Mapping the Stolen Heart of Berlin

In an exhibition for the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, C&G Partners translated and reimagined “Geraubte Mitte,” telling the tragic tale of stolen property under the Nazi regime in the heart of Berlin through the use of projection mapping.

The Leo Baeck Institute (LBI) is a research library, art collection and archive and was a founding partner of the Center for Jewish History in New York. It was established in 1955 and houses a significant collection chronicling the history of German-speaking Jewish peoples from the 16th century through today. The bulk of their 80,000 volumes are personal papers, 75 percent of which have been digitized. LBI shares exhibition space, library resources and programming with the American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and Yeshiva University Museum. The Institute established an office in Berlin in 2013.

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In 2015, with support from the Sidney E. Frank Foundation, LBI approached their neighbors and past collaborators, C&G Partners, with the goal of crafting a very distinctive exhibition—an American adaptation of "Geraubte Mitte: Die Arisierung des Jüdischen Grundeigentums im Berliner Stadtkern 1933–1945.” The original exhibition, developed by Mode & Geschichte, opened at the Berlin Stadtmuseum in 2013. Geraubte Mitte presented in detail the critical issues and social, cultural and historical context surrounding the Nazi state-sponsored theft of property owned by Jewish citizens in German-occupied countries, with a focus on the specific history of five impacted families.

To understand the genesis of the project, grasping the context is key. The heart-center of Berlin, “Mitte,” was a cultural center for all Germans and thus the focus of efforts to build a Nazi capital. That focus prompted the persecution, expulsion and assassination of Jewish German citizens who accounted for nearly a quarter of land ownership in the area between 1933 and 1945. Many of these citizens were luminaries of their time the most influential thinkers, doctors, composers and engineers. Their properties were seized to serve the Nazi agenda in what historians call “aryanization.” Stolen properties were used for deplorable and horrifying purposes, from producing yellow applique Stars of David to producing Zyklon B gas.

World War II destroyed much of Mitte, leaving some 60 of 1,200 buildings standing. Of those 60, today only 15 remain of the 225 originally Jewish-owned structures. After the war, restitution could only be applied for in West Germany; to this day, less than five percent of the families of the original owners have received any form of restitution. The current government retains full ownership of the rest and—federal buildings now sit atop many of these properties. “Tragically, the story is ongoing. Many of these properties were never properly returned to the families that rightfully owned them,” explains Jonathan Alger, managing partner and co-founder of C&G Partners. “It’s a very shameful mark on Berlin’s history.”

Geraubte Mitte was very controversial because it highlighted the lack of recourse available to the descendants of the owners of stolen properties with the current government. It raised issues of responsibility, posing questions of whether the current leadership should inherit an obligation to the crimes of the Nazi regime. Unsurprisingly, much of the history of Jewish life and culture in the city has been lost. The five family stories tracked by the exhibition are typical of many others and underscore a responsibility that should be taken when making future urban planning decisions in Mitte Berlin.

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The C&G team worked with the Geraubte Mitte curatorial leadership as well as the LBI curators to develop a much smaller, American version of the exhibition. The key challenge in the project was how to present the right amount and mix of information appropriate to specifically American audiences. For example, the original exhibition included an in-depth discussion of Berlin’s zoning laws, something that just wouldn’t resonate with most New Yorkers. The team chose to focus on something everyone could sympathize with and understand instead: family. Like the German exhibition, the American one would center on the real-life experiences of five Jewish German families leading up to the seizure and the events that transpired after.

Discussions within the team of how best to accomplish their goals led to many ideas of how to bring Geraubte Mitte to a new audience, from dividing the space into chambers to complicated artifact displays. “We were working with the curators and the museum when a video map came up as a possibility that had not been explored before. We gravitated toward it immediately. We wanted to take it on, conceptualize it, generate it and do all the production of it,” recounts Alger. “Among many other notions, this one clearly stood out.” The Stolen Heart Video Map would provide instant context for viewers unfamiliar with the urban landscape of Berlin. Surrounding the video map they planned more traditional means of conveying the narrative.

The teams went to work. The LBI staff selected the families and performed the research, collecting artifacts, documents and interviews. Mode & Geschichte were not only involved in curating, but also provided important authentic and technical translation services. They also assisted with procuring the cartography—all from German sources with which they interfaced—providing a secondary and vital service to the design team.

On top of the challenge inherent in presenting the heavy and politically charged subject matter, there was another—albeit more technical—hurdle the C&G team faced: producing the video map. They used historical maps, technical maps and aerial photographs from various sources, some of which needed to be digitized and all of which had to be re-skewed and corrected to align together seamlessly and accurately; it was nothing short of a feat of cartographic engineering. “Every individual layer was offset from the layer above it in a way that was unique to itself,” laughs Alger. “We enjoyed solving the technical problem. It was rewarding but difficult nonetheless.”

The C&G team produced and synthesized the video map and even created the musical score. Special considerations were made because the projection is viewed from two directions simultaneously and the entire exhibit space serves as theater. This meant that voiceover narration would interfere with the rest of the displays, so text captioning legible from multiple angles was key and the musical score became the soundtrack for the entire exhibit.

The resultant projection is a 10-minute-long looping documentary film with music in the form of a dynamic map. It reveals a sweeping view of the changes in the heart of Berlin and what has happened to the properties in question for the last 100 years. Each era is presented with a distinct graphic treatment and historically accurate aerial views of the city. Color tints and a custom musical score provide mood as maps are animated with captions, facts and details like moving cars. The video is projected via a single BrightSign 4K media player and mapped onto a 1:1500-scale model of Mitte. The topographical map was created by CNC filigree and 3-D printed scale buildings were placed, representing the few pre-war structures left standing.

The video map is the centerpiece of the Stolen Heart exhibition but it ties firmly into the surrounding elements. Jagged, zigzagging panels unfold around the video map in bold colors, telling the chronological story of the five families. Home movies, audio and a select number of artifacts accompany the panels. “When your history is erased, you don’t have many artifacts left,” remarks Alger. 

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“Stolen Heart: The Theft of Jewish Property in Berlin’s Historic Center, 1933–1945” took the team a year to design and build. The exhibition was open from March 19, 2016, through December 31, 2016, in the Katherine and Clifford H. Goldsmith Gallery at the Center for Jewish History.

The combination of interactives, media and artifacts is memorable and moving and the opening of the exhibition was an especially poignant event. Descendants of the five families attended; in some cases, the meeting was a family reunion. There were a lecture and panel discussion that included the curators, a representative from the German Embassy and an heir to one of the stolen properties. “We met representatives of the families at the opening,” remembers Alger. “It was an emotional and very powerful moment for us.”

Stolen Heart and its accompanying programs were an overwhelming success, drawing crowds and press coverage from The Wall Street Journal and The Forward. "Stolen Heart was the most ambitious and successful exhibition that LBI has ever had," said Dr. William H. Weitzer, executive director at LBI New York.

 

 

 

Project Name: Stolen Heart: The Theft of Jewish Property in Berlin’s Historic Center, 1933–1945

Client:  Leo Baeck Institute

Location: New York

Project Area: 700 sq ft

Open Date:  March 2016

Exhibition Design: C&G Partners

Design Team:  Jonathan Alger (art director), Kelsey Cohen (graphic designer), Greg Mulholland (multimedia designer), Darion Washington (exhibit designer), Joao Miranda (graphic designer), Clara Kennedy (musician)

Consultants: Mode & Geschichte, Berlin Mitte Archiv, Stadtforschung Berlin

Fabricators:  Exhibitology

A/V Partner: BrightSign

Photos: au2026 (photography), Katie Warner (videography)

 

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