Postcard from Prague 1942

jubilee synagogue

 

Jubilee Synagogue, built 1906

I took my visitors to the Jewish Museum yesterday. It had been Página’s request. Whilst we were in the Spanish Synagogue, Olive and I began discussing the Nazi interest in the Jewish Museum and puzzled over what the Nazis’ motivation might have been not only to collect, but also to exhibit, Jewish artefacts.

Olive, a frog, told me about an exhibition the Nazis had put on in Paris during the war where they combined a display of Jewish items with a display that explained and illustrated the inferiority of the Jewish race. Olive asked me if the exhibition in Prague had been similar. I didn’t know the answer so I promised him I would find out.

The Jewish Museum in Prague had first been established in 1906. The museum’s original mission was to preserve valuable artefacts that had previously lived in the synagogues that were being razed during the large-scale urban renewal of the Jewish ghetto area. The small local museum remained open until 1939 when the Nazis occupied Bohemia and Moravia and closed it down.

The Nazis established the Central Jewish Museum in 1942, but it had not been their idea. Dr. Karel Stein had proposed the museum to the Nazi authorities. He and his colleagues at the original Jewish Museum had been motivated by a desire to save Jewish objects that were being confiscated by the Nazis, but it seems that no one really knows what motivated the Nazis.

My guess yesterday was greed. The museum’s collection of objects, which during the war grew from 900 items to 213,096 items, contained a lot of silver and other valuable materials. But that would not explain why the Nazis wanted everything carefully catalogued and looked after. And it definitely could not explain why the Nazis allowed exhibitions to take place.

There are a few other theories of why the Nazis allowed the staff of the Jewish Museum to have control of the stolen artefacts, but there is no historical evidence to support any of them.

Probably the most popular theory, and one I had heard before, refers to an alleged Nazi desire to have a “Museum of an Extinct Race”. But there is no documentation indicating that that’s what the Nazis were up to, and 1942 was too early for the Nazis to openly mention extermination.

Another theory is that it was propaganda, that the Nazis wanted to demonstrate their respect for the Jews to the larger community of nations. But the Central Jewish Museum was a secret museum, it did not officially exist, and it was not spoken about publicly.

According to the magazine Týden, there were two Nazi-sponsored exhibitions. The first was in November 1942 in the High Synagogue, where the museum put Jewish books and manuscripts on display. The second exhibition, which took place in the Klausen Synagogue, was conceived around the theme of Jewish religious life.

In answer to your question, Olive, I did not find anything to indicate that there was any element of anti-Jewish propaganda in the exhibitions. But, to put things in perspective, I found it difficult to find any information at all on the Paris exhibition. It seems that it’s easy for some things to get lost in time.

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