. Glucroft's first and most likely only appearance at the museum, which has a rotating cast taking turns in the box. Leeor Engländer, a journalist who spent an afternoon in it, wrote an article about the experience in which he noted that it was nothing more than a reflection of what a Jew goes through every day in Germany, tiptoeing around the very word "Jew," the uncomfortable looks he gets when someone talks about the Nazis, circumcision or Israel.

"As a Jew in Germany you live like an animal at the zoo," he wrote in the daily newspaper Die Welt. "You just have the benefit of being able to run around freely."

The show, which opened last month and closes in September, could just as easily have been called "Frequently Asked Questions," since the exhibits are based on entries in the museum guest books left behind over the years by visitors.

The organizers seemed bent on shocking potential visitors even before they arrived at the museum. One of the posters advertising the exhibit declared, "The Jews are guilty of everything," over a photograph of a pothole.

At the entrance to the exhibition space several questions are projected onto the wooden floor: "Is Hollywood controlled by the Jews?" one asks. "Are Rabbis allowed to get married?"

Michal S. Friedlander, a curator at the museum and an American-born German Jew, said that most of those who criticized the show had not actually seen it. "That's the whole point, what's appropriate and what's inappropriate and letting people come to their own conclusions."

In one room skullcaps and other head coverings hang from the ceiling, one with a Nike swoosh, yet another with the face of a video game Angry Bird. There are displays on kosher food, circumcision and Jewish humor.

Myrsini Sgouros, 28, originally from Heidelberg and back in Germany on a visit from New Zealand where she is living, had some difficulty with a scene from the HBO show "Curb Your Enthusiasm" playing on a loop in one of the rooms. On the show, a concentration camp survivor and a former cast member of the television show "Survivor" face off in an increasingly heated argument over which ordeal was worse.

"It's a very dark humor for me, and I'm not sure if it crossed the line," Ms. Sgouros said. She asked Mr. Glucroft if he had ever visited a concentration camp. Ms. Sgouros said that visiting a camp had made her feel sad but that she thought it was "important to see it and learn about it."

Mr. Glucroft answered that he had first been on visits to concentration camps in large groups, but that when he returned with a few friends the impact was even greater. Ms. Sgouros said that he was the first Jew she had ever spoken with and she was glad for the opportunity. "You can't change the past, but you can change your way of thinking and you can learn," she said.

Mr. Glucroft seemed like the right man for the job, open, friendly, a good listener with a bit of a borscht-belt streak, cracking wise whenever things got a bit dull. When asked if he had to prove he was a Jew to get the job he answered, "I did not have to take off my pants."

An older man in a sweater asked him about the construction of Israeli settlements. Another person asked him if Jews believed in God, another if he visited "a house of worship." Mr. Glucroft gently pointed out that they are called synagogues.

Standing next to a recreation of the golden calf from the Bible, Mr. Glucroft drew a comparison to the four sons who ask questions about the Passover Seder: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one and the one who does not know how to ask.

"This exhibit," he said, "is for the one who does not know how to ask."

Chris Cottrell contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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