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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Museum Otto Weidt: A local History of the Shoah

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

The Otto Weidt Museum's Workshop for the Blind is situated in an interior courtyard of the Haus Schwarzenberg complex, in the former Jewish quarter of Scheunenviertel. Despite its small exhibition space, it manages to personify the Shoah with remarkable sensitivity.

A Visit is worth your attention. It's also a personal favorite.

After the deportation of Berlin's Jews starting in 1941 and the Factory Action in early 1943, only a few thousand Berliners of Jewish culture and/or faith remained in the capital of the Third Reich. Most were employed in factories crucial to the war effort. This was an economic necessity dictated by the war, but it didn't shield them from round-ups.

Industrialist Otto Weidt operated a brush manufacturing company. This equipment was vital for maintaining cleanliness in the barracks, particularly military ones. As a result, the workshops were under the National Socialist regime's supervision. The workforce largely consisted of visually and hearing-impaired individuals who were better equipped to handle the brush cases by touch. Most of these workers were Jewish.

During the war, Otto Weidt strived to protect his Jewish employees' lives. He unofficially prohibited the wearing of the yellow star at work and, with help from friends in secret, fabricated false papers that Germanized all their identities. He did everything within his power to save his great love, Alice Licht. After his death, he was honored with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. Today, a museum commemorates his selfless work and his staff members.

A Biographical and Thus Human Approach to the Shoah

The Museum Otto Weidt's permanent exhibition occupies five rooms in the original premises. A few scarce items are displayed in glass cases and in the main room. While some documents bearing the National Socialist seal recall the time's events, most exhibits aim to humanize each individual. This biographical element is highlighted by photographs, postcards, and extensive written correspondence. The displayed images depict past personal experiences, smiles, and mundane scenes from everyday life. Pictures showing the period's violence and crimes are absent. The space isn't traumatic. Without any voyeurism, it seeks catharsis.

The museography adopts a pertinent concept: a subtle sequence of themed rooms. At the reception desk, the events are contextualized in time and place. The approach remains local, and the explanations don't aim to delve into the details of the Shoah. The main room then introduces the main characters and their activities in the workshops. A small module dedicated to Otto Weidt's non-Jewish collaborators is presented in a space resembling a corridor. Finally, the last two rooms address the fate of those who survived and those who perished, respectively. A small play concludes the tour.

The Museum Otto Weidt Succeeds for Those Who Hold the Keys

The exhibition suffers from a lack of a clear narrative thread. As the narrative isn't chronological, the visit can't follow a linear path, requiring visitors to move back and forth between the rooms to comprehend fully. Consequently, the museography often feels unbalanced and inaccessible. This shortcoming can be somewhat offset by using audio guides. Given the centrality of the biographical element, the best way to visit the museum is still to be accompanied by a guide.

The museum's small size prevents overcrowding, thus preserving the visitors' peace and quiet. There is an almost solemn sense of intimacy. Despite the subject matter's gravity, the atmosphere isn't oppressive due to the pretty pastel colors covering the walls. Even if the visuals are rather sparse, the experience can be enjoyed with a certain lightness. Indeed, the story the museum tells is an ode to life. This is why the visit is perfectly suited for younger visitors.

Although the Museum Otto Weidt is located in a lively area with graffiti, a cinema, and a bar, it is incredibly unobtrusive, enabling it to be better integrated into everyday life. The spaces are clearly demarcated and don't overlap. This way, everyone can choose to remember without feeling compelled to do so by any moral obligation. Similarly, the Empty Library Memorial follows a similar approach where memory isn't imposed on contemporaries.

Reasons to Visit

  • Centrality of the biographical element

  • An aesthetically pleasing void

  • Competent and compassionate reception staff

  • Possibility of a happy ending

  • Perfect integration of the museum into a city area

  • Explanations available in Braille

Reasons to Avoid

  • Poorly established thematic segments

  • Difficult to access if unaccompanied

  • Very few exhibits to see

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