I have been to Prague twice. Once in 1998, a few years after the 1989 Velvet Revolution where a repressive Communist Czechoslovakian government was peacefully overthrown by Vaclav Havel and his associates, and split into the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia. The second time, was in October, 2017, as part of a delegation of several members of my Peninsula Sinai Congregation community, escorting a 200-year-old Sefer Torah back to its ancestral home in Olomouc for the first time in 75 years.
Both times, I had the opportunity to visit the Jewish Museum in Prague. Both times I was overwhelmed by the quantity of artifacts of Jewish life on display there, some of those artifacts dating back centuries. Both times I heard a variant of the following story: “The artifacts were collected by the Nazi authorities in charge of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (the two components of today’s Czech Republic) to create a “Museum to an Extinct Jewish Race.”
But that story always bothered me. First of all, Jews are not technically a race. But perhaps more importantly, why would the Nazis be creating a museum to a community of Jews that they were cynically trying to remove from Europe and the rest of the world? The story didn’t seem to make much sense, and in fact gnawed at me for a number of years.
Another narrative told us that the Jews of the outlying provinces sent their precious artifacts to Prague for “safe keeping” during the war as the situation was becoming more and more dire for them at home and none of them knew the fate that awaited them as part of the Nazi’s diabolical “Final Solution.”
Of course, we now know that the Jews of these regions knew far more about their ultimate fate than this passive narrative leads us to believe. Perhaps they couldn’t envision the scale of their destruction but why send their artifacts to Prague if that was the case?
So, coming back to the original question, “How did all this stuff end up in Prague and why was the “Museum of an extinct race” canard so widely distributed and believed?
What I’ve discovered, is in fact the story is far more nuanced and probably exists somewhere in the middle of these two narratives.
When you travel to Prague, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Jewish Museum.
There you will find dozens of exhibits spread across museums, public institutions, synagogues and cemeteries across the old Jewish quarter of Josefov in the Praha 1 district. Synagogues like the Maisel, the Pinkas
and the Spanish synagogue as well as the iconic old Jewish Cemetery
are packed with exhibits of Judaica from Prague and the surrounding pre-war communities outside of Prague.
All three of these sites are easily view able in a day or two if you chose to visit Prague, as we did in October, 2017.
Dozens of these communities existed in Czechoslovakia before World War Two and today, only 10 communities have survived with a total of about 3000 Jews left. A pre-war population of ~120,000 Jews was decimated by the Nazis and some estimates have less than 20% surviving the war. Most were sent to transit camps like Terezin which has its own sinister history and from there to the extermination camps in Poland like Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka. There is a monument just outside of Prague that details their haunting fate in a decrepit, relatively un-used railroad station called Praha-Bubny.
Some communities managed to survive the war only to fold afterward due to lack of members or the oppressive restrictions placed on them by the Communist authorities who took over in Czechoslovakia in 1948.
To understand what happened to the Museum, you need to go backwards to its founding in 1906. At that time, Prague was undergoing significant changes. Assimilation of the Jews into the larger community was strong and Prague’s Jews were not particularly religiously identified. Several synagogues were being razed in Josefov and the founders of the Museum saw a chance to document a disappearing way of Jewish life that had existed in Prague since the 10th and 11th Centuries. From the Museum’s perspective, from its opening in 1912, it was viewed as a largely secular institution. It even invited people in for several hours to see exhibits on the Jewish Sabbath.
Between World Wars 1 and 2, the collection grew, though it largely remained a small collection. A permanent home was located in the Ceremonial Hall just outside the Old Jewish Cemetery.
A review by historian Benjamin Frommer (“Ark of Memory. The Jewish Museum in Prague’s Journey through the Turbulent 20th Century”) details the history of the interwar years based largely on the work of historian Magda Veselská (The Museum of an Extinct Race—Fact vs. Legend, 2016)
The Munich Agreement in 1938 between Great Britain and Germany (Neville Chamberlain’s infamous “Peace in our Time” declaration) started the long slow slide of Czechoslovakia Jews into oblivion. In fact, it seems rather ironic that with the resulting Nazi conquest of the Sudetenland (the border areas between Germany and Austria and Czechoslovakia) Jews living in those areas might have actually gotten a head start away from Nazi oppression before really terrible things started happening with the Nazi occupation in March on 1939. Some Jews in Ceske Budějovice (where one of our Sifrei Torah comes from) and even Olomouc may have benefited from this head start.
Frommer writes, “True, German anti-Semitic policies of expropriation, forced emigration, and ultimately genocide provided the tragic opportunity. But it was the Museum staff itself that worked tirelessly to gather the materials left behind by Jews who departed first for abroad and later for concentration camps and ghettos.”
Veselská notes, “The staff (of the Jewish Museum), and not the leading Nazis (including Adolph Eichmann, who maintained a quixotic fascination with Prague) in the so-called Central Office for Jewish Emigration (Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung), developed the concept behind wartime exhibits. She explains, “Without doubt the greater initiative was demonstrated by the Prague Jewish Community which followed its goal, to protect the property of the Protectorate’s Jewish communities for the future.”
Veselská adds three distinct periods during the war for the Museum:
- From 1939 till the spring of 1942, it was a “Prague Jewish Art Museum existing with the agreement of the Zentralstelle”
- From then till summer 1942 it was “a select, limited museum built according to the vague wishes of the Zentralstelle.
- Ultimately it became little more than a “warehouse called a museum”. Incredibly, the Museum remained open to the public in the early months of the war.
After 1939, the only visitors to the Museum were the highest-ranking local Nazis, who came alone to preview detailed exhibitions curated seemingly only for them. The chiefs of the Zentralstelle, Hans Günther and Karl Rahm, demonstrated the greatest interest in the Museum.
Neither of them communicated any reports or reported back any directives from the Central Nazi Government in Berlin. Frommer says, “Günther did call for an exhibit on “interesting things” from pre-emancipated Jewish life in the ghetto, but he left it to the employees to determine the content.”
Nearly all the staff, by contrast, perished in Nazi German ghettos and camps. The staff painstakingly collected and recorded these items to maintain them, but also because a job at the Museum provided protection, though temporarily, from deportation. In two-and-a-half years the Museum classified and recorded more than 200,000 items and ensured their survival.
It is thanks to the eight heroic curators of the Czech State Museum and Prague Jewish community staff working at the museum, people like Tobias Jacobovits (former librarian of the Prague Jewish community) and Josef Polak (the chief curator) – that the these objects, including the 1564 scrolls found warehoused in an outbuilding of the Michle Synagogue outside of Prague probably survived to tell their story.
Contrary to popular belief, the directors and employees of the Jewish Museum, and not the German occupiers, were the driving force behind the survival and huge expansion of the Museum’s collection.
The “extinct race” story was largely false. The concept was nowhere to be found in the writings of the few museum staff members who survived the war. There was no evidence that the Nazis cooked up this scheme and in fact the story probably dates back to the post-WW2 years as a means of explaining the collection and denying any supposed exceptionality on the part of the Jews by Czech Communist authorities. The Czechs were the victims, not the Jews, in their skewed retelling of history of the Shoah. Namely it was in the Communists’ interest to paint all of Czechoslovakia as victims of the Nazis and not the Jews.
The Museum was nationalized in 1950 and a great deal of ideological pressure was placed on the curators to tell the stories of only “permissible topics.”
Veselská writes that Vilém Benda, Director of the Jewish Museum in the 1960s, may have been responsible for spread of the idea of a ‘museum of a liquidated race’ in an effort to draw international attention to its collections. To a great extent, he was successful.
But to understand the Museum’s history, you need to look to the incredible postwar efforts of Hana Volavková to ensure the survival of the Museum.
During the occupation the staff had long imagined that they were safe-keeping religious and communal artifacts which could be returned to Jewish communities after the war. Since it became clear that few Jews were alive to return and, consequently, very few communities could be reestablished, the Museum’s role shifted to one of preserving the memory of the world that had been destroyed. Volavková and her coworkers successfully convinced the Czech Communist regime to keep the Jewish Museum as an intact institution.
The shifting politics of communist-era Czechoslovakia battered the Museum over the subsequent decades. The communists presented the staff with a series of challenges and threats, both in terms of their personal standing –changes in state policy led to changes in Museum staff, including the forced retirement of Volavková in 1961 – and in terms of the content of the displayed collections.
In 1960, the Museum expanded from its existing two buildings, the Klausen Synagogue and the Ceremonial Hall, and opened new exhibitions in the Pinkas, Spanish and Maisel Synagogues.
But the Museum found a way to memorialize the Holocaust as an independent event. The Museum gained international renown through repeated exhibitions of children’s drawings from Terezin as one example.
I first became aware of the amazing story of the Museum collection in September, 1984, sitting in my parents’ synagogue during the High Holidays in Anaheim, CA. That year I heard our Rabbi Irwin Schlessinger tell the story of the Precious Legacy Exhibit that was touring the United States, at the time. For some reason the story made a big impression on me and I remember it to this day.
The Precious Legacy Exhibit was born in 1968 when U.S. Congressman Charles Vanik, the son of Czech Catholic immigrants, and his Jewish aide Mark Talisman visited Prague during the heart of the Cold War.
In that era, only a small selection of the Museum’s collection was on display, but the two Americans were shown some of the items the Museum had in its storage rooms. According to Talisman, “The collection was over a thousand times larger than anyone had known. What moved Talisman most was that “the whole horror of the Holocaust was brought to life again when I realized that each (carefully labeled and recorded) artifact was attached to a person”. Talisman worked for the next 15 years to arrange for the loan of a remarkable traveling exhibition. It started in Washington DC in 1980 and eventually toured all over the Unites States and Europe for the next several years.
You have to understand the context of that exhibit through the lens of the Cold War and the bad feelings that existed between the Reagan Administration and the Soviet Union to understand how remarkable it was that the exhibit ever made its way out of Czechoslovakia.
Later, the opening of the most visible memorial to the Shoah, the Pinkas Synagogue, with its haunting registry of the Bohemian and Moravian Jews murdered during the war, was part of an unprecedented burst of public activity for Museum.
The survival of nearly all the Museum’s collection over past seven decades is remarkable. The Communist state was forever short of hard currency and tried to sell off to the West anything of value. In 1964, for example, the regime sold most of its Torah scrolls to Great Britain and those scrolls eventually became the scrolls lent to Jewish Institutions around the world by the Memorial Scrolls Trust.
Over time, however, thanks to the efforts of the staff and the interest of the outside world, the Museum successfully demonstrated the collection’s value as a positive representation of the country and as a magnet to tourists, who increasingly came to Prague to view the city’s Jewish heritage.
Ironically, the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which ended Communist rule, presented the greatest existential threat to Museum in decades. Thanks to the new democratic government’s desire to build good relations with the outside world, Czech political leaders nearly agreed to send more than two-fifths of the collection to a private institution in Israel. Though democracy opened up this possibility, it also offered the Museum’s employees the means to rally supporters at home and abroad and thus effectively end the threat.
So, no, the 1564 Torah Scrolls, did not come to Prague as part of some Nazi-sponsored initiative to create a museum to “extinct Jews.” The truth is more nuanced. And their survival to this day, in Jewish communities all around the world is all the more amazing.
The fact that at least one of these scrolls (Scroll # 740, which originated from a town named Olomouc in the district of Moravia and is believed to have been written in 1880) and now resides on permanent allocation by the Trust in its home community since 2017, the only one of the 1564 scrolls to be permanently returned Kosher to its home community, is all the more amazing.