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Sport 28: Autumn 2002

Nigel Cox — On the way to the Jewish Museum Berlin

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Nigel Cox

On the way to the Jewish Museum Berlin

Every weekday morning at about 7 a.m. I go down the back stairs, quietly so as to not wake anyone, and, in the grey Berlin light of our walled-in courtyard, unlock my bike and cycle off to work.

Every day the same old way.

Outside my door the patrons of the bar called Ohne Ende (Without End—and they mean it) are laughing, red-eyed and drunk in the quiet morning. At the Turkish supermarket the Turkish man with the big droopy moustache is accepting a wet kiss from the fat-legged boy with Down's Syndrome as he sets out his trays of fruit, so brightly coloured. I love the way he is tolerant of this boy, who is not his son—not even Turkish, I'd say. In the early dawn I hear the boy bellowing like a cow that has lost its calf, a mournful old sound that takes me back to boyhood stays on farms in the misty hills of the northern Wairarapa—waking in strange beds. Where does he live? Why does he bellow?

Down to the canal, a dark water that never looks inviting. White swans glide on its dead surface and you want to say, You'll get dirty! Alongside the canal the gravel path crunches under my tyres. In winter, snow lay here thickly and tyre tracks froze into ridges that you either had to stay in or be thrown off—tricky. The snow crackled and crunched, it was the most pleasing sound, and I enjoyed the challenge of keeping my balance in that sharp, chill air. At this time the canal was iced over—the swans stood on it and you thought, Your webbed feet will be frozen solid! Then the seasons swung. In the summer heat the patients from the nearby Krankenhaus—krank is the most wonderful word for sick—all come out to sunbathe, in their underwear, one bandaged foot up in a sling, accompanied by their drips, heads capped in yards of white wrapping—leaning back, eyes shut, to cop some rays. It's a bizarre sight, but probably quite healthy. They are all smoking up large of course.

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At the end of the canal path there is a little hill tunneled in by trees and as I grind up here each day I meet a slim, long-haired jogger who, in all but the worst weather, wears skimpy shorts. She thinks she's pretty, you can tell by a certain expression, by the way she holds herself, and she thinks she's in danger of being raped. I always cycle quickly away from her. I don't want to be part of her fear. I find it hard to understand why she would wear those shorts, hold herself in that particular way, if she is so much afraid—hard to understand without a spiral of thoughts (was she raped once? Women do get raped, there are lots of dark bushes here, she has a right to wear skimpy if she wishes, but does she have to be in the same place at the same time every day?…) that I simply can't be bothered with, and I cycle away.

I admire her for running in all weathers.

Over the hump of bridge, there is a second canal stretch and here I look out for a man who has been spending nights for most of the summer in a sleeping bag on one of the benches. I can't imagine his life. Does he hang round the cafés all day? If it's not raining it would be a nice place to sleep—the canal flowing beside you.

Bench seats line the canal, each one separated from the next by a tree, and in the late afternoon as you cycle along here, if it's sunny, each bench is occupied by a single person. Germans. They have a thing about nature, and so they sit here, each in possession of their own bench, head slightly tilted back, eyes closed, face lifted to the sun. Being in nature. Something about this makes me groan. Nature is fine, in the same way that TV is fine, and children are fine. These things are just there, we respect them, enjoy them—when they're not driving us nuts. But this worship. What it makes you think is, Germans. They feel that as a people they are ruined, that their culture and character once led them to evil, and the only thing left that is pure is nature, nature without thought, wordless nature, that has no sin. If only they could be just natural again…Myself, I like a tree. I love the colour the new green leaves cast in spring. But I like a good book better. Pass the chainsaw.

Across the main road, under the U-bahn line—often the traffic is very polite here. Even in the morning rush, drivers will slow and wave page 149 you across. If you have children with you they frequently come to an actual halt, holding up other cars, so that you can safely make your way. This is the best of Germany—a warm respect.

Yes, it's a divided country, and every morning I go out into it and ride over the same tyre tracks and meet the same things and have new divided thoughts about them. This ride is one of the few open spots in my day, when I can let my thoughts just wander, and as I go into the building where I work I am often dazed, as though I have too soon been forced to focus on the business of making a living.

Inside the museum
Infinity goes up on trial.

Bob Dylan wrote that, it's from a song called Visions of Johanna that came out in I think 1967. I am of that age when it's possible to recite large hunks of old pop songs without apparent effort. Any given subject, there's a lyric for it. Pop told me what love was like, what a kiss was like, a million times over, before I ever had a kiss. But this is just the way of the world for someone like me who is so much more comfortable experiencing life once removed. Reading also—I have tried, and failed, to think of an experience I have had that I haven't previously read about in a novel. Grappa—I read what it tasted like, aged eleven, in For Whom The Bell Tolls.

Making a museum is a little like that. The subject is always at a remove—something you've read about. Working on Te Papa, a museum that had the subtitle ‘the Museum of New Zealand’, I struggled as I worked each day to see that big picture of New Zealand—that accurate reflection of a whole culture that we were making. Mostly I was in meetings about whether this door would open inwards or outwards.

A museum project is so intense that you can't stand back. You're deep in the flux of it every day, pushing to meet deadlines, trying to get good work out of a colleague you think is a drongo.

You do your little tasks with a kind of historical fervour. Infinity goes up on trial.

And all the time rhetoric floats above you like the air force of an invading army—large, dark statements that you can only cower from. page 150 ‘This will be New Zealand's premier cultural institution.’ You read the press releases on the internal email. In the auditorium, in the company of the museum's staff, I listened to Te Papa's Chief Executive passionately say things she had said a thousand times before. ‘It will touch the lives of every New Zealander.’ At parties people (skeptics) said to me, ‘I hear Te Papa is so PC that the Pakeha people are second-class citizens.’ No—fuck off. A slogan from Marketing came through for polishing—‘If you haven't seen Te Papa, you haven't seen New Zealand.’ Really? Maybe. Might be true. But it paid to keep your head down.

However I mustn't pretend I was uninvolved. I wrote some of those statements.

I live in Germany at a remove. There's the language gap—I just can't understand. You tell yourself that lately you're picking up more. You say, ‘Yeah, I actually understand a lot, if I concentrate. If I know what the subject is, I can follow.’ And it's nearly true. I often surprise them, in meetings here, by suddenly commenting on something they thought I had missed. But this comes more from watching. I have never watched so hard in my life. How did that guy work the price-sticker machine in the vegetable section? How do you get from the U-bahn to the S-bahn? Follow everyone else. In my first month here I was asked to participate in job interviews. They were all done in German, except for one question from ‘our Kiwi colleague’. I was surprised how well you could judge people just by looking hard at them. And, I have to say, my instincts about the candidates were good. Regina Wildt, I stated clearly for the record that she was drek.

The thing about language is, it's everywhere. If you can't read German you can't read the magazines, you can't read the papers, you can't follow the TV. You haven't got a clue what's going on. Maybe Kreuzberg has declared war on Mitte—I wouldn't know. It gets to you. I pass colleagues in the corridor and they're speaking German to each other. You want to say, ‘Why don't you speak English? You were doing it in the meeting we just had.’ On the U-bahn, one day I glanced up and they were all doing it—every single one of them was speaking German. They were doing it on purpose. None of them were struggling page 151 with the grammar. They were behaving as though it was just, you know, a natural thing to do—that anyone can do. Christ, even their bloody kids were doing it.

It really gets to you.

I have my little routes, through the city, where I know the way, where I have coped before and therefore will cope again. I live inside a bubble of coping. Then one morning, biking in, I tried to accelerate away from the lights and my chain broke. I went over the handlebars and, smacked, headfirst into the hard black asphalt. Cars slammed on their brakes so as to not run me over. Everyone looked (I think there is a special alarm here, when something happens. I think their history has made them anxious about events). As I lay there, bruised, a clear thought came into my mind: ‘You've broken through the bubble. Now you're really in Germany.’ I saw myself trying to cope with the German medical system, explaining in sign language how my arm was broken, see, here, and could they fix it, I have insurance. It was a realisation that seemed as hard as the road my cheek was lying on. In fact the arm was only bruised. I got up and limped away.

Alles okay. Danke.

Most of the time I keep everything at a safe distance.

I didn't know a lot about the Holocaust. Schindler's Ark, I reviewed that when it won the Booker. I saw Schindler's List. Six million—this is not a number anyone thinks refers to a Lotto prize. They made them into lampshades, my dad told me that, when I was a kid growing up in drearest Lower Hutt in the early 1960s. I remember him reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, a great fat paperback which lay on top of his bedside tallboy for months, its bookmark sinking slowly through the pages. I'd seen the photographs of the camps taken by Lee Miller. One year I went weekly to a season of Contemporary Films From Germany at the Goethe Institute in Wellington, and there was a theme, or the visible absence of that theme. As it happened, our immediate neighbours in Lower Hutt were Jews. I have found myself trotting this fact out to interviewers here—it's amazing how some miscellaneous bit of your past suddenly comes in handy. There were everyday references—‘He's a real little Hitler.’ ‘You page 152 fucking Nazi.’ ‘Belsen Was A Gas’—that was a Sex Pistol's song.

The Sex Pistols—such a great name. I love the names of things, never mind the quality. The Dead Kennedys (great name) made a record called ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’—now that's language with its sleeves rolled up. The Smoker You Drink The Player You Get was the title of an album by Joe Walsh. ‘Jesus, I was Evil’—some New Zealand kid made a record called that before he died. It lives on. The Bob Dylan album called Blonde on Blonde, I still daydream about living inside that title. Pink Floyd, this is just the name of another corporation these days, but when I first heard it, I guess in 1965, I thought, that is the kind of thing that will change the world. Third Stone From the Sun. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. Strawberry Fields Forever—that wasn't just three words, these were things that glowed softly, like the nightlight which keeps the children from having bad dreams, like the warm red heart inside the Madonna.

Shrimp boats is acomin', their sails are in sight…

It's not just individual words, it's two words working together, they make your brain go round. Language, it's what I swim in, it's what is on everything, it's what holds everything, it's what makes everything sing—and here I can't understand it.

Old words play in my head all the time, carrying me far away.

Of course this is not a Holocaust museum—all our press releases stress that. The subject of the museum is, ‘Two millennia of German Jewish history.’ (I wrote that.) ‘Jews probably entered ancient Germania with the Roman legions. The exhibitions follow the story of a people, the Jews, living among their neighbours—their way of life, their privations and their achievements. Their slow and obstacle-strewn path toward acceptance and citizenship is examined. Finally comes the decimation of the Holocaust and, in the postwar period, the slow re-growth of a small Jewish community within the German nation.’ Ken Gorbey wrote that (I polished it a bit). It was Ken who brought me here from New Zealand.

Every day I work on making the museum of German Jewish history. I run meetings on how the museum will be made. I review a piece of exhibitry that I proposed, then planned, then developed, then saw page 153 through design, that right now is being built. ‘Looks okay,’ I say thoughtfully. I write exhibition text. ‘Glikl bas Judah Leib, also known as Glückel von Hameln, was born in Hamburg in 1646 or 1647. Her Memoirs are the oldest surviving autobiography of a Jewish woman of the Early Modern period of history—from about 1500. Almost no other written record of a woman from the seventeenth century has survived.’ Kiwi magic. I manage debates about whether we will call her Glikl or Glikl bas Judah Leib or Glückel von Hameln, which is how she is known popularly, but incorrectly, according to some scholars, especially one, who sits on our Academic Advisory Board and will therefore be listened to. These debates are fierce and sometimes in the corridors after my email which closes the subject there are no-speaks. The colleagues care desperately. It's inconvenient, it drags things out, but I like them for it.

But do I care? I try hard to be a good manager, to run the debate properly, to draw it to a correct conclusion. To close the subject out—we have deadlines to meet. But, apart from a general desire to be professional and give good value for money, do I care? The whole thing is very hard to see, you have your head down, you're working on just a particular bit—should we say Schabbeti Zwi or Shabbtai Zvi? (He was a false messiah.) I think my distance is an asset. I say this over and over again to interviewers when they ask, ‘So has it been a problem that you're not Jewish and not German?’ I always say, ‘The staff here are for very good reasons highly anxious about making a representation of this troubled history. I think they value it that Ken and I are a bit dispassionate, that we can provide objectivity—we say, “That's important, that's not,” and this is valuable to them.’ And I believe this, up to a point—as much as you believe anything you say to a reporter who is looking at you with his pen poised over the page of his notebook.

And then I give a tour of the building and suddenly I am desperate for people to understand.