Jewish Museum Berlin: Using Space to Convey an Emotional Experience

By Cecelia Minard

The Jewish experience during World War II was highlighted in nearly every museum we visited, but none of them demonstrated this as poignantly as the Jewish Museum in Berlin. This museum managed to use space to convey the emotional experience of Jewish people in Germany throughout history, making it a truly unforgettable site.

The Imperial War Museum in London had a moving Holocaust exhibit, which included many family photographs, individual stories, and personal belongings. A photograph of a little boy with his friends only months before his death brought me to tears. The Topography of Terror Museum in Berlin did not shy away from the harsh reality of what the Nazis did to the Jewish people, always using the term “murder” rather than “execution.” While the Oscar Schindler Museum in Krakow dissembled the Polish people’s part in the annihilation of the Jews, the museum did show the Jewish experience in an interesting way by recreating the concrete walls of the ghettos and a house of the ghetto.

Despite these museums’ strengths, none compared to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. What made this museum so unique was its ability to capture emotional experiences through physical spaces. Upon entering the permanent exhibit, which consists of three long white intersecting hallways, I immediately felt dizzy but was at first unsure why. I then realized the floors and walls were tilted, and nothing was at a 90-degree angle. The architecture was meant to disorient. The three intersecting hallways were each axes meant to represent an aspect of the Jewish experience. The first was Continuity and Change, showing Jewish history in Germany, the second was Emigration and Exile, which delves into the experience of being forced to leave their homes, and the third was The Holocaust, focusing on the genocide.


The axes of Emigration and Exile lead the visitors to an outdoor exhibit called the Garden of Exile, which consists of a field of 3-meter-tall concrete columns on uneven ground. Walking through these columns evokes a sense of disorientation, meant to represent the instability the displaced Jewish people felt during the Holocaust.

At the end of the axis of The Holocaust is the Holocaust Tower. The tall concrete room is only lit by a small slit in the ceiling, and an eerie ringing noise fades in and out. A feeling of loss and isolation immediately settled over me and my peers and we sat on the floor for about ten minutes, each in silent introspection. This room allowed us to reflect on the devastation of the Holocaust and the cruelty of which humans are capable.

The Memory a Space Holds

By Cecelia Minard

It is impossible to prepare yourself for visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. Historical readings, documentaries, and photographs pale in comparison to the feeling of the physical site. In class this spring, we read The First Report about Auschwitz by John S. Conway, which included eyewitness accounts from two young Slovakian Jews who gave a breakdown of the numbers and classifications of the prisoners, as well as an explanation of the methods of extermination used by the Nazis. We also watched the documentary The World at War, which included horrifyingly detailed videos from the discovery of the camps. Yet after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, I realized that nothing could capture the memory of such a horrendous place more than the physical site. Auschwitz-Birkenau as a source in and of itself highlights each of the hundreds of thousands of people murdered there.

While the report and the documentary focused on the details and the scale of the genocide, Auschwitz-Birkenau showed me each victim’s personhood. Rather than seeing a number on a page or a video from 70 years ago, walking through Auschwitz showed me the very space attached to the memories of those who were there.

In the barracks, there are displays of the victims’ belongings: their suitcases, shoes, pots, pans, and even the hair from their heads. While looking at these belongings, I focused on the remembrance of each individual who lost their life there. I couldn’t help but think that this could have been their favorite pair of shoes, this pot and pan could have been a gift from a loved one, and this was the hair on their head that they brushed and cared for each day.

While studies are vital to understanding history, documents cannot hold a memory the way a physical site or object does. While walking through the same spaces as the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I felt their memory in a way I never had before. I felt a deep connection and sorrow for each person who was murdered there.

Pointe du Hoc: A Reflective Perspective of Nature and Destruction

By Cecelia Minard

Pointe du Hoc is a coastal World War II site in Normandy, France known for its series of German bunkers and machine gun posts, which were captured by US troops on D-Day after scaling the steep cliffs. This site had a more profound impact on me than anywhere I visited in France. Covered in craters from Allied bombs, Pointe du Hoc struck me with emotions that I at first could not understand. I felt a deep serenity but also an existential insignificance that was simultaneously comforting and terrifying. I branched off from the group to sit alone, hoping to understand what I was feeling. Looking around at dozens of bomb craters, the decrepit German bunker, and the cliff the US troops scaled, I found myself overwhelmed by the contrast of nature and this memorialization of destruction. Grass and wildflowers have filled the craters since the invasion, making them appear almost natural; the interior walls of the bunker have grown over with lichen and moss, making them an earthy green color.

Reflecting on the destruction of the past as I looked around in the present, I felt the lasting power of nature in comparison to human insignificance. Man may have brought destruction to this beautiful seaside site a few decades ago, but what does that destruction mean to the earth? The earth continued to grow and reclaim, almost as if we do not exist. Pointe du Hoc provided me the tranquility to see what happens in the wake of destruction.

That serenity came to me in this thought process: nature will come back and reclaim the earth. There is the possibility that humans will cause our own extinction, but there is comfort in the fact that the earth will continuously foster life. As important as we believe ourselves to be, we are an ephemeral blip on this planet. 

However, that does not mean that nothing in the present should matter to us at all or that humans should only ever serve their own interests. This is clearly untrue; humans are complex and caring organisms. There is a tension between the meaninglessness of our lives and those very lives being the only thing that has any meaning to us at all. While Pointe du Hoc made me think about the impermanence of human suffering, I recognize the importance of human events to those who experienced them and the lasting impact of them for future generations, even though the earth will erase our suffering with time.

Through my studies of the Second World War, I better understand the extent of man’s capacity for destruction and cruelty, while also recognizing its insignificance. Visiting Point du Hoc brought me comfort in recognizing our own futility as well as the power of nature.

The People’s War as Seen Through the Eyes of the Women in the War Rooms


The War Room’s conference room

By Cecelia Minard

The sites we visited while in the United Kingdom shared a common theme of solidarity and sacrifice. We had discussed the Brits’ sacrifices during the Second World War in our class on “Bombing the People,” but seeing these displays brought it to life. While the US Americans back home were peripherally affected by the war, the British were more directly affected, dealing with intense nights of German Luftwaffe bombings, known as the Blitz. The artifacts and historical records displayed at Bletchley Park, the Imperial War Museum, and the Churchill War Rooms demonstrated the British collective experience during the war. The British had to come together to survive.

The Squander Bug, used in England to discourage wasteful spending

During the Blitz, Londoners frequently hid in the underground railway system- known as the Tube- for protection. Government-issued Anderson shelters came in kits of six sheets of corrugated iron or steel to be constructed as bomb shelters in citizens’ backyards. Both the US and the UK rationed food but it was more severe in the UK than in the US, with sugar and meats being especially scarce. English families were even encouraged to send their kids to the countryside to protect them from the bombing raids. Nearly everyone participated in the war effort, leading the British to call the Second World War the “People’s War.”

The War Room's kitchen

The War Room’s kitchen

I saw this highlighted consistently. The Imperial War Museum included a reconstruction of a standard house as it would have been in London during the war. Complete with a dining room table that doubled as a bomb shelter, gas masks, examples of rationed meals, and even a full-sized Anderson shelter in the back.

Churchill’s War Room Office

The Churchill War Rooms also demonstrated the British collective memory of the war, though in a different way than the Imperial War Museum. While the latter focused on the citizen’s common experience, the Churchill War Rooms focused on politics. Yet to me, the most interesting part of the War Rooms museum focused on civilian life, specifically the women that worked there. There was one chef for the War Rooms, a woman who felt her contribution to the war was feeding the decision-makers. 

Another woman working in the War Rooms was Churchill’s secretary. Churchill’s brashness startled her at first, but she later got used to his direct communication style and was quoted saying she enjoyed working for him. She was kept busy almost constantly, writing down anything Churchill needed. These are a few examples of how British women contributed to the war effort.