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The Spanish Synagogue open after reconstruction

New exhibition “Jews in the Bohemian Lands, 19th–20th Centuries”

After more than a year and a half of reconstruction, the Jewish Museum in Prague will be re-opening the Spanish Synagogue to the public on Wednesday, 16 December. At a cost of several tens of millions of Czech crowns, the ambitious reconstruction has expanded the exhibition space to provide an additional 600 square metres. Among other things, it has provided barrier-free access to all of the synagogue’s three floor areas. Following on from the previous show at the synagogue, a new modern exhibition (“Jews in the Bohemian Lands, 19th–20th Centuries”) has been put together as part of the reconstruction project. The focus of the new exhibition is on the history and culture of the local Jewish community between the 19th and 20th centuries. The architecturally unique Spanish Synagogue, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, will continue to be used as a venue for separate evening programs, in particular for concerts of classical music.
Leo Pavlát, the director of the museum, said the following about the new exhibition: “Conceived as a long-term exhibition, the new show will guide the visitor through the history of the immense upheavals that the Bohemian and Moravian Jewish community has gone through in the past two centuries. After the granting of equality – which was supposed to make the Jews forget about the previous centuries of discrimination – civic emancipation enabled them full participation in society. This auspicious period of flourishing came to an end with the apocalypse of the Shoah, which saw the death of two-thirds of the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia. Hopes for a fresh start after the Second World War were dashed by the antisemitic Communist regime. All of these aspects can be experienced by visiting the new exhibition. It features unique pieces of Judaica and other three-dimensional objects, documents, films and photographs. In addition, it makes use of innovative audiovisual and interactive elements with respect to the unique space of the synagogue. An important new feature of the exhibition is the attention it pays to the history of the Jews between 1945 and 1989, as well as the subsequent period. I believe that this previously neglected chapter of recent Czech history will be of particular interest to local visitors.”
The previous exhibition in the Spanish Synagogue opened to the public more than 20 years ago. After such a long time, it has been necessary to carry out technical improvements to the building and also to re-conceive the exhibition, which as a whole no longer met current museum requirements. In addition to expanding the exhibition area and providing barrier-free access, some of the interior elements were repaired, moisture was removed from part of the perimeter masonry walls, and the climate-control conditions inside the building were improved. Following on from the reconstruction and building alterations, restoration work was carried out and new display cases and digital kiosks containing audiovisual elements were installed.
The new exhibition in the Spanish Synagogue contains 58 professionally restored metal artefacts, 13 types of woodwork elements, 24 new all-glass display cases, and 26 audiovisual elements. Barrier-free access has been provided to all three levels of the exhibition space, which was made possible by installing a stairway platform lift in the entrance hall.

View from the gallery of the Spanish Synagogue
Photo: JMP / D. Cabanová

A selection of cultural events and lectures

Jews, History and Culture” seminar for teachers

In the autumn of 2020, the Jewish Museum’s Department for Education and Culture organized a series of three online seminars, titled “Jews, History and Culture”. Accredited by the Czech Ministry of Education, these seminars were held for educators from all over the Czech Republic. The October seminar dealt with the topic of Jewish traditions and customs, and included a virtual tour of the historic mikveh in Josefov (the former Jewish Town), for which a separate lecture was given. Special guests of this seminar were the psychologist and writer Zuzana Peterová and the Kashrut coordinator of the Prague Rabbinate, Chaim Kočí. The November seminar dealt with the history of Jews in the Bohemian lands, and a lecture on this topic was given by the Jewish Museum’s exhibition curator and author of several books on Jewish monuments, Arno Pařík. To conclude, the December seminar focused on the difficult topic of the State of Israel today and was attended by the invited Middle East experts Irena Kalhousová and Jan Fingerland. In total, these seminars were attended by 172 students.

Evening programmes

Both branches of the Jewish Museum’s Department for Education and Culture also managed to establish contact with the public in the online environment, which is where the evening programs exclusively took place in the autumn. Students were able to get further acquainted with the ancient history of the Jews in the “Jews and the Ancient Near East” cycle, which involved the contribution of experts from the Evangelical Theological Faculty of Charles University, David Rafael Moulis and Jan Dušek. Among the most watched online events were the successful programmes “RAF War Veteran” and “The Adventures of Mr. Wellington”, which included a talk by Tomáš Lom, a former pilot of the legendary 311th Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron of the British Royal Air Force; “A Quarter Truth, Three Quarter Fantasy: An Author Reading by Arnošt Goldflam”; “The Haredim Project”, featuring Eliška Blažková’s photographs of the Mea Shearim neighbourhood of Jerusalem; and “Philip Roth: Life and Work” with a talk by the American studies expert Hana Ulmanová. In total, about 500 people took part in our online evening programmes. The next series of online evening programmes have been prepared for January 2021 onwards.
Photo: T. Lom Archiv
The members of 311th Czechoslovak Bomber Squadron of the British Royal Air Force

Sunday workshops for children and parents

The autumn series of Sunday workshops for children and parents took place only online this year, but there was no shortage of participants or entertainment. In October, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah were celebrated by children and parents, together with “Aryeh the Lion Cub”. On this occasion, they learned some Hebrew letters so that they could make their own Torah scroll and dance with it. The November workshop focused on the biblical story of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of languages. Thanks to the strong participation of parents, this time Aryeh also became acquainted with languages he had not previously known, such as Danish, and also learned a few hieroglyphic symbols. In December, Aryeh took part in the Hanukkah celebrations. The children learned why the Hanukkah candelabrum has eight branches, and why we eat fried food on Hanukkah. The Jewish Museum’s entire Department of Education and Culture team would like to thank the parents for their support and look forward to meeting them again over the course of 2021.

Other news from the museum

The Jewish Museum receives a set of items from the personal papers of the American psychoanalyst Erna Popper-Furman


As in almost all other respects, 2020 was not a favourable year for the Jewish Museum in terms of making new acquisitions. Nevertheless, the museum has continued to expand its holdings, which have been enriched by various gifts. The most notable gift was a set of items from the personal papers of the outstanding American child psychoanalyst Erna Popper-Furman (1926–2002). In 1942–1945, Erna was interned in the Terezín/Theresienstadt ghetto, where she worked as an educator at one of the children’s homes and also helped to organize children’s drawing lessons with their initiator, the Viennese artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898–1944).
Erna was born on 14 June 1926 in Vienna, the only child of Karl Popper and his wife Margarete (née Nebel). Shortly after the annexation of Austria into the German Reich, the family moved to Brno and later to Prague, from where Karl Popper managed to get to England. Erna and Margarete, however, remained stranded in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, from where they were deported to the Terezín ghetto in October 1942. Margarete died there in the middle of January 1943. Erna managed to survive in the ghetto until the end of the war. At the time of her incarceration, she was sixteen years of age and was already subject to work requirements. She acted as a guardian in Home L 318 for children under the age of 10. This is where she met Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and helped to organize drawing lessons for the children. Despite all her work assignments, she devoted herself to tireless study, as is evident from her personal notes which contain details of the cultural events she was involved in, the books she read and, in particular, the language lessons and lectures that she attended (on various topics, including psychology and psychoanalysis, which she decided to study after the war).
Shortly after the liberation, Erna was one of four carers who, together with 40 mostly orphan children, moved from Terezín to a sanatorium in the former chateau of Baron Ringhofer in Olešovice near Prague. This was one of the five chateaux that were turned into rehabilitation centres as part of a rescue operation (titled “Castles”) organized in 1945–47 by the teacher, social worker and evangelical clergyman Přemysl Pitter. In July 1946, Erna managed to leave for Britain to be with her father. Over the next six years, she took Anna Freud’s child therapy course at Hampstead and studied psychology at the University of London. In 1952, she left for the United States, where she continued her academic career at the Department of Psychiatry at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. Like her husband, the psychoanalyst Robert Furman, she devoted her entire career to pioneering work in child psychoanalysis. She was employed at the Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development for nearly half a century. At the end of her life, she became an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytic Association. She died at her home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on 9 August 2002.
The set of items that was gifted to the Jewish Museum contains 37 drawings on loose leaf, one sketchbook, personal notes, and small gifts from friends and from children who were in Erna’s care. This material provides a very valuable source of information on life in the Terezín ghetto, and also relates to less well-researched areas concerning the application of the Terezín educational experiment in the postwar period. After being in the care of Erna’s family for decades, it is good news that this material has now become part of the collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague, where it will be made available to the public through an online catalogue. In this way, it will be preserved for future generations of researchers.

80th anniversary of the Patria Disaster

The ocean liner SS Patria was sunk in the port of Haifa on 25 November 1940. On board were 1,770 Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, including the former Czechoslovakia. They were fleeing from the Nazi terror and from certain death in extermination camps. In total, 267 passengers of the ship lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Another 172 people suffered injuries. Due to Arab protests against Jewish immigration, the British authorities had refused to allow the refugees to land in what was then Palestine. The British Mandate of Palestine closed its borders while the Holocaust broke out in Europe. The refugees on the Patria were to be sent instead to the remote island of Mauritius. To prevent this move, members of the Jewish resistance organization Haganah decided to disable the ship. The first attempt on 22 November 1940 failed, but the second bomb exploded on 25 November, at 9 in the morning. Due to faulty calculations, however, the explosive charge severely damaged the ship, and it completely sank after 16 minutes.
Thanks to an anonymous donor, the textile collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague contains a memento of the Patria disaster, which recalls the Jewish citizens who perished on the ship. The item in question is a black velvet Tefillin bag adorned with a yellow cotton embroidered Star of David and inscribed “Patria – 25. XI. 1940 – Haifa”. Placed inside the bag is a small pouch of soil from the Holy Land. Visitors to the Jewish Museum can see this Patria memento in the new exhibition on the 19th- and 20th-century history of the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia, which has recently been installed in the Spanish Synagogue in Prague.

The first phase of the restoration of the Pressburg Curtain completed

The 11th of December 2020 saw the completion of the first phase of the restoration of the Pressburg Curtain from the Jewish Museum’s textile collection (Inv. No. 104.805). The restoration of this outstanding item has been made possible with financial support from the Czech Ministry of Culture as part of the ISO II/D programme. The Torah Ark curtain showed considerable damage prior to the commencement of restoration work. It was soiled, blackened in places, and covered with dust and wax particles. The supporting fabric was fragile, crumbling in places, with indentation marks, needle marks, abrasions, and torn spots on the velvet pieces. The metal thread embroidery was damaged, loose, torn, missing in parts, with uncovered padding. The metal threads were abraded and blackened. Damage to the whole surface of the textile was caused by unsuitable repairs that had been carried out before the curtain was acquired for the Jewish Museum’s collections. The almost 11-m long gold galloon bordering the curtain and its mirror of fabric was also soiled, deformed, and torn.
The tender to restore the Pressburg Curtain was won by Jindřiška Drábková Hrdá, a conservator-restorer operating under a license from the Czech Ministry of Culture to restore textile items of movable cultural heritage. Technical supervision of the restoration work was provided by the Jewish Museum’s textile conservator-restorer Veronika Richtr Nauschová. Due to overall wear and tear, it was first necessary to reinforce the fabric, both with regard to the velvet parts and the central metal thread embroidery. This was followed by dry and wet cleaning, the removal of dust particles, washing by hand with hard soap and gall soap, and gentle scrubbing with a sponge. As part of the restoration of the velvet fabric, earlier repairs and patches that had been carried out using unsuitable materials and colours that did not correspond to the original were removed and repaired. The metal thread embroidery was fixed and reinforced, and the larger damaged areas were retouched. The metal thread braid was stitched onto coloured organza fabric and subsequently reinforced.
Restoration of the Pressburg Curtain will continue in 2021 with work to be carried out on its most precious central part, the fabric mirror, which comprises Ottoman embroidery in gold- and silver-coloured metal thread that was made between the first and second thirds of the 17th century. In October 2022, the restored curtain will become a key piece in an exhibition of the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava, which will focus on the Ottoman Occupation of Central Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and on its historical reflection.

Purchase of books with support from the State Culture Fund of the Czech Republic

In 2020, the Jewish Museum in Prague was granted a subsidy to supplement its library holdings. As part of this project, 120 books were purchased and subsequently added to the library’s non-fiction collection. The library is currently closed due to the government’s anti-coronavirus measures, but as soon as the situation allows, these books will be made available to the public, as well as to regular visitors of the library and to members of other libraries through the interlibrary loan service.
Library members can look forward, for example, to The Writing on the Wall: A Catalogue of Judaica Broadsides from the Valmadonna Trust Library, Jewish Religious Architecture (published by Brill), and the exile edition of Erich Kulka’s Židé v Československé Svobodově armádě [Jews in the Czechoslovak Svoboda’s Army].

New publications

New issue of the journal Judaica Bohemiae (Vol. 55/2020, 2)

A new issue of the journal Judaica Bohemiae (Vol. 55/2020, 2) came out in December 2020. It starts with a study by Janusz Spyra (Grosse Politik in einer kleinen Gemeinde. Der Skandal um den Rabbiner Karl Blan aus Neu-Oderberg / Nový Bohumín) which, drawing on a wide range of archival sources with focus on the activities of the controversial Rabbi Karl Blan (1906–2001), illustrates the complexity of religious relations within Jewish communities in the Bohemian lands, the growing influence of Zionist supporters, and the politicization of public life on the eve of the outbreak of World War II. This is followed by a paper by Veronika Szeghy-Gayer (Jewish Representatives of the Hungarian Political Opposition in Interwar Slovakia: The Case of Prešov and Košice) which examines the Jewish elites in interwar Czechoslovakia who were involved in the Hungarian political opposition and who regarded Jews from Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia as members of the Hungarian minority. The Documents section contains a paper by Václav Nečada and  Daniel Polakovič (Copies of Inscriptions on Medieval Jewish Tombstones from Znojmo (Znaim) Made by the Moravian Historian Joseph Edmund Horky in 1819) which deals with the life and work of Joseph Edmund Horky (1795–1844)  – a historian who, during a research trip in south-western Moravia, made copies of inscriptions on five medieval Jewish tombstones from Znojmo (Znaim), most of which are known to this day only thanks to his notes. The paper is accompanied by an edition of the Hebrew inscriptions from the above-mentioned tombstones. In the Reports section, a paper by Michaela Sidenberg presents for the first time a set of photo albums from the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague, which are of unique value for exploring the emancipation of the Jews in the Bohemian lands and their contribution to the cultural and social development of the region.
The final section of the journal contains reviews of the following books: Kateřina Čapková, Hillel J. Kieval et al., Zwischen Prag und Nikolsburg. Jüdisches Leben in den böhmischen Ländern (reviewed by Jiří Pešek), Marie Buňatová, Hedvábí, sklo a koření. Obchod mezi Prahou a Itálií (1500–1620) (reviewed by Antonín Kostlán), Pavel Sládek, Jehuda Leva ben Besal’el – Maharal. Obrana uzavřeného světa v židovském myšlení raného novověku (reviewed by Alexandr Putík) and Werner Bergmann, Tumulte, Excesse, Pogrome. Kollektive Gewalt gegen Juden in Europa 1789–1900  (reviewed by Mathias Berek).
Published since 1965 by the Jewish Museum in Prague, Judaica Bohemiae focuses on Jewish history and culture in Bohemia, Moravia and the wider Central European area (the territory of the former Habsburg Monarchy). The texts are published in English and German.

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Editor: Tomáš Tetiva
Photographs: JMP unless otherwise stated