Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, No. 2 / Summer 1997
Museums and Exhibits: Prague and Warsaw



The Jewish Museum in Prague, founded in 1906, celebrated its 90th anniversary in 1996. Despite a tumultuous history, the institution is now growing aggressively addressing problems of inventory, care, preservation, and restoration of the important artifacts and monuments in its collection. With over 35,000 objects from Bohemia and Moravia, the Jewish Museum possesses one of the most extensive collections of Judaica in the world. A number of historic sites, including the Old Jewish Cemetery, the Pinkus Synagogue, the Ceremonial Hall, the Klaus Synagogue, the Maisel Synagogue and the Spanish Synagogue are all under the Museum's care.

The objective of the museum when it was created was to "collect, preserve and exhibit ritual items of household and synagogue worship as well as archive materials, manuscripts and illustrations of Jewish monuments and personalities." The museum staged its first exhibition in 1909 and continued to present exhibits until the German Occupation in 1939 when the Museum Association was dissolved. Dr. Karel Stein, fearing the destruction of Jewish artifacts, negotiated with the Nazis to establish the Central Jewish Museum to preserve and exhibit artistic and historical objects of the pre-war Jewish communities. Although his intention to preserve the objects was successful in the end, the Nazis viewed the museum in a very different light -- as a "museum of an extinct race."

Despite the disparity of "vision" between the two groups and the constant threat of deportation or arrest, exhibitions (not accessible to the public) were installed in the synagogues, including the High Synagogue (Hebrew manuscripts and old prints), the Altneushul (medieval synagogue architecture), and also in the Ceremonial Hall of the Old Jewish Cemetery (Museum of the Prague Ghetto). Between the summer of 1944 and the winter of 1945, however, the employees were transported to Terezin and death camps.

Following the war, the institution reformed itself under the auspices of the Council of Jewish Communities in Czechoslovakia but in 1950, after reopening several of the war-time exhibitions, the museum became State property and was placed under the Ministry of Education. The communist regime limited Museum activities, and used the collections for political purposes. It was only after the political changes in 1989 and the subsequent restitution of the museum to the Federation of Jewish Communities in 1994 that the "recreated" Jewish Museum in Prague was able to operate once again with complete autonomy.

Now, the Museum is committed to a number of crucial preservation projects in Prague and the Czech Republic. Completion of the Memorial to the victims of Nazi genocide in the Pinkus Synagogue has been one of the greatest achievements to date. The memorial was opened in the late 50s but closed in 1968, and subsequently the names of Holocaust victims were removed from the synagogue walls. After the collapse of communism, necessary construction work was completed and, in 1992, calligraphers began re-inscribing the names of the victims. The memorial opened on April 16, 1996 and includes more than 77,000 names.

Pinkus Synagogue, PraguePhoto: Pinkus Synagogue, Prague part of the Jewish Museum. © Ruth Ellen Gruber 1997

The restoration project of the Baroque Klaus Synagogue was completed in March 1996. During construction, remains of the original bimah and paving stones (from 1694) were discovered. These have been incorporated into the exhibition area. The synagogue now houses the permanent exhibition begun during the Occupation, Jewish Traditions and Customs, which is comprised of artifacts from both the Klaus Synagogue and various other synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia. The exhibit highlights the role of the synagogue in Jewish religion and communal life and interprets the meaning and historical context of individual festivals.

Rehousing and inventorying the entire collection occupied the Jewish Museum's Collections staff for a year and a half. Storage facilities are maintained in the Maisel Synagogue (renovated in 1995) and the Pinkus Synagogue (with environmentally-controlled facilities), as well as in off-site areas.

In August of 1996, the Educational and Cultural Center of the Museum opened to provide a forum for discussion of Judaism, anti-Semitism and Jewish history. Museum staff hope the Center will enrich the history and civil education programs taught within the Czech school system. To fulfill this goal, the Center has acquired the status of a teacher training institution and plans to produce a textbook focusing on Jewish culture and to also sponsor an international seminar on the methodology of the instruction of Jewish themes.

Other Museum ongoing activities include the restoration of gravestones in the Old Jewish Cemetery. Begun in 1993, this work continues at the rate of 100 stones per year. Simultaneous conservation of another 4,000 stones each year delays deterioration caused by pollution.

In 1995, the Museum embarked on a project to create a catalog of Jewish Communities in the territory of the present-day Czech Republic. The effort to record uniform information from over 600 localities entails thorough research of all references to Jewish settlement, review of existing census data, and surveys of important figures in the communities and the history and description of Jewish cemeteries and buildings.

Restored Textiles Exhibit at Prague Jewish Museum, 19 March - 30 May 1997
The restoration of textiles is a specialized process that requires a wide range of technical knowledge. Textile restorers must have an eye for the value and condition of a work in order to determine the best methods for cleaning, restoration and preservation. The work is painstaking and laborious and often takes many years to complete. A recent exhibition at the Prague Jewish Museum highlighted a selection of textiles in the museum's collection, which have been conserved and restored over the past 30 years. The works were displayed in the context of the restoration process, so that one was able to view the changes in restoration technique employed over the years. The collection of synagogue textiles is one of the most valuable collections in the Jewish Museum and includes over 4000 Torah mantles, about 2500 Torah curtains and over 1100 valences.

For more information please contact: Jewish Museum in Prague, U Stareho Hrbitova, 110 01 Praha 1, Czech Republic (tel: 420 2 2317191/ fax:420 2 2317181)

Museum of History of Polish Jews in Warsaw

Ghetto Fighters' Monument, Warsaw
Photo: Ghetto Fighters' Monument, Warsaw, next to which the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews will erected. © Samuel Gruber 1997

Plans continue for an impressive new museum to be located within the complex of memorial sites dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto. The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews will stand adjacent to one of the great memorials to Polish Jewry, the Ghetto Fighters' Monument, in central Warsaw.

The Museum is a project of the Jewish Historical Institute Association of Poland, which holds thousands of Jewish historical objects and artifacts, including the Warsaw Ghetto Underground Archives and over two thousand paintings, among them works by Maurycy Gottlieb, Leopold Gottlieb and Roman Kramsztyk. In creating the Museum, the Association plans to add a high-quality institution to the cultural landscape of Warsaw. According to literature distributed by the Association, the Museum intends through engaging, interactive exhibits, to present the fascinating, significant and ultimately tragic history of 1000 years of Jews in Poland and to help keep alive the memory of Polish Jewish history and culture within Poland.

Michael Friedman, president of the Association says that "it will not be a dead museum of a world that has died. Rather, it will be a lively and creative education center." Using state-of-the-art technology, the Museum will tell the story of Jewish daily life. The Museum's multimedia exhibits will convey a tangible sense of Jewish society in Poland, the religious community, the rich culture built around the Yiddish language, and the tragic events which led to the virtual disappearance of Jews from Poland.

Executive Director Dr. Grazyna Pawlak stated, "the museum will not only help Poles understand more about their thousand years of history with Jews, but it will also provide young Polish Jews and citizens of the world with a clearer picture of the multicultural life that existed in Poland before World War II and the Communist regime."

While there is an increasing number of recognized Jewish historic sites in Poland and a number of local "Jewish Museums," there has been little effort to show more than collections of mainly religious artifacts. These are often shown as exotica without descriptive or contextual material to allow the viewer (especially the viewer not versed in Polish Jewish history and culture or Jewish religious practice) to understand the significance of the display. This problem exists throughout many Central and Eastern European museums well beyond those limited to the Jewish past. Social and historical contextualism is relatively unknown in Polish museology. Nor are most museum displays created with a didactic purpose. The planned Museum of the History of Polish Jews intends to introduce new museum exhibit and educational methods.

Construction of a state-of-the-art museum in Poland will be expensive. Not surprisingly, there is considerable disagreement among Jewish and Polish religious and political leaders about the need for the expense.

For more information contact Dr. Grazyna Pawlak, ul. Tlomackie 3/5, 00-090 Warsaw, Poland, tel./fax 48-022-827-9225.

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Updated: 24-Jul-98