The man who never gave up: The story of Josef Polák (1886-1945)


From 02. 02. 2006 to 19. 03. 2006

Jewish Museum in Prague, Robert Guttmann Gallery, U Staré školy 3, Prague 1
February 2 – March 19, 2006, every day except Saturdays 9 a.m. – 4.30, p.m.

This is the story of a man who devoted his life to advocating ideals in the real world. A man who prioritised putting the ideas of Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia into practice before pursuing his own interests. A man who actively and tirelessly worked for the benefit of society. A man who managed to rise above nationalities, languages, creeds and party allegiance. A man who did not hesitate to put his own life at risk in the struggle against the enemy. A man who never gave up.

Josef Polák was born in 1886 in Prague, the son of a Jewish small businessman. After attending high school, Polák began to study law at the Charles-Ferdinand University in accordance with his parents’ wishes. His free time, however, was devoted to his private interests – art and history. He attended lectures in a newly formed art history seminar with professors Chytil, Hostinský and Matějka, and was a frequent guest at the Café Union, an unofficial “art history institute” where he met a number of artists and intellectuals who became his lifelong friends. After graduating in 1909, he gained judicial and legal experience, but did not neglect his other field of interest. He became involved in the Czech-Jewish movement and published his first specialist work on Jewish historical topics (e.g., for the Czech-Jewish Calendar).
Military service during the First World War brought Polák to Slovakia, where he returned after the establishment of Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1918. He gave himself over to the services of the new republic and promoted its ideals as director of the East Slovak Museum in Košice – the first and, for a long time, the only state museum in the country. In Košice he developed a diverse range of activities in the fields of museum management, art history and heritage protection. He was also intensively involved in public educational activities (e.g., lectures covering various topics, theatre, radio and, later, film work). In his work, he was well aware of the historic, nationalist and linguistic specificities of eastern Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia.
In addition to developing activities that turned the Košice museum into a well-attended centre for promoting cultural and social life and for spreading new ideas and trends (e.g., the founding of the Kron Graphic School in 1921), Polák proceeded to bring about considerable change within the museum. When building its collections, his focus was mainly on the hitherto neglected Slovak portion of the population and on documenting its life in a comprehensive way, without seeking to create a purely ethnographic institution. To enrich the museum’s collections, he made use of untraditional, yet successful methods (such as holding antique auctions). The attention of visitors was attracted mainly by the more than 220 temporary exhibitions that Polák prepared at the museum and promoted in highly inventive ways. Most of these shows were presentations of contemporary visual art. A unique achievement by Polák in the 1930s was a series of exhibitions featuring contemporary European graphic art. Polák built upon his diverse experience on a more general level, too – for example, he contributed to the founding of several Slovak museums (e.g., the Jewish Museum in Prešov) and was active as State Inspector of Museums in Eastern Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia.
After years of professional and personal problems (of an administrative, financial and health-based nature), Polák’s situation improved in the early 1930s. He was then able to concentrate more on his specialist activities, particularly his efforts at familiarizing the public with the artefacts and specificities of Slovak art. He published a number of small monographic studies in various periodicals and was a frequent contributor, for example, to Štenc’s Umění (Art). He was also commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture to draw up a detailed inventory of the collections of certain chateaux that had been acquired by the Czechoslovak state after 1918 (e.g., Konopiště, Zákupy, Ploskovice, Oravský Podzámok, Pohorelá Maša). In 1936, he was appointed one of the main curators of the exhibition, Old Art in Slovakia, which was held in Prague the following year by Umělecká beseda in Prague with great public acclaim.
The political situation in Slovakia deteriorated earlier than in Bohemia. At the beginning of November 1938, Polák had to leave Košice in dramatic circumstances. After returning to Prague, he began work at the State Institute of Photosurveying, which was involved with providing photographic documentation of artefacts and monuments, but it was not long before he was sacked on account of his Jewish descent. In the spring of 1942, the Prague Jewish Community – the then administrative authority of Bohemian and Moravian Jewry – offered Polák the post of museum specialist for the newly established Central Jewish Museum in Prague. His objective was to “build an institution that documents every aspect of the life of Jews in the Protectorate as fully as possible,” and an institution that was involved in other activities besides museum work (e.g., heritage preservation).
¨ Within a short while, Polák prepared a collection-building concept, put in place a system for sorting, classifying, describing and registering a huge amount of diverse items (liturgical objects, artefacts, archival records, books, etc.) and set out rules governing their care and a plan for their presentation. Working with a small team of colleagues whose views were close to his own (Hebraist Moses Woskin-Nahartabi, architect František Zelenka and art historian Hana Volavková), he conceived several long-term exhibitions, of which only the Klausen Synagogue show was completed in approximate accord with its planned scope. This show focused mainly on major life events, the liturgical year and specific features of Jewish society and social life. As the museum was not open to the public during the war, the exhibition gained great acclaim after 1945.
At this time, Polák resumed his original, historical topics in his specialist work, which resulted, among other things, in a manuscript on the history of Jews in Bohemia and Moravia (specifically, the first part through the reign of Marie Theresa).
Despite being in immediate danger of his life as a Jew, Polák became involved in the resistance movement. He provided financial and material support for deportees to Terezín, the families of those arrested and resistance groups. In August 1944, however, he was exposed and arrested by the Gestapo. He was last seen in January 1945 in Auschwitz, after which time he disappeared without trace. Testimonies from fellow inmates point to Polák’s great personal courage and support. 

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