Christmas was fast approaching, and it was almost time for Alec and most of his classmates at the Goethe Institute to return home – unless they were staying over for next term. There were still some must-see sights that they had not yet visited, and the Institute squeezed three of them in during the next few days.
The Jewish Museum
Saturday 14 December 2013
Jewish museums are to be found in many German cities and towns and Alec visited some of them on other trips to the country. The Berlin Jewish Museum is perhaps the best known. It occupies premises in Kreuzberg combining an old baroque building with an extension designed by the American architect Daniel Libeskind.
The Museum was officially opened on 9 September 2001 – two days before the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. The opening was celebrated with a concert conducted by Daniel Barenboim, still more than 20 years later one of the most important figures in Berlin’s musical life.
Libeskind went on, among other successes, to win the competition for designing the masterplan for rebuilding the World Trade Centre site.
Today the Jewish Museum welcomes around 700,000 visitors a year to see its core exhibition depicting Jewish Life in Germany from the Middle Ages to the present. The Museum also organises educational and outreach programmes.
Another new building by Libeskind opened in 2012 – the Academy of the Jewish Museum Berlin – and runs a Jewish-Islamic Forum with a thematic focus on migration and diversity.
Karl Marx Allee
Monday 16 December 2013
Karl Marx Allee in the Friedrichshain district is one of the grandest residential boulevards in Berlin, if not the grandest. The fact that it has retained Marx’s name so many years after the fall of the Wall is testament to the fact that the author of the Communist Manifesto remains an accepted, and even, grudgingly perhaps, respected figure in the reunited Germany.
In 1949 the boulevard was given the name Stalin Allee by the East German authorities in honour of the leader of the Soviet Union, which then occupied East Germany, but was renamed in 1961 some years after Stalin fell out of favour even in the Soviet Union. The venom with which the dictator was remembered by some in East Germany was made plain by the guide, brought up in the East, who showed Alec and his classmates from the Goethe Institute around. He almost spat out the USSR leader’s name and preferred title: der Genosse Stalin (Comrade Stalin).
The boulevard was developed between 1952 and 1960 as a showpiece to demonstrate how well the Communist state could house its workers. As well as eight-storey showpiece apartments in classic Soviet style, the boulevard was, and remains home to facilities such as shops, restaurants, a cinema, and a hotel. It is, according to Wikipedia, 89 metres wide and almost 2 km long. Alec would not, however, describe it as bustling on the winter’s day of his guided tour.
On 17 June 1953 construction workers on the then Stalin Allee staged an audacious demonstration against the communist government, leading to a national uprising. The rebellion was crushed by Soviet tanks and troops, reportedly resulting in the deaths of 125 people.
The construction of Stalin Allee prompted an immediate response in West Berlin, which felt it had to build something equally impressive for its workers. The result was the apartment buildings, including blocks rising to as much as 17 storeys, of the Hansa Quarter, built from 1957 onwards in the park-and-woodland setting of the Tiergarten, to a design concept by architects Willy Kreuer and Gerhard Jobst.
Today both Karl Marx Allee, as it now is, and the Hansa Quarter continue to house the people of Berlin. Apartments in the Allee, suitably modernised, continue to be sought after, Alec was told. The construction workers’ uprising that took place there is commemorated in the name of the busy road – the Straße des 17 June (previously Charlotenburger Chaussee) – that runs east-west through the Tiergarten from the Brandenburg Gate past the Victory Column, not far from the Hansa Quarter, to Charlottenburg.
Tuesday 17 December 2013
The Pergamon was the fourth and last of the five museums and galleries on Museums Island that Alec visited as part of a tour by the Goethe Institute and is home to perhaps the most spectacular collection in Berlin, which is saying a lot.
Most impressive of all is the massive architectural reconstructions of the colourful Ishtar Gate and Processional Way of Babylon, dating from the time of Nebuchadnezzar II (6th century BC). Much smaller but no less significant, according to the Museum’s own account, are the earliest written documents known to humankind: cuneiform scripts on clay tablets dating from the late 4th millennium BC. They originate from the city of Uruk (modern Warka, Iraq), as do the impressive temple façades decorated with thousands of colourful mosaic pieces.
The main attraction in the classical (Greek and Roman) collection, according to the Museum, is undoubtedly the Pergamon Altar (180–160 BC). Its relief frieze is described as a masterpiece of Hellenistic art, depicting the Olympian gods in battle with the Giants.
The Pergamon also claims to hold one of the most outstanding collections of Islamic art outside the Islamic world. It brings together masterpieces of the decorative arts and archaeological artefacts created by Muslim peoples and the Christian and Jewish groups living with and among them, dating from the 7th to the 19th century.
Particularly impressive highlights in the collection are the architectural works, some preserved in their entirety, which, in terms of their monumentality of scale, are claimed to be without parallel in any other museum of its kind: first and foremost, the intricately decorated stone façade of the caliph’s palace of Mshatta (Jordan, ca. 740) and the Aleppo Room with its brightly painted wood panelling (Syria, 1600).
The Pergamon Museum was designed by Alfred Messel and built between 1910 and 1930. Potential visitors should note that it will close for restoration work on 23 October 2023 and remain affected by total or partial closures until 2027.
The one museum on the island missed from Alec’s itinerary during this Berlin stay (though not others) was the Old Museum, completed in 1830 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, perhaps Germany’s most famous architect. Fronted by 18 fluted Ionic columns, it presents a magnificent aspect to the visitor and houses countless masterpieces of classical antiquity including sculpture, jewellery, vases, and coins from the Greek and Etruscan civilisations as well as from the Roman Empire.
This marked the end of Alec’s three months of study at the Goethe Institute, but before leaving Berlin he took a final nostalgic stroll down Unter Den Linden to take in, as he had so many times before, the wealth of sights between the Brandenburg Gate and Alexanderplatz. So, join him again next time.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to sign the Parliamentary petition calling on the Government to make it easier for schools to organise European trips.