Clarification: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of museum spokesman Alexander Golya. The story has been updated.
In a hip Berlin neighborhood bustling with art galleries, restaurants and trendy cafes, President John F. Kennedy lives.
His voice echoes from inside the Kennedys museum, where visitors can experience the famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech that JFK gave on June 26, 1963, nearly two years after East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. In a time of political-speech saturation, here’s one worth listening to.
If it seems odd to encounter a museum almost entirely dedicated to a speech, keep in mind that the same quirky Berlin neighborhood of Mitte holds a Ramones museum honoring the American punk rock band and a middle school named for the Beatles’ John Lennon.
At the Kennedys, visitors can travel back in time to the day when the president came to Berlin. A film of the speech plays on a continual loop in black-and-white inside a darkened room. Around the perimeter are photographs and memorabilia in glass cases, including the black crocodile Hermès briefcase JFK carried to Berlin and used until the day of his assassination; Jackie Kennedy’s Persian lamb pillbox hat; and — most movingly — the handwritten note where he spells out the phonetic pronunciation of the line in German, “ish bin ein Bearleener.” (That item, by the way, is the only facsimile in the collection; the original notecard is in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.)
Even without hearing those words in the film, it’s easy to imagine the line read in Kennedy’s Boston accent.
But why does Berlin have a museum devoted, in essence, to one speech, however historic? West Germans at the time were unsure that the United States would support them, says Alexander Golya, a spokesman for the museum. “There were rumors that the U.S. would step back its support and give up West Berlin to the Soviet Union,” he says. Making that speech — especially the words Kennedy spoke in German — was the best possible way to tell Germans the United States would have their back. “It was a big relief,” Golya says.
It’s especially moving, he says, to meet older Germans who were living in West Berlin at the time and either went to the speech or saw it on television. “Many of them have tears in their eyes,” Golya says. “It was a sentence that would go into history.”
A large plaque on one wall quotes from a letter Jackie Kennedy wrote: “How strange it is. Sometimes I think that the words of my husband that will be remembered most were words he did not even say in his own language.”
(By the way, the oft-told anecdote that Kennedy really said “I am a jelly doughnut” is wrong, Golya adds. Germans knew exactly what he meant. “There are a lot of American visitors who try to convince us that JFK wanted to make a joke,” Golya says.)
The museum boasts that it’s the second-largest Kennedy museum in the world (after the Boston museum), with a collection of more than 1,000 documents, 2,000 photographs and several hundred artifacts. Some 400 photos and 100 artifacts are on display today.
It got its start after Camera Work, a gallery specializing in photography, mounted a 2004 photo exhibit about the Kennedys. “The interest was so tremendous,” Golya says, that it seemed like a good idea to create a museum. Now, the goal is to have a big part of the Kennedy legacy in one collection, rather than seeing it dispersed to private collectors, he says.
The museum goes beyond JFK’s visit to Berlin, with exhibits on the entire Kennedy family and a room dedicated to Robert Kennedy, including stunning photographs of bereft onlookers lining the tracks for RFK’s funeral train in 1968. Many of the photographs are new even to those who grew up seeing the iconic photos of young John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s funeral procession, or of JFK and Jackie on the family sailboat in Hyannis Port. There’s JFK and Jackie, windblown, as they are about to get on a plane. Or JFK sitting in a convertible in Berlin. The young family standing alongside Caroline as she sits atop her pony Macaroni. The fresh-faced young Kennedys posing in a photo booth.
The brick building that houses the museum has its own story. Like so many places in Berlin, it has a dark past. In 1930, it opened as the Jüdische Mädchenschule, a Jewish girls’ school. The stark New Objectivity-style building was designed by Alexander Beer, a Jewish architect who later perished in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. In 1933, German laws blocked Jewish children from attending German public schools, so 1,000 girls crowded into a building that formerly held 400. Many Jewish families were deported in 1938 and all Jewish schools were closed in 1942, when most of the remaining students and teachers were sent to concentration camps.
The building later became an East German school and was finally closed in 1996. The museum moved to its current location in 2012. Plaques in the hallways today trace that history, with photographs showing young women writing in Hebrew on a blackboard and girls frolicking in the courtyard.
For visitors who can pivot from that to other things (which is pretty much the description of any visit to Berlin today), the building also houses one of Berlin’s 20 Michelin-starred restaurants. Pauly Saal offers fixed-price lunch, dinner, a more casual menu, and — if the weather is nice — dining at umbrella-covered tables in the brick courtyard. There’s also Mogg & Melzer, a New York-style deli with respectable pastrami sandwiches, matzo ball soup and a New York cheesecake.
Also in the building are several galleries, including CWC Gallery, also owned by Camera Work, which features a freakily realistic sculpture of a frumpy security guard, arms crossed, standing at the gallery’s door.
One thing visitors will not find in the museum is much attention to JFK’s assassination, even though it happened just a few months after his Berlin speech. Camera Work decided it was more important to focus on Kennedy’s life and legacy, Golya says: “We do not want to put his death into focus, but his life.”
Bruno is a freelance writer in Washington.
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THE KENNEDYS MUSEUM
Auguststrasse 11-13, 10117
The museum is open every day except Monday. Until Oct. 16, the special exhibition, “Decades of Change: Iconic Women of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” features a young Jacqueline Bouvier, along with Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and others. Admission: around $5.50.