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New Berlin museum to tell stories of exiled Germans

Torsten Landsberg ss
August 17, 2020

More than 500,000 people fled Germany to escape Nazi persecution. A new museum in Berlin wants to bring their stories and biographies back to life.

Exilmuseum  Berlin Siegerentwurf Dorte Mandrup
Image: Mir.

Two years after the launch of a non-profit organization to develop the Exilmuseum (Exile Museum) in Berlin, plans are taking shape. The foundation has now presented the winning design for the future building.

The architectural firm of Dorte Mandrup in Copenhagen is now tasked with building the structure that will house the museum, which aims to portray the history of German exile during the Nazi era. The Exilmuseum is planned to open in 2025.

Joachim Gauck and Herta Müller
Former Federal President Joachim Gauck and author Herta Müller revealed the winning design on August 14Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Former Federal President Joachim Gauck, who is a patron of the museum, said that the idea behind the museum had finally become a real place. He added that the stories behind the destinies of the exiled people that will be displayed at the museum would not only be a call for compassion, but also raise "admiration of the determination they embodied."

Many of the emigrants, Gauck explained, have saved aspects of German cultural history by escaping Nazi rule, adding that some had also achieved considerable success in exile.

Gauck also drew parallels to the contemporary world and spoke of today's refugees and migrants seeking protection from persecution, war and hunger in Europe: "Our day and age is equally shaped by millions of people who can no longer live in their homelands," he said.

Read more: Virtual exhibition reveals plight of artists in exile

Returns and farewells

Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Herta Müller, also a patron behind the ambitious project, said at a press conference in Berlin that the chosen location for the future museum — the ruin of an erstwhile train station — was a poignant locale; she highlighted that such stations were not just functional buildings, but also places of beauty as "parables for returns and farewells," she said.

Anhalter Bahnhof train station ruin in Berlin
This is the future location of the ExilmuseumImage: picture-alliance/Tagesspiegel/M. Wolff

Müller added that she could not imagine any better place for the Exilmuseum than the Anhalter Bahnhof train station in central Berlin. The ruins to its entrance, which have been preserved to this day, are a landmark for people who were "torn out of their everyday lives during the Nazi era because they were Jews or democrats, Sinti, Roma or homosexuals."

Müller explained that events like the book burning in 1933 and the subsequent aligning of all art, film and literature with the values of the Nazis were nothing but a collective attempt at erasing the memory of modern art.

"People who had to flee into exile are still not considered victims in Germany," said Müller, who herself was forced to flee to Germany from Romania in 1987, as she was facing persecution from its then-secret service, Securitate.

A historic location

The Anhalter Bahnhof station in Berlin's Kreuzberg district was one of the most important long-distance train stations in Berlin during the German Empire and the Weimar Republic.

After the rise of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler's ascent to power in the spring of 1933, many people left the city using this station.

From 1942, the Nazis used the station to deport Jews to the Theresienstadtconcentration camp.

Anhalter Bahnhof train station in 1881
This image from 1881 shows what the Anhalter Bahnhof train station once used to look likeImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

In 1959, the historic station hall was demolished — even though it was a listed building at the time. There were plans for the building to make way for a new construction, which never materialized. Only the entrance gate could be preserved — following a long line of citizen protests. It will now be integrated into the new building that will house the Exilmuseum.

Read more: After the Escape - Finding a Home in a Foreign Land

Stories previously untold

Out of the nine submitted entries, the jury chose the architectural design conceived by the Copenhagen architectural firm of Dorte Mandrup. The design features a concave-shaped building stretching out behind the remaining ruin across a total area of 3,500 square meters.

In addition to permanent and special exhibitions, the design also features a space highlighting the history of the Anhalter Bahnhof train station itself. Instead of focusing on objects and artefacts, the exhibitions will present multimedia biographies of people who fled into exile during the Nazi era.

"There is no Nefertiti that can be exhibited to highlight the history of exile," said the museum's founding director, Christoph Stölzl, who previously headed the German Historical Museum in Berlin for many years, adding that this is why the stories of the victims had to told.

"These will be some moving narratives," he said.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein is one of the most famous individuals who chose exile over Nazi persecutionImage: picture-alliance/akg-images/NordicPhotos

Loss of identity as a museum exhibition

The museum will juxtapose the narratives of famous German emigrants, such as Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein, who were able to continue their work abroad and are remembered for outstanding contributions in their field, against those of a much larger number of refugees who also left Nazi Germany and largely remained nameless.

Many of those emigrants were not allowed to work in their host countries, or banned from practicing their actual professions. In addition to losing their homes, friends and family, they also lost their cultural and professional identity this way. Many became destitute, and were greeted by rejection and animosity in their new homes.

Some even took their own lives because they could not cope with their new lives in exile.

Founding director Christoph Stölzl said that thanks to decades of research, a database of roughly 500,000 names of exiled people from Germany has been developed. He is confident that the biographies of further unknown emigrants will also be added to that list.

Herta Müller
Author Herta Müller has been fighting for the museum to open for over a decadeImage: Imago/epd

A privately funded museum for the people

The museum has been in the works for many years, with its origins dating back to 2009, when author Herta Müller wrote an open letter proposing the idea to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Later, the private foundation Exilmuseum Berlin was established to continue advocating the cause. The construction of the museum will largely be financed by private donations, with costs being estimated to run up to €25 to 30 million ($30 to 35 million).

The Berlin art dealer Bernd Schultz, who is also a member of the foundation's board of directors, auctioned off a number of valuable art works from his private collection in the autumn of 2018 to cover the initial start-up costs. The proceeds of that auction amounted to €6.3 million.

The property on which the Exilmuseum is to be erected is owned by Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, which also supports the project. According to present plans, the museum foundation will be given the plot of land on a leasehold basis for an initial 99-year period.