AFTER MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY MISSING, AN ITEM OF CZECH JUDAICA IS RETURNED FOR THE FIRST TIME TO THE CZECH REPUBLIC FROM THE U.S.A.
The Jewish Museum in Prague and the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic have for the first time in history succeeded in negotiating the restitution of a missing Jewish ritual object of Czech origin. A Torah Ark curtain that dates to the mid-19th century and comes from the town of Mladá Vožice went missing from the Jewish Museum’s collection sometime in the mid-1950s. Now after nearly sixty years it is returning home from the United States of America.
In late April of 2013 Sotheby’s in New York held perhaps the most interesting auction of Judaica in recent memory. Under the heading “A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection,” nearly four hundred primarily ritual objects were put up for sale, which naturally attracted the attention of collectors with a special interest in Jewish culture and history as well as Jewish museums. In the auction catalogue the Jewish Museum in Prague (JMP) discovered a Torah Ark curtain from the mid-19th century that likely during the late 1950s, or perhaps a short time later, disappeared from the Museum’s collection. After a year of concerted effort by the JMP, this Torah Ark curtain will be returning home to the Czech Republic. This is the first instance of a valuable object belonging to the millennial existence of Jewish culture in the Czech lands being successfully repatriated. Such objects as this were under various and often tragic circumstances confiscated from their original owners – whether corporate or individual – and many of them were later misappropriated and illicitly taken out of the country. A team of curators and registrars from the JMP worked diligently on this case to achieve for the Czech Jewish community at large, represented by the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, the first successful resolution of a restitution claim abroad.
The story of the Torah Ark curtain is really no different than many other objects that became part of the JMP’s collection during the period of the Second World War. The silk and velvet brocade curtain with a dedication inscription in the central field was donated by Moses and Chayele Liftschitz in 615, according to the small count of the Jewish calendar (that is, 1855), to an unidentified prayer room or synagogue. It came to the Jewish Museum from a collection point located in Mladá Vožice, a town in South Bohemia lying 17 km to the northeast of Tábor. Like so many localities under the Third Reich's Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia it was designated an area for amassing ritual and cultural movable objects from the local Jewish religious communities and associations before being transported on to Prague. Upon arrival, the Prague Jewish Community transferred them to the Central Jewish Museum, which from 1942 to 1945 served as the central depository for Judaica from the territory of the Protectorate. Thanks to the remarkable diligence of the leadership of the Prague Jewish Community (renamed in 1943 the Jewish Council of Elders), its several departments (particularly the so-called Office for Regional Affairs), and chiefly the erudite Jewish curators, who worked in the Museum under the oversight of the Nazi Central Office for the Regulation of the Jewish Question (Zentralamt für die Regelung der Judenfrage) while enduring unimaginable pressure, a great many valuable artifacts were saved. What emerged out of this tragic history is a collection of Judaica from Bohemia and Moravia virtually unmatched anywhere in the world.
The crate from Mladá Vožice was opened by Jewish Museum curators on April 1, 1943. The extant records show that it weighed 145 kg and contained several dozen objects, which by and large corresponded to the furnishings of a single synagogue and perhaps a few smaller prayer rooms. The inventory was nine Torah scrolls, nine Torah binders, twenty-six Torah mantles, ten Torah Ark curtains, one wedding canopy (a chuppah), one shofar (a ram’s horn blown in the synagogue on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during the month of Elul), eleven prayer books, several smaller synagogue textiles, and objects used by the local Burial Society for ritually cleansing the body of the deceased prior to burial (taharah).
The Torah Ark curtain in question likely was used in the Mladá Vožice synagogue proper. This was a modest structure with Neo-Gothic elements that stood on the corner of Židovská and Onešova streets until the early 1960s, when it was torn down in a seriously dilapidated state. The synagogue was built in the mid-19th century on the site of an older synagogue, and the time of its dedication corresponds to when the Torah Ark curtain was created. The synagogue served until Nazi Germany occupied Bohemia and Moravia on March 15, 1939. The records show that 68 Jews were deported from Mladá Vožice. The majority ended up in Auschwitz and Maly Trostenets in present-day Belarus. Not one of them survived.
The JMP’s curators catalogued the Torah Ark curtain under accession number 31.669, and preserved it along with the other objects from Mladá Vožice as part of the precious legacy commemorating the destruction of Jewish communities during the war. The last record of its physical presence in the JMP’s collection comes from 1956, after which time there is no trace of it. A similar fate befell many other objects, and often a common scenario was played out. In their efforts to reconstitute the decimated Jewish communities after the Second World War ended, the Council of Jewish Religious Communities (as it was called then) would have the JMP lend ritual objects from its collections to these communities around the country. Yet when a Jewish community would become defunct, mostly from a lack of members, these objects would not be returned to the JMP, and ultimately they ended up abroad after being illegally taken out of the country.
Mapping these losses is one of the tasks undertaken by a team of experts comprising art historians, museologists, and librarians presently engaged in the systematic research of the provenance of individual objects and books from museum collections. “Researching ownership history or, as it is often called provenance research, is an integral part of the methodology used by art historians and museums. It is impossible to interpret any work of art or cultural object in a meaningful way without intimate knowledge of their histories, as each object is a reflection of the owner’s taste as well as his fate. Knowing the wider context in which an object was created and tracing its journey through the art market and various collections is essential for reconstructing cultural and social history, which is of paramount importance to Jewish museums,” states Michaela Sidenberg, Visual Arts Curator at the Jewish Museum in Prague. In addition to her work as a curator, Sidenberg had devoted nearly fifteen years to studying the cultural devastation wrought by the Shoah and the Second World War.
Leo Pavlát, Director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, adds: > “Along with its role as a unique cultural institution of its kind that educates the public about various aspects of Jewish history, culture, and thought from the very first Jews to settle here to the present day, the JMP has another special mission, and that is to safeguard and preserve the material legacy of the Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia. The memory of those communities, almost all of which were entirely decimated during the Second World War, fortunately lives on in the form of the JMP’s unique collections, archives, and library. The efforts of all who work at the Jewish Museum are focused not only on maintaining the integrity of this extraordinary legacy but also on trying to rectify property losses suffered by individuals. The Jewish Museum in Prague, therefore, continues to search for the persons who owned the artworks and books that are housed in its collections, and whenever possible to restitute objects that have been properly identified to rightful claimants. In so doing we go above and beyond the conditions stipulated by Czech restitution law, which in terms of righting the injustices suffered by the victims of the Shoah and their descendants is in a number of respects rather limited.”
Petr Papoušek, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, concludes: > “It is gratifying to know that efforts to rectify the property injustices from the past are now being taken on both ends. I support and welcome the work the Jewish Museum in Prague has done in conducting provenance research on their own collections so that property might be returned to the descendants of the original individual owners. With regard to the recovered Torah Ark curtain, I greatly appreciate the goodwill and respect extended to the Czech Jewish community by Michael Steinhardt and Sotheby’s in New York. The example they set should be emulated. The Torah Ark curtain from Mladá Vožice belongs to the Czech Republic, and its place in the JMP’s collection is irreplaceable as only within its historical context is the object’s intrinsic value realized. I would like to believe that we will soon see the return of other unique Judaica that were wrongfully taken out of the country. They are an essential element underpinning the collective memory of today’s Czech Jewish community.”
The Torah Ark curtain will be on display to the public as one of the showpieces in the exhibition “The Story Continues: Acquisitions of the Jewish Museum in Prague, 1994–2014,” which will run from April 24, 2014, at the Robert Guttmann Gallery.
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