Ear­li­er this week, Nicholas Kul­ish wrote about being asked the ques­tion, What’s a Nazi?”, in South Sudan and the Rosen­crantzs and Guilden­sterns of his­to­ry. His most recent book,The Eter­nal Nazi, co-authored with Souad Mekhen­net, is the sto­ry of Nazi physi­cian Dr. Arib­ert Heim, who fled post­war jus­tice and hid in Egypt from Nazi hunters. He is also the author of a nov­el, Last One In. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

A Jew on dis­play in a Plex­i­glas box, in Ger­many of all places, stands as a fla­grant provo­ca­tion. But there he was, sur­round­ed by curi­ous onlook­ers and a con­sid­er­able con­tin­gent of reporters, pho­tog­ra­phers and cam­era crews. Bill Glu­croft sat on the white bench with the hot pink cush­ion in a clear enclo­sure field­ing ques­tions, a liv­ing exhib­it at Berlin’s Jew­ish Muse­um.

It was one of many con­tro­ver­sies that I cov­ered in my six years as Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times. There was the effort to ban cir­cum­ci­sion, beat­en back by the Ger­man Par­lia­ment after a sim­i­lar uproar. Gün­ter Grass wrote his con­tro­ver­sial poem attack­ing Israel and then there was the Jew in a Box.

The dis­play was always meant to be provoca­tive, as were adver­tise­ments for the show that played off of anti-Semit­ic rants, one with a pic­ture of a pot­hole and the words, The Jews are to blame for every­thing.” The moti­va­tion by the Jew­ish cura­tors was obvi­ous: Their exhi­bi­tion about the every­day lives of Jews, about kosher food and skull­caps, was not the kind of Holo­caust-relat­ed exhi­bi­tions that packed museums.

But it was of the moment and sig­nif­i­cant in its own way. Dur­ing my time in Berlin the vibran­cy of new Jew­ish life in Cen­tral Europe was sur­pris­ing and encour­ag­ing. When I was research­ing my book on the con­cen­tra­tion camp doc­tor Arib­ert Heim at Simon Wiesenthal’s old office in Vien­na I stayed in the old Sec­ond Dis­trict, which was filled with Ortho­dox Jew­ish fam­i­lies, kosher stores and restau­rants. Berlin’s tech scene and elec­tron­ic dance music clubs lured young Amer­i­can Jews and Israelis to the city. In Poland uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents were redis­cov­er­ing Jew­ish roots buried dur­ing the decades of Com­mu­nist rule.

I had the chance to cov­er the open­ing of a new Jew­ish muse­um in War­saw, part of a broad­er-based move­ment there to restore the impor­tant role that Jews had played in Pol­ish his­to­ry and the large role that Poland’s enor­mous pop­u­la­tion played in Jew­ish cul­ture writ large. Muse­ums are mov­ing fur­ther from sta­t­ic com­mem­o­ra­tion toward pro­mot­ing active dia­logue and under­stand­ing. Such a move is not with­out risks in a world still filled with hate.

That’s what makes the fatal shoot­ing at the Jew­ish Muse­um in Brus­sels last month so chill­ing. Police have arrest­ed a man who they believe fought with rad­i­cal Islamists in Syr­ia. The shoot­er killed an Israeli cou­ple, a French­woman who worked at the muse­um, and a 24-year-old who was a recep­tion­ist at the muse­um. But he was also aim­ing at some­thing larg­er: The notion that Jews can live open­ly and with­out fear as part of the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty in Europe.

In Hun­gary I watched the rapid rise of the extreme right par­ty known as Job­bik up close. The recent Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tion only added to the sense of anx­i­ety, to the fear that we could be slid­ing back toward an ugli­er, more dan­ger­ous peri­od. It was encour­ag­ing, at least, to see that Ger­many, where the most effort has been made at edu­ca­tion and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, the voic­es of extrem­ism were bare­ly heeded.

Writ­ers like Yascha Mounk have spo­ken elo­quent­ly about grow­ing up Ger­man, Jew­ish and Nei­ther,” expe­ri­enc­ing a strange blend of anti-Semi­tism, phi­lo-Semi­tism and plain old igno­rance. Lee­or Englän­der, a jour­nal­ist who spent an after­noon in the Berlin Jew­ish Museum’s Plex­i­glas box said that the exhib­it turned the fig­u­ra­tive into the lit­er­al. As a Jew in Ger­many you live like an ani­mal at the zoo,” he wrote in his arti­cle about the experience.

Mr. Glu­croft chose to han­dle the issue with humor and cheer. Encour­aged, the muse­um­go­ers began ask­ing more and more ques­tions. The for­eign­ness seemed to dis­si­pate, and with it some of the oth­er­ness. Provoca­tive, maybe even inap­pro­pri­ate, but the longer I stood in that muse­um, the more I real­ized that it was effec­tive. I hope that the next gen­er­a­tion of young Jews born in Europe will find no con­tra­dic­tion between their reli­gion and their nationality.

Nicholas Kul­ish is an author and cor­re­spon­dent for The New York Times. Read more about him and his work here.

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