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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Museum Otto Weidt: A local history of the Shoah

The quality of a museum does not depend on its completeness.

The Museum Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind is located in an inner courtyard of the Haus Schwarzenberg complex in the former Jewish quarter of the Scheunenviertel. Despite its tiny museum space, it manages to put faces to the Shoah with great sensitivity.

The Museum Otto Weidt deserves your attention. It is also a personal favourite.

Following the deportation of Berlin's Jews since 1941 and the Fabrik Aktion in early 1943, only a few thousand Berliners of Jewish culture and/or faith still live in the capital of the Third Reich. Most were employed in the factories essential to the war effort. This was an economic necessity dictated by the war, but it did not protect them from being rounded up.

The industrialist Otto Weidt runs a brush manufacturing company. This equipment was indispensable for keeping the barracks, especially the military barracks, clean. Consequently, the workshops were supervised by the National Socialist regime. The staff was largely made up of visually and hearing impaired people who were better able to handle the brush cases by touch. Most of them were Jewish.

During the war, Otto Weidt tried to preserve the lives of his Jewish employees. He unofficially banned the wearing of the yellow star at work and, with the help of friends in secrecy, had false papers made, Germanising the identities of all of them. He will do everything possible to save the great love of his life, Alice Licht. He was honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations after his death. Today, a museum pays tribute to his selfless work and to the members of his staff.

A biographical and thus human approach to the Shoah

The permanent exhibition of the Museum Otto Weidt is housed in five rooms in the original premises. A few rare objects are displayed in glass cases and in the main room. While some of the documents bearing the National Socialist seal recall the events of the time, most of the items on display are designed to give a face to each individual. The biographical factor is enhanced by photographs, postcards and extensive written correspondence. The images on display show past personal experiences, smiles and banal scenes of ordinary life. Those showing the violence of the time and the crimes do not appear. The place is not traumatic. Without any voyeurism, it seeks catharsis.

The museography adopts a relevant concept, that of a discreet succession of thematic rooms. At the reception desk, the events are contextualised in time and space. The approach remains local and the explanations do not intend to go into detail about the realities of the Shoah. Then, the main room presents the protagonists and their activity in the workshops. A small module devoted to Otto Weidt's non-Jewish collaborators is presented in what looks like a corridor. Finally, the last two rooms evoke the fate of those who survived on the one hand, and those who perished on the other. A small play closes the tour.

The Museum Otto Weidt is a great success for those who have the keys

The exhibition suffers from the absence of a real thread. As the narrative is not chronological, a visit cannot be linear and it is necessary to go back and forth between the different rooms to understand. The museography is therefore unbalanced and often inaccessible. This shortcoming can be partly remedied by using audio guides. Because of the centrality of the biographical element, the best way to visit the museum is still to be accompanied by a guide.

The small size of the museum prevents crowding, thus ensuring the peace and quiet of the visitors. There is an almost solemn feeling of intimacy. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the atmosphere is not oppressive because of the pretty pastel colours that cover the walls. If the visuals are ultimately rather poor, 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 adapted to the youngest visitors.

Although the Museum Otto Weidt is located in the middle of a festive area with graffiti, a cinema and a bar, it is incredibly discreet, so that it can be better integrated into everyday life. The spaces are clearly delineated and do not overlap. In this way, everyone can choose to remember without feeling compelled to do so by any moral obligation. In a similar vein, the Memorial of the Empty Library follows a similar approach, where memory is not imposed on contemporaries.

Reasons to go

  • Centrality of the biographical element

  • An aesthetically pleasing void

  • Competent and caring 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 not accompanied

  • Very little to see

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