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1700 Years of Jewish life in German-speaking lands
The year 2021 marks the 1700th anniversary of a Roman imperial edict representing the first historical evidence of Jewish life in the territory of modern-day Germany. Institutions in Germany and beyond are marking the occasion with a year-long festival of exhibitions, events, and commemoration.
The Leo Baeck Institute (LBI), a New York-based library and archive, is joining in the commemoration with its Shared History Project, an online exhibition of 58 objects revealing how interwoven the lives of Jews and non-Jews have been over these nearly two millennia.
Yet the project also tells the history of a minority that remained distinct from its neighbors for a remarkably long time. Processes of integration and acculturation of minority groups such as the Jews were always subject to persistent counterforces, whether they be the religious or national feelings of the Jews or the prejudice that led the majority to exclude them.
A century ago, Jews who felt confident of their place in society, but threatened by the rise of an ideology that painted them as alien, pointed to their ancient lineage in “German” lands as evidence that they belonged there. Questions about belonging and identity certainly aren’t new in 2021. Who is a German? Who is a Jew? What conditions are necessary for a minority to retain its own identity and a secure place in society? Jews have grappled with these questions since the late Roman empire. The answers they developed can shed light on our own increasingly diverse and pluralist world.
The Shared History Project will explore these questions and more throughout 2021 across multiple platforms in virtual and physical space.
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The centerpiece of Shared History is a website that will reveal a new artefact of Jewish life in German-speaking lands every week throughout the year 2021. In addition to photos and multimedia documenting the objects, the website places the objects in context with rich information about their provenance, geographic origins, and historical significance.
Each object is enriched by two essays that explore how it reflects a history shared between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. In these essays, dozens of scholars (e.g., David Sorkin, Magda Teter) and writers (George Prochnik, Peter Wortsman), as well as librarians, archivists, curators, and community leaders explore “shared history” from a wide variety of perspectives.
For each object, the authors also examine history through the eyes of an individual—the owner or creator of the object, an imagined protagonist of the distant past, or a contemporary figure linked to the object in some way. This personal view of history shows how many of the themes that span the broad arc of Jewish history also shape and challenge our contemporary world. By illuminating personal histories of identity, acculturation, migration, persecution, tolerance, and resilience, these explorations go beyond vehicles for “human interest” (though they offer plenty of that); they are case studies for the challenges of the 21st century.
In addition to the rich visual presentation and historical narratives, the website offers means of navigation that allow the user to explore the objects geographically and chronologically. Seven introductory essays for major “epochs” of the last two millennia synthesize the broader European-historical narratives in which German-Jewish history is situated.
Museums and libraries around the world remain closed or less accessible due to the global pandemic, but the Shared History Project’s virtual museum will bring the experience of a physical exhibition into visitors’ homes. LBI partnered with 360Design of New York and the German 3D-technology company Z-Reality GmbH to create an imaginary space that unites objects from a dozen countries in a seamless exhibition.
Techniques such as photogrammetry and 360-degree video will allow visitors to explore the objects in even greater detail by zooming in and out and manipulating them in three-dimensional space. The imaginary exhibition hall will also be seamlessly integrated with virtual recreations of real physical spaces such as the New Synagogue in Berlin and the Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum which houses the Baroque interior of a small synagogue from nearby Hornburg.
The virtual museum will open in stages, with a new wing becoming accessible once all the objects in one of the seven “epochs” are published. At the end of the year, the entire museum will remain open to explore and revisit.
Beginning on January 27, 2021 and continuing into the spring the Leo Baeck Institute will present an exhibition commissioned by the German Bundestag in the atrium of the Paul Löbe Haus, the new building in Berlin’s government quarter that houses the offices of the Bundestag’s parliamentary committees.
A selection of objects from the Shared History Project will be depicted on 27 panels with explanatory texts. The Berlin-based design firm fernkopie developed an innovative concept using irregularly shaped glass stelae linked by steel tubes. The transparent layering of moments in time, linked by a jagged through-line full of unpredictable turns, illustrates both the continuity and the ruptures of a Shared History.
The exhibition’s official opening took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945. Yet while the Holocaust is a significant presence in the exhibition and the larger Shared History Project, the nearly two-millennia of history presented in the exhibition also includes dynamic periods of fruitful exchange between a minority and the majority society.
Once the limitations on public gatherings are lifted, the exhibition will be open to the public Monday–Friday 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. In the meantime, video greetings from German Federal President Wolfgang Schäuble, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, and LBI President, David Marwell are available online.
On December 7–9, 2020 LBI partnered with the Jewish Museum Berlin and the German Federal Agency for Civic Education to present three days of discussion and debate about 1700 years of Jewish history.
The Shared History Conference convened dozens of community leaders, scholars, and journalists including Dr. Josef Joffe (Publisher, Die Zeit), Hetty Berg (Jewish Museum Berlin), Max Czollek (poet, essayist, and theatermaker), Shelly Kupferberg (ARD), and Dr. Raphael Gross (German Historical Museum) for ten sessions that were broadcast live online in German and English.
Rather than dividing the subject matter by discipline, time period, or geography, the sessions were organized around overarching themes such as migration, exile, identity, resilience, and cultural exchange, which offered opportunities to explore a shared history across much of Europe over nearly two millennia.