History of the Museum

Established in 1906, the Jewish Museum in Prague is one of the oldest Jewish museums in Europe. Its founders were the historian Salomon Hugo Lieben and the representative of the Czech-Jewish movement and city councillor August Stein. At the core of its collection were items from synagogues that had been demolished as a result of the clearance of the Prague Jewish ghetto. 

The Jewish Museum Association was abolished in the autumn of 1939 following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Its collection was taken over by the Prague Jewish community which, on the basis of an initiative from Karel Stein (head of the department for rural affairs), prompted the founding of the Central Jewish Museum in 1942. The Nazis approved of the project after lengthy negotiations, although they had completely different aims than the founders. Under the cover name 'museum', the Central Jewish Museum became a safe haven for liturgical objects, books and archival documents from the defunct Jewish communities for the duration of the war. Thanks to the efforts of the art historian and chief curator Josef Polák and his colleagues, this institution operated on a completely professional level, creating the basis for the work of the present-day museum.

After the war, the museum was placed under national administration. The conditions laid down by the state meant that the Council of Jewish Religious Communities in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia – as the legal successor to the disbanded Jewish communities – was unable to take effective control of the museum before the Communist coup of February 1948.

In 1950 the museum was nationalized, including its extensive collections. Its subsequent work was affected by ideological pressure, which considerably restricted the range of permissible topics and the way they could be dealt with. In addition, the Communist state made it impossible for the museum to develop its specialist research activities.

The museum's research did not resume until 1994, when its buildings were returned to the Prague Jewish community and the bulk of its collections were returned by the state to the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic. On 1 October 1994 the museum regained its independence from the state, marking the start of a new chapter in its more than hundred-year history.

More information is provided in the recently published book Ark of Memory. The Jewish Museum in Prague’s Journey Through the Turbulent Twentieth Century.

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