Defying the Beast: The Jewish Museum in Prague, 1906-1940


From 17. 08. 2006 to 06. 10. 2006

Jewish Museum in Prague, Robert Guttmann Gallery, Praha 1, U Staré školy 3
From August 17 until October 6, 2006, open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. except Saturdays and Jewish holidays.

The Jewish Museum in Prague in one of the oldest such institutions in Europe. Yet it was not the first to be established in what was to become Czechoslovakia. That distinction belongs to the Jewish Community of Mladá Boleslav who several years earlier put together a small collection of ritual objects that were not in use. The Jewish Museum in Prague, however, represented the true beginning of Jewish museology in the country.

This attempt to look back and capture Judaism’s past glory was influenced in particular by the growing tendency among Prague Jews to blend in with the society at large through assimilation and liberalization. The Wissenschaft des Judentums (the Science of Judaism) was created as a reaction to these trends; its mission was to investigate Jewish history and culture by using objective scientific methods and thereby reinforce Jewish perception of its own identity and show the gentile public the values Judaism had created and still upheld.
The idea to establish a Jewish museum was taken up with especial vigor at the end of the 19th century by the Czech-Jewish movement, though their enthusiasm had nothing to show for it. Members of Prague’s Jewish community, largely German-speaking, were also considering the idea, and they began to give it more definite form as the urban renewal scheme for the Jewish Ghetto in Josefov progressed. The arrogant and insensitive approach taken by Prague’s municipal officials toward landmarks slated for demolition was pilloried by Vilém Mrštík in his pamphlet Bestia triumphans. The fact that several synagogues and prayer rooms were facing immediate clearance provided the decisive impulse for creating the museum, that is, the Museum Association.
Under the leadership of Salomon Hugo Lieben, August Stein, and members from the boards of those synagogues already demolished or facing demolition, the Association for the Founding and Maintaining of a Jewish Museum in Prague [Verein zur Gründung und Erhaltung eines jüdischen Museums in Prag] was established in 1906. Through great effort it managed to snatch from the clutches of the Beast at least some of the ritual objects from Prague’s demolished synagogues (the Zigeuner, Great Court, and New, and via these also the Old, Fischel-Hönigsberg, Popper and others).
The collection was modest at first, but it quickly grew as the Museum Association targeted its publicity at Jews in Prague and Bohemia. Its goal was to build a representative collection of high-quality ritual objects from the synagogue and home, historical documents and manuscripts connected with Jewish life, depictions of important personages and landmarks, and other items.
By 1909 the collection was already large enough that the Museum Association could open its first exhibition in rented rooms on Benediktská Street. Open for only a few hours per week, admission was free, and the exhibition generated considerable interest. From the outset, however, its location was considered a temporary solution until a more suitable space and proper financing could be found that would allow a presentation befitting a professional museum. This took more than three years to accomplish.
The Museum Association accepted an offer by the Prague Burial Society in 1912 to move the exhibition into their building on Josefovská Street (now Široká). Installed in display cases made to measure, the collection was divided into three sections: the lapidarium highlighted the long history of Jewish settlements in the Czech lands; the space with ritual objects was to evoke a synagogue interior; the treasure house displayed objects of high artistic quality and craftsmanship which were meant to demonstrate the beauty and opulence of items of ritual use.
With the opening of the new exhibition the museum experienced its first high as well as low. It had completely exhausted its finances and during a short time several of its board’s more prominent members had died, and these unfortunate events culminated with the outbreak of World War One, which effectively put an end to the activities of all organizations, the Museum Association included. This situation lasted for the duration of the war and a long time after its end.
The museum got its second breath in 1924 when its founder and main curator, S.H. Lieben, wrote an amply illustrated guide to the exhibition. As the collection continued to grow so did the problem of how to fit all the new acquisitions in the exhibition. The solution was simple: the association had to find a new space.
The Prague Burial Society again came to the rescue and offered their Ceremonial Hall located next to the Old Jewish Cemetery. This picturesque, neo-Romanesque building was constructed at the beginning of the 20th century and could not be used as intended due to a municipal regulation prohibiting the storing of corpses in the center of Prague. So they were looking for a way to put it to use. The building was articulated, making it difficult to utilize the interior for display cases and such, so the rooms had to be gradually adapted for the exhibition. In 1926 there was a grand reopening of the exhibition, now its third.
The exhibition did not differ much from its predecessor, attendance, however, was much higher. The Čedok travel agency for one arranged tours for their clients and opening hours were now extended to meet the demand (daily, except Saturday) and admission was charged, which greatly enhanced the Museum Association’s budget. These favorable conditions did not last long as the global economic crisis in 1929 also impacted on the museum. Many regular financial contributors (B’nai B’rith lodges, the Supreme Council of Jewish Communities in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, several individual Jewish communities, etc.) continued their largesse, but the general economic climate made further acquisitions impossible. Thus the museum had to rely on gifts, which naturally influenced the shape of the collection. Rather than being active in choosing what should go into the collection the museum had to take what came its way. Yet in spite of this obvious limitation the Museum Association was still able to amass a unique collection of objects.
Another consequence of this limited acquisition program was that more time could be devoted to the collection’s professional care. During the 1930s the Jewish Museum began to cooperate with the Union of Czechoslovak Museums, gave much more attention to the conservation and restoration of the objects in its collection, actively sought out specialists in their respective fields, and after some hesitation decided to undertake a general inventory. The museum was also more active in contacting its supporters and donors in an effort to bring more attention to its work. The symbolic circle closed in 1938 when the museum decided to give more space in the exhibition to documenting the Czech-Jewish movement. By this time, the museum’s founder, S.H. Lieben, who had never learned Czech, had not been actively involved in the museum for some time.
Despite the political events of 1938-1939, the Museum Association decided to continue its activity. But in May 1940 it along with other Jewish organizations were officially dissolved by the Nazi authorities. Though in somewhat different form, the Beast had struck again. The exhibition in the Prague Burial Society’s Ceremonial Hall was still open, but it was now under the auspices of the Jewish Community in Prague. Only in late 1941 was it definitively closed to the public in accordance with other anti-Jewish measures. The museum’s building became a warehouse and was looted a number of times, reducing the collection by several valuable objects. The collection once again had a role to play in history.
In spring 1942, employees of the Jewish Community in Prague floated the idea to establish a Central Jewish Museum, which would save the synagogue fixtures, books, and historical documents from the abolished Jewish communities of the Protectorate. To support their cause they could refer to the more than thirty years of the Jewish Museum’s existence in Prague as well as to the singularity of its collection. A museum guide was prepared, written in language easily understood by the layman, evidently to further bolster their argument. The guide characterizes the collection as comprising predominately art objects.
The Central Jewish Museum was established in the end and the collection of the prewar Jewish Museum incorporated into it. These objects form the heart of the collections and exhibitions of the present Jewish Museum in Prague.
Salomon Hugo Lieben (1881-1942) was born into a German-speaking, Orthodox Jewish family in Prague. After finishing Gymnasium he studied at the rabbinical seminary in Germany, completing his degree in Oriental Studies at Prague’s Charles-Ferdinand University. A secondary-school teacher of religion, from 1931 Lieben was president of the Prague Burial Society. He initiated the founding of the Jewish Museum in Prague in 1906 and was a member of numerous conservative organizations, as well as serving on the Jewish Community’s Representative Council as the delegate of the Middle-Class Party. His main scholarly interest was history, and his articles appeared in a number of periodicals and encyclopedias.
August Stein (1854-1937), a leading figure in the Czech-Jewish movement, was born in Nový Knín. Upon finishing his law degree he worked for Prague’s Municipal Council, where he was given responsibility for settling the property claims of those affected by the urban renewal plan. His successful management of these issues earned him widespread respect and authority, which he later put to use as a city official in Liberec, then a hotbed of ethnic tension, and in the Prague Jewish Community, whose first Czech-speaking president he became in 1922. A member of B’nai B’rith, he contributed to the founding of the Jewish Museum and was actively involved in its work and initiated the creation of the Supreme Council of the Union of Jewish Communities in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia.
Curated by [email] Magda Veselská.

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