The Jewish Museum in Prague, Robert Guttmann Gallery, Prague 1, U Staré školy 3
From August 9 until October 21, 2007 open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. except Saturdays and Jewish holidays
“Hope is on the next page. Don’t close the book.
I’ve turned every page and have not met hope.
The book may be the hope.”
Edmond Jabés: From the Book to the Book
The book has always played an important role in the life of Jews. Private libraries that emerged in the ghettoes formed the basis for the first public Jewish libraries in eighteenth century Italy and later in German speaking countries. Among the first of these was the Library of the Prague Jewish Religious Community.
The decision to found a communal library was taken on the basis of a resolution of January 1858. It took another 16 years before the library opened on April 20, 1874. The first Chief Librarian was Nathan Grün. After his death he was succeeded by Isidor Pollak, who in turn was replaced by Tobias Jakobovits who had started at the library as assistant librarian in 1912. The main problem facing the library was the lack of storage space for its book collection. It was not until the rebuilding of the Jewish town hall that the Jewish community acquired suitable space. The library reopened on March 31, 1935 for the launch of an exhibition of the work of Maimonides in the community’s collection. At the time the library had 25,000 volumes, which were included in three groups: I. Hebraica, comprising works written in Hebrew, II. Judaica, consisting of Jewish, theological and philosophical works in languages other than Hebrew and III. Periodicals, including yearbooks, calendars and rare magazine issues. This collection did not remain in Prague after the Second World War; it was confiscated by the Nazis and later transferred to the Golden Crown Monastery in southern Bohemia. In 1946 it was returned to the Jewish Museum in Prague, where it remains to this day as the historic core of the book collection. Of the original collection, about 15,000 books, brochures and periodicals have been preserved.
Jewish Museum in Prague (1906–1941)
The founding of the Jewish Museum in Prague (JMP) in 1906 was prompted by the clearance of the Prague ghetto at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The main aim of the Association for the Founding and Maintaining of a Jewish Museum in Prague was to preserve ritual items from the demolished synagogues. Although the library did not operate as a separate department at the museum, books formed an integral part of its collections. In total there were 339 written materials, archive records and old books. The books included in the museum’s collections were connected with Prague (in terms of authorship or subject-matter) or were highly valued titles written in Hebrew and printed in Prague. Books from the collections of the pre-war museum can be identified today with the help of the wartime German Catalogue, which classifies such items as coming from the Prager Museum [Prague Museum] or Altes (Jüdisches) Museum (Prag) [Old (Jewish) Museum (Prague)]. Only a fragment of the book collections of the pre-war museum have been preserved. The most important role in the establishment of the Museum Association was played by the historian and Hebraist Salomon Hugo Lieben (1881–1942).
Lieben was born on 28th April 1881 in Prague. After finishing gymnasium, he studied in Germany and later at the Philosophical Faculty of Prague’s German University. Immediately after completing his studies, he became a teacher of Jewish religion at secondary schools in Prague. In June 1914, he married Sophie Adler from Munich in Mariánské Lázně. They had two sons – Samuel (Jan Lomský), who was born in 1916, and Löb Gabriel (Hanuš Lomský), who was born in September 1917.
As well as teaching, Lieben ran various businesses (a bookshop, publishing house and second-hand bookshop) and contributed to a number of periodicals. In the 1930s he became the chairman of the Prague Burial Society and shifted the focus of his activities to leading this organization. Lieben began to consider emigrating, probably right after the Munich Agreement in September 1938. For unknown reasons, however, he decided to stay in Prague with his wife Sophie. At the end of August 1939, both of his sons succeeded in leaving for the UK. Samuel (Jan) served in the Czechoslovak Foreign Army and Löb Gabriel
(Hanuš) acted, among other things, in the Czechoslovak Commitee for War Effort. After the founding of the Central Jewish Museum, S.H. Lieben became involved in its activities and worked there until his sudden death on 10th November 1942. Sophie Lieben was murdered in Auschwitz.
The Central Jewish Museum (1942–1945) began its work on 3rd August 1942 in the building of the former Jewish school in Jáchymova Steet. Working groups, or commissions, were formed for the processing of items; Fachkomission “F”, which began its activities on 2nd October 1942, focused on books. Among the employees of the “F” committee were, besides S. H. Lieben and his wife Sophie, M. Woskin-Nahartabi with his daughter Tamara, Hana Volavková and T. Jakobovits with his wife Berta.
Whereas the CJM would process the assets of abolished Jewish communities, the property of deported individuals was sent to what was known as the Treuhandstelle, whose task was to register, transport, sort and appraise the contents of apartments and of valuables left in them by the deportees. The book depository was situated at Dlouhá Avenue 33 in Prague 1, which contained 479,969 books by the end of December 1942. The Maisel Synagogue was used as another storage place, from where selected books were sent to the CJM.
Apart from the registration and cataloguing work, the museum’s employees organized several exhibitions for Nazi chiefs. The first to be completed was a literary historical exposition in the High Synagogue, which was put together by T. Jakobovits, S. H. Lieben and the architect František Zelenka. This presented the development of Jewish literature, Hebrew manuscripts and rare printed books from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.
The CJM processed as many as 213,096 items. Books and sheet music comprised about 30 per cent of the total, i.e. 46,000; for the most part traditional Judaistic literature, this material was incorporated into the JMP’s book holdings after the war. The CJM’s collections can be identified today with the help of the German Catalogue, which was put together while documenting the shipped items. Involved in its compilation was Tobias Jakobovits (1887–1944).
Jakobovits was born on 23rd November 1887 into a traditional rabbinical family in Lakompak, Hungary. After finishing gymnasium he attended Prague’s German University. He gained training in the area of rabbinical literature and Judaism at yeshivot in Hungary, then in Bratislava and also in Berlin under the supervision of Rabbi Mordechai Jaakov Petuchowski, the father of his future wife Berta. In 1922 he was granted Czechoslovak citizenship and got married in Berlin. He had two sons, Josef (b. 1924) and Manfred (Moshe) (b. 1926). While employed as the Chief Librarian of the Jewish Community in Prague, he also served as a rabbi and a teacher of religion at German Jewish schools. Although neither he nor his wife had been allowed to travel to Palestine before the occupation, he turned down an offer of work as a librarian in the US in fear of starting from scratch in a foreign country; he sent only his two sons to Palestine. From 1942 onwards he sorted books that had been confiscated and shipped to the CJM. On 27th October 1944 he was deported with his wife to Auschwitz, where they were both murdered.
The Jewish Museum in Prague resumed its activities immediately after the end of the war. Its main aim was to reinstall and open the wartime exhibitions. It was also necessary to deal with the objects which had accumulated in the museum during the war and, in the case of books, particularly after its end. A total of more than 190,000 volumes were sent to the museum in this period, of which 158,132 were restituted or taken out of the collection as part of transfers to various institutions. The museum loaned prayer books to the 52 re-established Jewish communities and discarded them from its inventory in 1950. In 1946, the Library of the Prague Jewish Community was transferred to the JMP from the Golden Crown Monastery. The collection was further expanded with the transfer of books from Jewish communities in Berlin and other German towns that had been deposited at the castles of Nový Falkenburk (Neu Falkenburg), Nový Perkštejn (Neu Perkstein), Houska (Hauska) and Mimoň (Niemes). Conversely, the museum ceded 65,115 prayer books to the UNRRA organization, 34,900 books were issued to Joint and 1,050 volumes were left to the second-hand bookshop Bamberger et Wahrmann in Jerusalem in exchange for otherwise unavailable Judaica and Hebraica. The CJM building in Jáchymova Street began to be used as a library and in 1948 a public reading room with a reference library was established there. Back in 1945, the JMP library received a part of the Central Library in Terezín (c. 100,000 books) together with books that had been sorted by the Talmudkommando in Terezín.
The Central Library of the Terezín Ghetto (Zentralbücherei Theresienstadt) was established on 17th November 1942. At the outset it had about 4,000 volumes, mostly from the Rabbinical Seminary’s Library in Berlin and the private library of the Warburg family of Hamburg. The number of books grew as more and more transports were dispatched. A total of about 200,000 books passed through the library. The management of the Central Library was entrusted to the university professor Dr. Emil Utitz, who ran it from its founding until it closed down on 31st July 1945. The largest part of the ghetto library were travelling libraries (Wanderbibliotheken), reference libraries loaned in crates to the blocks and barracks buildings. There were also specialist libraries (Fachbibliotheken), social libraries (Soziale Bücherei) and a library for young people. Separate from the Central Library was the publicly inaccessible Hebrew Library, comprising Hebrew printed books that had been stolen by the Nazis from various Jewish and non-Jewish institutions in occupied Europe. The aim was to put together a representative library of Hebraica and Judaica. These books were sorted by the Talmudkommando, a special group of experts in the fields of Hebrew and Judaistic studies, bibliography and history. Officially beginning their work on 26th June 1943, they labelled the books Jc and prepared a catalogue card for each title. The group was headed by Otto Muneles (1894–1967).
Born on 8th January 1894, Muneles came from an old Prague Jewish family, whose roots dated back to the sixteenth century. From early childhood, he was raised within the traditions of Judaism and soon showed an interest in Judaistic studies. After finishing gymnasium, he studied classical philology at Prague’s German University. At the beginning of the First World War, he was influenced by Eastern European Chassidism and moved to Galicia. Studying rabbinical and Hassidic literature there, he also deepened his interest in Jewish mysticism – the Kabbalah. He probably married in 1918 in Galicia. In 1922 he returned to Prague with his wife Barbora and son Samuel in order to continue his studies at the German University, this time focusing on Semitic philology. In the meantime he had a second son, Emil. After graduating he worked for the Prague Jewish Community’s Chevra Kadisha, where he remained until the beginning of the Second World War. He was then given the task of cataloguing the books of the local Funeral Parlour for the CJM. He gradually put together his own specialized library, continually studied and was systematically preoccupied with Hebrew bibliography, in which he later became a generally recognized expert. He was deported with his whole family to Terezín in 1943. Once there, he was involved in the cataloguing of Hebrew books. When his family received the order to be transported “to the East”, he requested to be able to leave with them. He was never allowed to do so. It was only after the war that he learned of the tragic fate of his loved ones. Having lost his faith, Judaism became something distant for him, connected only with the past and with research. In 1950, he became the Chief Librarian of the State Jewish Museum. Among those who went to see him for consultations was Milada Vilímková, who became his second wife. Muneles died on 4th March 1967. His private library of about 3,000 volumes became part of the JMP’s book collection in 1992.
Under a Deed of Donation dated 28th November 1949, the Council of the Jewish Religious Communities renounced its rights to the collections of the museum, the ownership and administration of which was transferred to the state. The State Jewish Museum was founded in 1950. To satisfy the many restitution claims, 16,997 books were discarded from the museum’s collections and about 90,000 books were earmarked for the Foundation for National Renewal. Although the library had storage space in Jáchymova Street, its books were frequently moved to alternate areas. Due to the lack of space for book storage and for its expert staff, it was not possible to bring the entire collection together and arrange the books by call number or to put together a complete catalogue. The books were found from memory and sporadically returned to their original location. This fact made the conditions for processing, registering and cataloguing the collections more difficult, and these were among the key tasks for the specialist library staff.
The core of the book holdings comprised the library of the pre-war Jewish Community in Prague (the “historical collection”), books confiscated from Jewish communities and individuals which were incorporated into the wartime museum´s collections, Hebrew books labelled “Jc”, non-Hebrew books from the Terezín and collections stored in the Mimoň area during the war. The total number of books at that time was about 50,000. The collections were further expanded through new purchases, donations or exchanges.
Among the library’s key members of staff were Vladimír Sadek, who became Dr. Muneles’s closest colleague, Běla Veselá, Bedřich Nosek, Jiřina Šedinová and Jiřina Hlaváčová.
Due largely to political developments, the museum was a closed and isolated institution. The strict supervision of the library’s operations also affected its users. Readers and researchers were afraid to visit and study at the library. The library regularly had to show lists of the researchers and of the materials that had been consulted. Unknown researchers were distrusted and there were few foreign researchers. On average between 200–250 researchers and readers visited the library each year. The period of normalisation also necessitated an intervention into the book collections. A list of “forbidden books” arrived with an order to remove all the authors, editors and translators in question from the collections. An absolutely inaccessible “collection of forbidden books” (prohibita) was established. Fortunately for the museum, it was able to keep its prohibita and to return it to the collections after the revolution of 1989. The 1990s saw an easing of the situation and, thanks to the renewed teaching of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, also growing interest in the museum and its library. A study room with a research room was opened. Alena Jelínková (the current Chief Librarian) joined the library staff at this time.
In November 1994, the SJM ceased to exist and its collections were returned to the Federation of Jewish Religious Communities in the Czech Republic. The Jewish Museum in Prague (JMP) was founded and, under the leadership of Leo Pavlát, started to renovate its buildings and permanent exhibitions. Important changes also took place in the library, which became an independent department. In 2001 the JMP’s administrative building relocated to the new premises in the street U Staré školy, where new depositories were built for the library. For the first time in the museum’s history, its book collections were clearly arranged and fully accessible. A public study room with a reference library and an air-conditioned research area for the study of rare printed books was opened. There is also a reference centre with a basic reference library, which is intended mainly for the general public. Overall, the library contains about 135,000 volumes.
In 1997, the library began placing its records into the Aleph system, which includes books, journals and articles and is also available online. The original card loan mechanism was completely replaced by an electronic one, making it possible to gain a precise and prompt overview of the loans. Apart from domestic and foreign acquisitions (about 1,500 books annually), the library also provides access to electronic databases. Also available to library users are the Inter-Library Loan Service, copy services, literature searches and specialist consultations.
The Library of the Jewish Museum in Prague is a modern institution which successfully fulfils the role of a traditional library, while being open to the many new developments taking place in the field of librarianship and information technology – all in an attempt to live up to the ideal of a library as a place where the tradition, wisdom and knowledge of past generations is encountered in a lively dialogue with the readers and researchers of the present day.
The exhibition is curated by Michal Bušek.
Guided tours of the exhibition:
Monday, September 3 at 4 p.m.
Sunday, September 30 at 2 p.m.
Sunday, October 7, at 2 p.m.
A catalogue has been published for the exhibition.