The Jewish Museums
By Otto Lohr
Dr. Lohr is in charge of Jewish museums in Bavaria for the Landesstelle for Non-State Museums -- a service board of the Ministry of Culture in Bavaria, which takes care of the non-state museums. The board gives professional advice on how to display, maintain and develop the collections and how to organize buildings and installations in accordance with accepted standards of preventative conservation. The Landesstelle is also active in training museum professionals and distributes subventions for projects at nine hundred non-state museums in Bavaria.
In 1994, the Bavarian register of architectural monuments listed 60 synagogues, 70 former residences of Jews, including Rabbis, and about 40 Jewish communal buildings such as mikvot, schools, and orphanages, and 124 Jewish cemeteries. Ancient Jewish urban settlements in Floss and in Augsburg-Kriegshaber need to be added.
In many places, reuse of synagogues and the compulsory purchase of Jewish shops and dwelling places began in November, 1938, immediately after Kristallnacht. Today, the best maintained buildings are often owned by a municipalities. Many of these architectural remnants of a are in search of purpose. Because only a few Jewish communities have revived or been founded since 1945, a cultural use is usually thought to be best solution. Thus, many of these monuments either house museums, or have been proposed as museum sites.
Since the 1988 exhibition Siehe der Stein schreit aus der Mauer at Nuremberg's German National Museum, prior to the commemoration ceremonies for the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, recognition of Jewish history and heritage has increased. That exhibition presented the first intensive survey of Judaica and documents concerning Jewish history and culture in Bavaria. One result of the exhibition was that it created more awareness about local Jewish history, leading to further projects and exhibitions.
Presently, there are nine Jewish museums in Bavaria run by municipal communities. Three more Jewish museums are planned. The museums are situated primarily in cities and towns of formerly important Jewish communities: in Aschaffenburg, Augsburg, Ermreuth, Hoechberg, Ichenhausen, Muenchen, Schnaittach, Urspringen and Veitshoechheim. Most of the smaller Jewish museums are nearly exclusively based on displayed genizah material. Only Augsburg and Schnaittach possess more important collections. In Georgensgmuend and Sulzbach-Rosenberg, the old synagogues are to be used as museums.
The museums in Fuerth & Schnaittach and Veitshoechheim are taking shape, staffed by full-time professionals and active in research. The Jewish Museum Franconia applies to the study of material things, especially objects used in religious services and items of everyday life
Veitshoechheim, Germany. Synagogue Museum. Photo courtesy Jüdisches Kulturmuseum und Synagoge Veitshöchheim
With the exceptions of Augsburg and Fuerth & Schnaittach, the existing museums are mostly of local importance. Older Jewish buildings are often maintained and used as museums due to local initiatives of a few dedicated people. To restore a monument with public funds, a suitable use is required. Politicians or the governmental Office for the Preservation of Monuments have been quick to establish Jewish museums in ancient Jewish monuments. Foundations of museums for Jewish history and culture are booming.
Schnaittach and Veitshoechheim: Different Approachs to Synagogue Restoration
Why museums? Is this intended as some kind of reparation? More importantly, are the items on display to be seen by the victim or by the perpetrator? Before 1933, Jewish museums in Germany were organized, without exception, by Jews, while since 1945, all Jewish museums have been founded by non-Jews. Nowadays in Germany, Jewish museums have an exceptional status. They lack a positively valued tradition. Against the background of the Holocaust, they have always been places of memory.
Memory as a vital human act shapes our relationship to the past and the way we remember determines our present. In Jewish life, memory also has a crucial meaning. How should we deal with Jewish museums as places of public memory? Jewish architectural monuments are always considered isolated from their history of construction and destruction as places of memory. The Jewish museums in Schnaittach and Veitshoechheim show different attempts at dealing with Jewish heritage.
The market town of Schnaittach, about 30 km northeast of Nuremberg, is a good example of an important rural Jewish community from the 16th to the first quarter of the 20th century. One of the advantages of Schnaittach is the unmatched collection of Judaica and of items from the everyday life of a Jewish rural community. This collection, in combination with the retained buildings of former Jewish community institutions is matchless in southern Germany. The museum, is a branch of the Jewish Museum Franconia, opened in 1996.
The existing building complex in Schnaittach (including the synagogue, built in 1570 and extended during the 18th century, Rabbi`s house, cantor`s house and a mikvah) is unique in Germany. On Kristallnacht, Schnaittach`s synagogue was not destroyed. The building was saved by townspeople because it was already planned to be a museum. Only its furniture was destroyed-it was intentionally set on fire. By 1939, the synagogue had been rebuilt as a heritage museum. The main hall of the ancient synagogue was ironically designated for the presentation of Christian art.
The present director of the museum planned that all traces of change, showing the changing history of the building, until the present, should be made visible and that the Jewish history of Schnaittach should be comprehensive and comprehendible. A reconstruction of the interior furniture was completely renounced in order to keep the destruction and desecration of the former house of God conspicuous. Keeping various historical traces of different periods visible is not the usual procedure, especially for synagogues, and is sometime opposed by the Bavarian governmental Office for the Preservation of Monuments. In most of the cases a significant period will be reconstructed, preferably the period in which the building and the Jewish community was at the peak of its history. So, the significance of the changes forced during the Nazi regime and following is reduced by returning the buildings to a pre-1933 appearance.
The ancient synagogue of Veitshoechheim, a little community about 20 km northwest of Wuerzburg, serves as an excellent example of the usual proceedings for the reconstruction of a synagogue. Today, the synagogue, including the cantor`s rooms and a mikvah in the cellar, is part of the local Jewish museum opened in 1994. Likewise, the synagogue dates from the 18th century and after the renovation of the synagogue (so that religious services could take place again), the furnishings were reconstructed using photographs taken in the late 1920s. Unlike Schnaittach, the complete synagogue of Veitshoechheim was not violated during on Kristallnacht, because it was no longer is use in 1939. It was later turned in a fire station.
What are these two examples of Jewish museums telling us about how remembrance is dealt with? In case of Veitshoechheim, Jewish history after 1938, terminated by the Holocaust, is extensively erased. At a quick glance, the synagogue regained the appearance of the 1920s. The building offers very little information why the synagogue could not be used from 1938 to 1945, and about the destructive new function as a fire station after 1940. Only a memory board for the Jewish soldiers killed in World War I, composed of fragments on the right wall at the synagogue next to the Torah-arc gives a hint about that.
In Schnaittach, reconstruction of the past is renounced, and nearly every change in building function can be deduced by the visitor. Standing in the empty main hall of the synagogue, looking at the empty Ark and seeing just one single wall painted with the reconstructed pattern-painting of the late 19th century, the visitor might wonder about the nature and history of the space. Corresponding texts, photographs and documents answer the questions of the astonished visitor. Establishing a Jewish Museum in an old synagogue is certainly not the easiest solution. The synagogue is not any building; it is an precious object in itself and its proper history cannot be neglected.
At smaller museums, the lack of professional staff usually prevents an active imparting of knowledge. Run by volunteers, they have reduced opening hours and regular events and constant instruction for adults and youth are unlikely under such conditions. With some effort the great annual commemoration days are held. The offer and the quality of information can be improved, however, by training volunteers. But in the long run, it would be better to institute a new structure for the region's Jewish Museums by establishing a few bigger museums that also take care of the smaller ones.
The Jewish Museum Franconia is now embarking on a project to register all of the Judaica preserved in all Bavarian museums. Since the spring of 1998 the Jewish Museum Veitshoechheim has been working on the registration of genizah material. During two years, as a pilot project to collect some experiences, the scientific registration of the Veitshoechheim genizah material will be done. When the project will be supported by sufficient public funds, the registration of all other genizot preserved in Bavarian museums will be provided.
Jewish museums are special museums in which Jewish history is often considered isolated from the other Bavarian or local history. The question is, whether Jewish history should not be visibly understood as a part of the local history? And not to be supplanted in a special museum, because of prime priority an architectural monument needs a suitable use. Additional to the foundation of a few central Jewish museums it should be aspired to integrate the history of every Jewish community into the local heritage or city museum. At the same time, contacts to the non-Jewish history could be established and the interaction could be shown. Examples are partly be seen in the museums in Gunzenhausen, Regensburg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Tuechersfeld. The discussion whether Jewish museums should be founded or whether departments of Jewish history should be integrated in heritage or city museums is not a new one. The subject was already discussed at the end of the 1920s.
The history of the Jews in Bavaria can only be presented against the background of the holocaust. As important is the presentation of what was destroyed by the extinction of the Jews. Besides the memory of the holocaust it is necessary to maintain the memory of Jewish life at the particular cities and communities, in short the history of Bavarian-Jewish living together. Museums preserve the remembrance of those people who lived in and with this culture , and they should create the interest in the culture vanished by the extermination of the Jews. The aim is not the presentation of an isolated Jewish history, but the museum as a social memory. The "museumization" of the Jews keeps awake the memory of the long Bavarian-Jewish history, but it also favors oblivion (that should be avoided at any cost) by making the museum a place for items without function in our society.
Landesstelle fuer die nichtstaatlichen Museen, Wagmuellerstrasse 20, D-80538 Munich, Tel.0049/89/21014016; Fax 0049/89/21014040
The Jüdisches Museum Franken Publishes Harburger Judaica Volumes
The Franocnian Jewish Museum (Jüdisches Museum Franken) has completed its first major project -- the publication of Die Inventarisation jüdischer Kunst- und Kulterdenkmäler in Bayern (The Registration of Jewish Monuments of Art and Culture in Bavaria) (ISBN 3-9805388-5-0), which contains a collection of photographs taken by Theodor Harburger on behalf of the association of Bavarian Jewish Communities between 1926 and 1932. Harburger visited 128 sites where he took approximately 850 photographs of synagogues, cemeteries and Jewish ceremonial objects. All that he saw, he filed on cards. Today, the original negative plates are preserved in Jerusalem.
The photographs have now been edited and published in three volumes by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem and the Jewish Museum Franconia Fuerth & Schnaittach. The cooperative effort of both institutions was supported and under consideration of the Landesstelle for non-state museums.
The merit of the beautifully produced edition goes beyond the superb quality of the photographic reproduction and the inclusion of Harburger's notes. The volumes present a rich source for everybody who deals with Jewish history in Bavaria, and Jewish art in general.
Most of the synagogues and objects documented by Harburger are now destroyed. This book allows us to see what an educated German Jew though worth preserved (at least on film) when he had no foreknowledge of its fate. We are thankful for his foresight, and are reminded again how fragile our history is.-ed.
International Survey of Jewish Monuments
c/o Jewish Heritage Research Center
Box 210, 118 Julian Pl.
Syracuse, New York 13210-3419, USA
tel: (315) 474-2350
fax: (315) 474-2347