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Tracing the empathy of an architect

Special to The Times

American architect Daniel Libeskind is a master at relating the beauty of a building to its meaning and purpose. His works are a blend of space and story -- the reason he won the intense, highly publicized competition earlier this year to redesign the World Trade Center site in New York.

It may take a decade before his exciting complex is complete. But Americans can see what may be in store for New York with his two earliest works in Germany: the acclaimed Jewish Museum Berlin and the little-known Felix Nussbaum House in the northwestern town of Osnabruck. Visiting them is an emotional, even wrenching, experience.

It’s easy to see both on a visit to Germany, as I did on a trip last year while gathering material for a profile of Libeskind. It was the beginning of my research, and I was no better informed than the average tourist. I had read news stories about the opening of the Jewish Museum in September 2001, but I knew little about the Felix Nussbaum House. The effect these two wondrous works of architecture had on my feelings was greater than I could have imagined.

I started my research in Berlin. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and reunification, the German capital has reveled in nonstop construction and restoration, much of it in the hands of the world’s finest architects. Norman Foster, who designed the Great Court at London’s British Museum, restored the Reichstag, the old German parliament building, and Frank Gehry designed the DG Bank Building, with its enormous sculpture of a horse hovering over the atrium.

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Neither of these works has had as much effect as Libeskind’s Jewish Museum. Many critics place it alongside Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, as one of the most exciting architectural achievements of the last 10 years.

The Jewish Museum was the first architectural commission awarded to the 56-year-old Libeskind, the Polish-born son of Holocaust survivors. It’s one of Berlin’s most popular attractions, averaging 2,000 visitors a day. The steady stream of people, most of them German, makes the museum feel busy and dynamic but not crowded because there are so many byways and passages.

From the outside, the museum is spectacular. Libeskind has restored a Baroque 18th century stone Prussian courthouse and placed alongside it a gleaming zinc-clad building that zigs and zags like a thunderbolt. He describes it as “a compressed and distorted” six-pointed Jewish star.

The shape has become the museum’s symbol; almost every scrap of paper, including entry tickets, badges and brochures, is stamped with a red logo repeating the thunderbolt-like Jewish star.

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To get a full sense of the twists and size of the star, I walked around it. In all, the building covers 150,000 square feet. It’s almost a full city block-- a wondrous structure of many angles glinting in the sun, enhanced by strange windows. Libeskind has pierced the zinc with slashes of glass that streak in different directions. They are designed to make you feel uneasy, and they do.

If you try to enter the zinc building, as I did, you will be disappointed. It has no public entrance. The entrance is in the old Prussian courthouse, which houses the museum’s ticket booth, cafe, gift shop, auditorium and information counter. A visitor to new Germany must pass through old Germany first.

A staircase in the courthouse takes a visitor down to an underground passageway in the new building. The passageway leads to another staircase that takes you up to two floors of exhibits.

But there are two detours -- slightly sloping corridors, hazy in subdued light, that cut across the main passage and lead elsewhere. Because of the slope, walking upward can be a strain and walking downward can be slippery.

I took one of the corridors. It led to the Holocaust Tower.

The tower is a cold, dark concrete chamber with an iron door that clangs shut after you enter. The chamber, an appendage to the zinc building, is unheated. The only light comes from a slit in the ceiling.

The scene is eerie, designed to make you think what it might have been like to enter a Nazi concentration camp for the first time. The tower doesn’t attempt to replicate the horrors of the Holocaust, but for a fleeting moment, I could feel the frightening clang of imprisonment.

Returning to the main passageway, I took the second detour, a corridor leading outdoors to a strange garden.

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Libeskind calls this the Garden of Exile, commemorating the thousands of Jews who fled Germany during the Nazi years and settled elsewhere. He said the garden is “an attempt to completely disorient the visitor” because “it represents a shipwreck of history.”

As Libeskind intended, the garden is disturbing and unpleasant. It is slightly sloped, making it difficult to stay balanced. Rows of ugly 20-foot-high concrete columns dominate the view, and fern-like plants sprout from the top of each. The columns, 49 in all, are filled with dirt -- 48 with earth from Berlin, the 49th with earth from Jerusalem.

Back in the main passageway, I climbed what Libeskind calls “the Stairs of Continuity” to reach the two exhibit floors. The subterranean corridors had put me in a somber mood, which prepared me for the exhibits above.

The exhibition area is not easy to navigate. The thunderbolt shape of the building leads you down long corridors and makes acute turns.

Then there’s the “void,” an empty space that cuts through the building and forces you to cross 60 bridges over the space to see all the exhibits.

The architect describes it as “the embodiment of absence” -- a continual reminder that the German Jewish population, which numbered 560,000 in 1933, was decimated to a few thousand at the end of World War II.

Turning sharp corners, crossing bridges, climbing into small alcoves and slipping into half-hidden walled areas added to my excitement as I moved through the exhibits.

The displays included medieval illustrations, the eyeglasses of Moses Mendelssohn (the 17th century philosopher and grandfather of composer Felix Mendelssohn), the futile affidavits of Americans soliciting visas from the U.S. government for German relatives and friends trying to flee the Nazis, documentation of protests over the staging of a seemingly anti-Semitic Rainer Werner Fassbinder play in Frankfurt in 1985 and an enormous assemblage of other objects, documents, photos and film footage from 2,000 years of German Jewish history.

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One powerful theme emerged: Before the rise of Hitler, Jews were a vital and integral part of German life. They were so assimilated that some celebrated the Hanukkah holiday with Christmas trees and called the season Weihnukkah -- from Weihnacht, the German word for Christmas.

Many critics complained that the original exhibit was cluttered, although I did not find it so. Late last year museum officials pared the number of objects from 3,900 to 3,300 and announced that the displays in the permanent exhibition would be changed from time to time. But the narrative, significance, mood and beauty of this extraordinary museum remain unchanged.

Resurrecting a reputation

The Felix Nussbaum House in Osnabruck, three hours from Berlin by train, also deals with German Jewry and the Holocaust, but it does so by focusing on one man, a brilliant, tormented painter. Although Libeskind received the commission for the Osnabruck building after he won the competition for the Jewish Museum, he finished the Nussbaum house first. When it opened in 1998, it was Libeskind’s first completed work of architecture.

Nussbaum was born in Osnabruck in 1904, but it is remarkable that the German Expressionist is honored in his native town. He left in 1922 to study art in Hamburg and, although he returned to visit his parents occasionally, he never lived in Osnabruck again.

He studied and painted in Berlin, Rome, the Italian Riviera and Belgium, continually trying to evade the swelling anti-Semitism around him. When World War II erupted in 1939, he was imprisoned by the Belgians and sent to a camp in France. He escaped and made his way back to Brussels. By that time, however, the Nazis had occupied Belgium.

He and his wife, Polish painter Felka Platek, hid from the Germans in the home of a Belgian sculptor. They lived in the attic and painted in the basement. But they were spotted and betrayed in 1944 and deported to Auschwitz. Both died there, a month before the Allies liberated Brussels.

“If I perish, do not let my paintings die,” Nussbaum once wrote.

Armed with that admonition, two of his cousins, Gustel Moses-Nussbaum and Shulamith Jaari-Nussbaum, sisters who live in Israel, worked tenaciously for almost half a century trying to assemble and exhibit his paintings.

Their largest find was a cache of 177 damaged works held by a Belgian dentist. He refused to give them up until a Belgian court, after nine years of litigation, declared that Moses-Nussbaum and Jaari-Nussbaum were the artist’s legitimate heirs.

After the sisters contacted them, Osnabruck officials began taking an interest in Nussbaum. The town’s Museum of Cultural History, which, ironically, served as the local headquarters of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, restored the paintings and held a Nussbaum retrospective.

The Savings Bank Foundation of Lower Saxony then purchased more than 100 Nussbaum paintings for Osnabruck, and the town decided to build an extension to the museum to display the works. Libeskind was commissioned to design it in 1995.

Although much smaller, the Felix Nussbaum House has similarities to the Jewish Museum Berlin. Libeskind laid down a concrete, zinc and wooden building of three joined rectangular sections. The Nussbaum house connects to the Museum of Cultural History but has its own entrance. As in the Jewish Museum, the corridors slope, slit windows breach the walls, doors clang shut and a visitor finds sharp corners to negotiate.

In an unusual emotional gesture, Libeskind has designed a narrow gallery for the works Nussbaum painted in the basement while hiding. You cannot take in the paintings from a distance; they must be viewed “in the claustrophobic and dimming environment in which they were painted,” Libeskind said. The architect did this, he says, because “these paintings, produced under these inhuman circumstances, are not only art but also a document of the deepest spiritual significance.”

The works make clear that Nussbaum was a distinguished artist. (A 1939 Nussbaum self-portrait sold at Sotheby’s recently for $310,500.) He was a master of self-portraiture, and it is haunting to watch him transform over the years from a happy bohemian to a fearful man tormented by impending death.

His best-known painting is probably “Self-Portrait With Jewish Passport,” painted a few months before his death. It shows a frightened Nussbaum with the collar of his winter coat upturned, wearing the yellow star required by the Nazis and showing a passport stamped “Jew” in French and Flemish.

The creation of the Felix Nussbaum House ensures that the artist’s wish will be fulfilled. His paintings will not die; on the contrary, his reputation is sure to be enhanced through the work of Libeskind.

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Stanley Meisler is formerly a foreign correspondent for The Times.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Libeskind masterworks

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Lufthansa, Air France, Swiss, KLM and British Airways offer connecting service to Berlin. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,036.

Trains for Osnabruck depart from the Berlin Zoologischer Garten railroad station near the Berlin Zoo every two hours, from 6:46 a.m. to 6:46 p.m. Trains for Berlin leave from Osnabruck every two hours, from 6:04 a.m. to 6:12 p.m. The journey is three hours each way and costs $114.60 round trip.

THE MUSEUMS:

Jewish Museum Berlin, 9-14 Lindenstrasse; 011-49-30-2599-3300, www.jmberlin.de. Open 10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily except Mondays, when it closes at 10 p.m. The museum stops selling tickets an hour before closing. Admission $5.35 for adults, half-price for students and seniors. Children younger than 6 are free.

The Felix Nussbaum House, 2 Lotter Strasse, Osnabruck; 011-49-541-323-2207, www.osnabrueck.de/fnh (German only). Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission $4.27.

TO LEARN MORE:

German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., 52nd Floor, New York, NY 10168; (212) 661-7200, fax (212) 661-7174, www.visits-to-germany.com.

-- Stanley Meisler


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