NEWS STORY: The mystery _ maybe _ of Prague’s Jewish Museum

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

PRAGUE, Czech Republic _ Much of Prague’s Jewish history is wrapped in enigma, from the haunting medieval cemetery to the legend of the golem creature to the existential brooding of author Franz Kafka. So it’s no wonder a grim mystery surrounds the origins of the famous Jewish Museum in Prague.

The museum boasts the largest collection of Judaica in Europe, some 39,000 artifacts _ from brocaded silk Torah mantles to silver, jeweled Torah shields; from tin household Sabbath dishes to artwork created by Jewish children at Terezin, the Nazi detention camp where prisoners awaited deportation to Auschwitz.

Half a million people annually view choice samples of the collection here in one of the few cities outside Israel where Jewish monuments are considered at the top of any tourist’s must-see list.

But most major travel guidebooks, and even the respected Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, recount a sinister tale about the origins of the museum’s vast collection.

The story goes that the Nazis cynically plotted to create a museum to the”extinct race”of the Jews. Many books further claim that Jewish artifacts were shipped here from throughout Nazi-occupied Europe for the purpose.

Yet both notions constitute a”self-perpetuating legend,”says museum director Leo Pavlat. As for the Nazis’ alleged plans,”We don’t know of any document proving it,”Pavlat said. And as for the origin of the artifacts,”all of these items are connected to Bohemia and Moravia”_ that is, lands within the borders of the present-day Czech Republic, not the whole of Europe.

This is known, said Pavlat, because of meticulous documentation from the original curators of the Jewish Museum during World War II _ all of them Jews, frantically working to salvage a legacy of Judaism the Nazis nearly succeeded in erasing.

Most of the impromptu curators ultimately died in Nazi death camps.

The disputed origins of the museum became a contentious issue in 1998 after Israeli journalist Itamar Levin published a book,”The Last Chapter of the Holocaust?”which summarized legal claims made by Holocaust survivors against Swiss banks and other institutions profiting from looted Jewish property and slave labor.

The book included a section on the Jewish Museum in Prague, which Levin accused of poorly storing its artifacts and leaving some 3,000 altar curtains exposed”to damp and gnawing mice.”Levin also said the museum has far more artifacts than it needs and should donate some to synagogues around the world for liturgical use. And he quoted an unnamed activist who said,”Those who collaborated with the Germans should not be allowed to retain the property of the people who were massacred.” Levin didn’t specify who were the alleged collaborators, but he did repeat the conventional account that the museum owed its treasures to a methodical Nazi plan.

Levin’s book was not published commercially, but it circulated among Jewish activists in 1998. Museum director Pavlat indignantly published a response, citing errors large and small in Levin’s account, down to the misspelling of Pavlat’s own name.

A subsequent investigation by an RNS reporter also demonstrated that while only the most delicate artifacts benefit from air conditioning, the museum keeps its artifacts in two dry, well-secured buildings, with liturgical textiles carefully wrapped in sheets and metalwork neatly stored in cases. Levin’s account, it turns out, was based on information more than a decade old, when the museum was under Communist state ownership which, by most accounts, was more careless in storing the artifacts.

In 1994, the post-Communist government turned the institution over to the Czech Jewish community.


After accusing each other of libel, Pavlat and Levin met face-to-face in Prague in July and toned down their war of words. Levin said the two”agreed to disagree”on one point: whether the artifacts are better served in museum warehouses _ where all but 1,500 artifacts of the 39,000-piece collection are stored rather than displayed _ or should be put to use in synagogues worldwide.”We don’t want Judaism to be a matter of museums,”Levin said.”Judaism is living religion.” But Pavlat said many of these items are too fragile or have too much cultural value to be put back into use. He also said the collection is available for researchers and for temporary, traveling exhibits that have gone as far away as Australia. The museum staff has not had time to document which artifacts might be spared in the future, he added.


The puzzle remains, however, about the museum’s origins.

A local Prague Jewish museum was started in 1906 and built up a 1,100-item collection by 1939. When the Nazis occupied Bohemia and Moravia that year, they began closing synagogues and confiscating Jewish property, warehousing everything from bicycles to Torah scrolls in Prague. Only Prague’s Jewish community remained operating, though in increasingly precarious conditions.

Jewish leaders sought to salvage the plundered goods in an enlarged museum and asked permission of the Nazi leaders, who agreed after long negotiations.”They didn’t allow it for a long time,”said Jewish Museum historian Arno Parik.”Finally they said yes.” One of the few library curators to survive, Hana Volavkova, said the specialists worked feverishly in cramped quarters.”An unpleasant visit was expected each day,”she wrote.”Normal conceptions of distance and time were lost. Only through a single narrow gap between the houses was it possible to see the sky. Spring could be recognized from the dampness of the air and from the flowers on the windowsills of the houses opposite. But the flowers were far away and still lived a normal life, while the museum building was stigmatized.” So why did the Nazis allow Jews to expand the museum?”It’s possible they had some crazy idea”about a museum to the extinct race, said Parik.

But he said high-ranking Nazis and museums were already appropriating choice artworks plundered from Czech Jews, and they may have wanted to exploit the Jewish experts’ knowledge of the Judaica for further looting. By 1945, all of these experts had been sent to death camps.

Documentary research may yet shed more light on the Nazis’ motives, but Parik said it is clear those who did the actual work _ Jews _ succeeded in preserving Czech Judaica on a scale they never imagined.”It was an act of desperation … that stood up to a monstrous mechanism which was heading in an unknown direction, but which was grinding them down,”wrote Volavkova.


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