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Secrets in the Attic: Geniza Findings from Bohemian and Moravian Synagogues – a new project launched by Jewish Museum

Phylacteries, Torah scrolls, amulets, various personal items, and even shoes. All this and more have been found by Jewish Museum staff over the last few decades in the attics of synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia. We would now like to publicly exhibit this unique collection of 1,650 newly conserved objects as part of a project entitled “Secrets in the Attic: Genizah Findings from Bohemian and Moravian Synagogues”. This project will feature thematic exhibitions directly in the regions where the findings were made, as well as an online collection catalogue, upcoming websites, and content on Facebook and historypin.  

“Genizah is a Hebrew term referring to the requirement to appropriately set aside objects that no longer fulfil their ritual role but cannot be destroyed for religious reasons. This requirement is out of respect for God’s name, which often appears in Hebrew scrolls and books. The “Secrets in the Attic” project will focus attention on this hitherto little explored custom of setting aside objects, and on their relationship to the place where they are stored and to the local community,” said Leo Pavlát, the director of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

In the 1990s, the Jewish Museum in Prague carried out genizah research in buildings owned by the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic and its member organizations. In total, museum staff surveyed 13 sites and obtained over 3,000 finds, the oldest dating from the 16th century, the most recent from the 19th century. Some of these findings have already been made available to the public, but most are still awaiting processing.

The chief researcher of the project, Lenka Uličná, said: “Genizah finds are usually in a far worse condition than other, even older, objects in museum collections; they are mostly in a state of extreme disrepair and pose a challenge for conservator-restorers. This project will include a professional workshop at which conservator-restorers and non-professionals alike will be able to learn about the suitable ways of approaching these specific objects, especially with regard to preserving the principle of the genizah, i.e. a visual avowal of the fact that these objects were destined to disappear.”
Three other institutions will be taking part in the project aimed at providing access to the cultural heritage of the Jewish community: the Chrudim Regional Museum, the Museum of West Bohemia in Pilsen, and the Oslo-based Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities. In addition to research activities, the latter institution also focuses on education about the Holocaust, genocide, antisemitism and extremism.

The “Secrets in the Attic” exhibition will be put together in cooperation with other Czech museums. The first venue for the exhibition will be in Chrudim (7–30 April 2022), where the focus will be on genizah finds from Eastern Bohemia. The next venue will be in Pilsen (second quarter of 2023), where genizah finds from Western Bohemia will be showcased. An extensive Czech-English catalogue will be published for the exhibition.

The Jewish Museum’s “Secrets in the Attic” project is supported by the European Economic Area (EEA) Grants and Norway Grants. For this project, the Jewish Museum has received the maximum amount of CZK 16,808,175 from the EEA Grants 2014–2021, which is approximately 90% of the total eligible project expenses of CZK 18,774,834.

A selection of cultural events and lectures

The events of 1941 in the memories of witnesses and Jewish Museum documents

Between September and December 2021, the Jewish Museum’s Department for Education and Culture hosted a series of lectures given by the historians Jana Šplíchalová (Jewish Museum in Prague) and Radana Rutová (Terezín Memorial). The individual lectures commemorated the tragic milestones of 1941 that influenced events in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia for many years to come. The lecture series was part of a set of commemorative events that took place throughout the autumn in many related institutions to mark the 80th anniversary of the first deportations of Jews from the Czech lands and the founding of the Theresienstadt/Terezín ghetto.

Normalization in the Middle East?

On Sunday 10 October, Forum 2000’s Festival of Democracy held a panel discussion again at the Maisel Synagogue. This year, the topic of discussion focused on peace agreements and diplomatic negotiations in the Middle East. Irena Kalhousová spoke about the development of the region with the Ambassador of the State of Israel, Anna Azari, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco, Hanane Saadi, and the security analyst and Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University, Charles A. Kupchan. The discussion was held in cooperation with the Herzl Center of Israeli Studies at Charles University, Prague.

An evening in memory of Arnošt Lustig

In December, the Maisel Synagogue hosted a commemorative evening on the occasion of the 95th anniversary of the birth of the late writer Arnošt Lustig. At this event, David Stecher, the director of the Prague Literary House of German-Writing Authors, spoke with Tomáš Dimter, a translator, German Studies scholar, long-time editor and current editor-in-chief at the Mladá fronta publishing house (Albatros Media). Arnošt Lustig’s daughter, Eva Lustigová, and his sister Hana Hnátová were also invited to speak at the event. There was also a screening of a short documentary film about the Arnošt Lustig Prize. The event was held in cooperation with the Prague Literary House of German-Writing Authors.
Photo Tomáš Roček

Bente Kahan in concert at the Spanish Synagogue

In November, another well-attended concert from the Everlasting Hope festival took place at the recently renovated Spanish Synagogue in Prague. The Norwegian solo vocalist, actress and singer Bente Kahan performed at the synagogue as part of her Theresienstadt project. Accompanied by the NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra under the baton of Israeli conductor Ronen Nissan, Bente Kahan performed Theresienstadt cabaret songs, compositions by Viktor Ullmann, and poems and songs by Ilse Weber that had been set to music. The event was organized by the Everlasting Hope Endowment Fund in cooperation with the Polish Institute in Prague and the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Photo Kateřina Fialová

Sunday workshops

Sunday workshops were again held for children and parents in 2021. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, they had to take place online in the first half of the year. From September, in-person attendance was allowed again. Whether online or in-person, the children have been fully involved in creating, singing and learning about the world of Jewish traditions and stories. We would also like to thank the Foundation for Holocaust Victims, which has been supporting the Sunday workshops for several years now.
Photo Lucie Křížová

Other news from the museum

The Crocus Project

The Crocus Project is an initiative of the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland (HETI) in association with the Jewish Museum’s Department for Education and Culture. As part of this project, HETI provides free yellow crocus bulbs for school pupils to plant in memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children and thousands of other children who perished in the Shoah. Participation in the project is free of charge. The yellow flowers symbolize the yellow Stars of David that Jewish children were forced to wear under Nazi rule. In ideal conditions, the crocuses will bloom around the end of January or the start of February about the time of the International Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January).

The Crocus Project is a tangible way to introduce young people to the subject of the Shoah and to raise awareness about the dangers of discrimination, prejudice and fanaticism. The Holocaust Education Trust Ireland has prepared guidelines that can help educators in this endeavour, and these are available online. The Jewish Museum’s Department for Education and Culture coordinates the project in the Czech Republic. It was not possible to carry out the project in 2020, so it is gratifying that a large number of schools have again become involved this year. In October 2021, crocus bulbs were sent to as many as 200 schools throughout the Czech Republic.

The museum received an extraordinary gift drawing by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis

In November 2021, the Jewish Museum in Prague received an extraordinary gift for its collection – a large-format pastel drawing by the artist and pedagogue Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898–1944), which was kindly donated by Jan Z. Dus. This work shows a view of an open landscape with the silhouette of Mount Ostaš (a table mountain in the Broumov Highlands of North-East Bohemia) visible on the horizon. The mountain is located about 10 km north of Hronov, where the artist spent the last four years of her free life before she was deported with her husband Pavel to the Theresienstadt/Terezín ghetto in December 1942. The pastel on handmade Ingres paper was created as a gift for the donor’s parents, who were friends of Friedl and her husband in Hronov.

The donor’s father, Jan Dus (1903–1995), was active as a Protestant clergyman in Hronov. The dedicatory inscription on the back of the mounting board shows that it was made in August 1939. This work is a major addition to the Jewish Museum’s Visual Arts Collection. It significantly expands the museum’s holdings of works by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, particularly dating from the time when she was seeking refuge in Czechoslovakia – like many other political refugees after the change in political conditions following the assassination of the Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. More information about Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the exceptional importance of her artistic and pedagogical legacy can be found on the museum’s website.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898–1944)
A View of Ostaš Mountain, 1939
pastel on paper, 430 x 595 mm
signed lower right: fb
JMP Inv. No. 180.992

Conservation and restoration work at the Old Jewish Cemetery in 2021

The Jewish Museum is continuing to restore and conserve damaged tombstones at Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery. In 2021, as in previous years, repair work was done on ten historic tombstones that were in need of professional conservation and restoration. The tombstones in question are made of Slivenec marble and fine-grained sandstone.

The surface layers of most of the stones were degraded by algae, fungal spores, mosses and lichens. Some tombstones were also damaged by the spreading root systems of the surrounding vegetation. In addition to biological erosion, there was also physical erosion (weathering by wind and acid rain, and natural deterioration of the stone), which had a negative impact on the overall condition of the tombstones. These adverse effects led to the formation of small cracks, pieces breaking off, and erosion of the surface layers of the stone. All the tombstones that underwent conservation and restoration work were in a state of disrepair, two of which were even broken in two.

With the careful intervention of a professional conservator-restorer, the first step was to remove the biological impurities from the surfaces by means of mechanical and chemical cleaning. The individual broken parts and fragments were fixed, and small cracks were filled in with special sealants. In a few cases, retouching was carried out on the painted and sculptural features in order to highlight the decorative motifs of a particular tombstone. At the same time, the original appearance and overall architectural form of these historical sepulchral monuments have been preserved.

All the conservation and restoration work was carried out with regard to the sacred nature of the cemetery and with the aim of preserving the natural appearance of the individual tombstones. Conservation and restoration work at the Old Jewish Cemetery will continue in 2022.
Tombstone before restoration work
Tombstone after restoration work

Two Torah mantles added to the textile collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague

In December 2021, the Jewish Museum in Prague purchased two Torah mantles from a private collection in the Liberec region of the Czech Republic. The older mantle, dating from 1896, is made of light cream satin with a red and gold embroidered crown and gold stars. It was donated by Simhah and Malka Meller in honour of the Torah. The later mantle, dating from 1897, is made of light cream silk rep with a moiré pattern, featuring a gold crown and a rose wreath. It was donated in memory of the late Paulina Winkler, née Soyka by her father, Elias Eduard Soyka, and Sigmund (Simhah) Meller, who lived and died in Liberec. The latter were both active in the leadership of the local Jewish religious community. Their photographs appear in Hugo Gold’s book about Jews and Jewish religious communities in Bohemia (published in Brno–Prague, 1934). It can therefore be assumed that both mantles may have been made for the local prayer house in Liberec, which was replaced by a synagogue erected between 1887 and 1889 (designed by the Austrian architect Karl König) and dedicated on 24 September 1889. Shortly before the synagogue was burned down during the Kristallnacht pogrom on the night of 9/10 November 1938, the mantles were removed for safe keeping. They were kept at the house of the grandparents of the last person to own them. The mantles remained there without major damage until the present day and now grace the textile collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

The purchased Torah mantles are not the first synagogue textiles associated with the Meller and Soyka families in the Jewish Museum’s textile collection. A Torah ark curtain (Inv. No. JMP 040.738) donated by Sigmund Meller’s children for his 70th birthday in 1928 was among the items sent to the museum from the ‘Prague–Pinkas Synagogue (Vinohrady)’ collection point during the Second World War. A Torah ark curtain (Inv. No. JMP 016.562) donated by Eduard and Theresie Soyka for their fiftieth wedding anniversary on 22 December 1902 was among the items sent to the museum from the ‘Prague, Vinohrady’ collection point. Also included among the objects transferred from Vinohrady were synagogue textiles that originated in Liberec, as is evident from the dedicatory inscriptions. These items were moved to Prague shortly after the signing of the Munich Agreement on 29 September 1938, when Jews left the border regions – which had been assigned to Nazi Germany – and fled to the interior of Czechoslovakia. It is likely that the two Torah ark curtains that are associated with the names Meller and Soyka were also originally part of the furnishings of the synagogue in Liberec. Along with the purchase of these two Torah mantles, the Jewish Museum in Prague has added numerous pieces of Judaica originating from the Sudetenland area to its collection, having also acquired objects that are directly related to prominent figures from Liberec and their families who were active there from the end of the 19th century until the 1930s.
Torah mantle donated in memory of Paulina Winkler, née Soyka (d. 26 December 1897)
Torah mantle, a gift of Simhah and Malka Meller in honour of the Torah in 1896

Conservation of the Torah ark curtain of the Chevra Kadisha from the Jewish Museum’s collections 

The two-year conservation of the Baroque-style Torah ark curtain of the Bratislava Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society), dating from 1711, was completed in November 2021. The preservation of this exceptional item from the Jewish Museum’s textile collection was made possible with financial support from the Czech Ministry of Culture from the ISO II/D (Integrated System of Conservation of Movable Cultural Heritage) programme. The total cost of the conservation amounted to CZK 249,600. A contribution of CZK 87,000 was made by the Czech Ministry of Culture. Assistance with funding was also provided by the Society of Friends of the Jewish Museum in Prague (in the amount of CZK 84,800) and by the Slovak National Gallery (in the amount of CZK 50,000).

The Torah ark curtain of the Bratislava Chevra Kadisha is made of red silk velvet. The upper part includes the motif of a pair of deer and a crown embroidered with gold and silver metal thread, together with two Hebrew inscriptions. The curtain’s mirror (Spiegel) consists of Ottoman embroidery in gold and silver-coloured metal thread over the whole surface on a relief base that is modelled from thick linen thread on a coarse fabric. Its perimeter is decorated with alternating rosettes and crescents, and its central field comprises three rosettes that are bordered with tulips. The embroidery and curtain are framed and divided by gold metal galloons. The lining of the curtain is made of canvas.

The curtain was conserved by the conservator-restorer Jindřiška Drábková Hrdá. Technical supervision was provided by the Jewish Museum’s conservator-restorer Veronika Richtr Nauschová. Due to the complexity of the conservation work, it was divided into two stages. During 2020, the curtain was dismantled so that preparatory work and subsequent conservation of its velvet parts and galloons could take place. During 2021, work continued on the conservation of the curtain’s most valuable central field, which consists of Ottoman metal thread. The curtain’s central field was underlaid with coloured fabric to help distribute the weight of the heavy metal thread embroidery. The embroidery itself was repaired using a colour range of cotton and silk yarn in shades of gold and silver. The missing parts that had fallen off were supplemented by stitching thread to form a dense grid and by bonding to the base fabric. The loose metal thread embroidery was also conserved using this technique. The high relief embroidery of two missing leaves were supplemented in two places. Last to be conserved was the curtain’s lining, which was underlaid with a fine coloured fabric over the whole surface. Individual perforations, cracks and holes were repaired by attaching yarn of the same colour to the base fabric. The conserved Torah ark curtain will be a key object on display at an exhibition that is currently under preparation as part of the project “The Ottoman Occupation in Central Europe in the 16th–17th Centuries and its Historical Reflection”, which will take place in late 2022 and early 2023 as the first to be held in the newly renovated Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava.
Condition before conservation
Condition after conservation

Two-year digitization project completed

With financial support from a major foreign partner, the Archives and the Library of the Jewish Museum in Prague have completed a joint project focused on the digitization, restoration/conservation and preservation of manuscripts and rare printed books. The project was subdivided into two parts: an archival component that involved restoring/conserving and digitizing manuscripts, and a library component that involved producing protective covers, photographing the title pages of books, and adding individual volumes to the Aleph catalogue.

Digitization and restoration/conservation of manuscripts

In total, 23 manuscript books dating from the 18th and 19th centuries were digitized – specifically, 14 ‘report books’ and nine ‘certification books’ from the holdings of the Prague Jewish Religious Community. The oldest title dates from 1724, the youngest from 1834. The largest and most voluminous book measures 55 x 40 x 15 cm and is 931 pages long. Conversely, the smallest volume contains 113 pages. Professional conservation and restoration measures were carried out on 14 volumes. The digitization was performed by a professional digitization company, which reformatted the individual volumes in compliance with the national standard for manuscript digitization. The scanning was done using a contactless method for digitizing the open pages. In total, 11,881 colour scans were made – both as safety copies of the archival records in the TIFF file format and as copies for study purposes.

Digitization is a definite trend in current archival and library science. It preserves the current state of archives, reduces the risks associated with mechanical damage to original documents when they are made available for study purposes, and makes the documents accessible in electronic form to a wide range of researchers. All of the digitized manuscripts are already available on the Jewish Museum’s website here and here.

The library component of the project

As part of the library component, a total of 240 special protective covers were made to measure. Handmade covers are an effective way of protecting library documents from mechanical damage, moisture, pollutants and other contaminants that can adversely affect the physical condition of these materials. All of the covers were made from non-acidic material in compliance with norm ISO 16245A. After the completion of the customized manufacture of the protective covers, the title pages of the individual books were photographed at the Jewish Museum’s Photo Department. In the final phase, librarians re-catalogued the individual volumes and added photographic images of them to the online catalogue of the Library of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

This joint project of the Archives and the Library of the Jewish Museum has contributed to improving the protection of rare manuscripts and printed documents, and has helped to make them accessible to those interested in Jewish history.

New publications

A new issue of the journal Judaica Bohemiae (Vol. 56/2021, 2)

A new issue of the journal Judaica Bohemiae (Vol. 56/2021, 2) came out at the end of December 2021. It starts with a study by Janusz Spyra (‘Court Jews’ [‘Hofjuden’] in Remote Areas of Silesia: A Contribution to the Seventeenth-Century History of the Jews in the Bohemian Lands), which deals with the activities of the so-called ‘court Jews’ in the service of Silesian princes in the 17th century, thus expanding on previous historical research, which focuses solely on the court Jews who served the Habsburg rulers. The next paper by Andrea Jelínková (The Haskalah in Brno [Brünn]? Enlightenment Works Produced by the Moravian Hebrew Printing Press) examines and clarifies the hitherto unknown circumstances surrounding the publication of haskalic literature in Brno at the end of the 18th century. This is followed by a material study by Lenka Blechová (Jews in the Lesser Town of Prague during the Transition from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period. Houses, Period Contexts and the Malostranský Family) which, on the basis of extensive archival research, focuses on the coexistence of the Jewish and Christian population in the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) of Prague in the 15th and early 16th centuries, and reconstructs the familial and commercial ties of the Jews who lived there.

In the Reports section, Pavel Kocman discusses an international conference on the Holocaust Documentation Centre in Moravia, held in Brno at the end of June 2021, the aim of which was to start a discussion about the planned founding of a museum of Jewish history in Moravia.

The final section of the journal contains reviews of the following books: Adam Teller, Rescue the Surviving Souls: The Great Jewish Refugee Crisis of the Seventeenth Century (reviewed by Pavel Kocman), Marie Crhová (ed.), Reframing Jewish Life: Moravian Jewry in the Modern Period (reviewed by Marcin Wodziński), Daniel Mahla, Orthodox Judaism and the Politics of Religion: From Prewar Europe to the State of Israel (reviewed by Daniel Baránek) and a Czech edition of Ariana Neumann’s When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains (Pod svícnem tma. Hledání příběhu mého otce; reviewed by Petr Brod).
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