"Defying the Beast" - a new exhibition evokes the first four decades of the Jewish Museum in Prague

Jewish Museum

The Jewish Museum in Prague is one of the oldest of its kind in Europe - this year it's celebrating it's centennial. Behind its foundation was the inspiration to preserve and present Judaism in all its past glory, as well as to prevent important works and unique artefacts from disappearing forever. Now, in line with the year-long celebration of Jewish culture in Prague, the museum has opened a new exhibition focused on the its original pre-war collection: the first four decades from 1906 to 1940.

I spoke to specialist Magda Veselska - the curator of the show - who told me about the museum's past:

"The impulse or the reason why the museum was actually founded was because of the 'clearance' of the Prague ghetto, known as Josefov. During the clearance a number of synagogues were [among the buildings] demolished, so the society for founding the museum hoped to rescue [at least] many liturgical objects. That was the immediate reason for the museum's founding in 1906 and we are trying to show to the public its very beginnings in the new exhibition that opened just today."

The exhibition - which captures some of the brightest moments in the museum's otherwise turbulent and painful history is titled "Defying the Beast": its title alludes, at least in part, to the infamous demolishing of the Jewish ghetto but also to the much darker period which followed:

"The word 'beast' has two meanings in this context. First of all, there was an essay by Vilem Mrstik - a pamphlet that was titled 'Bestia triumphans' - the triumph of the beast. For Mrtsik, the 'beast' was the 'bad' in people. [His essay] was a reaction to the behaviour of Prague's municipal authorities and a recognition of cultural people in the city who were against the clearance, who argued that it would greatly damage the face of the town. The first meaning is this beast: from the clutches of this beast the liturgical objects were saved."

The second meaning is the Nazi beast responsible for the mass murder of the country's Jews during the Holocaust. Under the Nazis, the society behind the pre-war Jewish Museum was abolished, yet amazingly, in 1942, members of the Jewish community asked the Nazi authorities for permission to found a central museum that would store objects being left behind.

"People from Prague's Jewish community wanted to save materials, holy books, archival materials, at the moment when people began to be transported to concentration camps, and they left these things behind. Unfortunately we don't know the exact arguments that they used to convince the Nazi authority, but having seen the documentation, archival materials, I think that they argued for it on the basis of the museum's long pre-war history. That argument could have been quite a strong one."

But, the exhibition on the Jewish Museum - ending in 1940 - chooses to focus rather on it's pre-war history, than the immense tragedy that followed - although there are early hints in a number of anti-Semitic pamphlets the museum also stored. Mainly, the show focuses on elements that reflect the vibrant, living, and progressive Jewish culture that existed in Prague in the first decades of the 20th century. Some of the pieces on display are among the rarest items the museum owns. An original, deeply yellowed map of the former ghetto - carefully restored; documents, spice boxes, exquisitely decorated fine or filigreed silver, and religious objects. Magda Veselska again:

"First of all we had to reconstruct the collection, that means taking into account all the records of the original collection, and that means creating a catalogue of all the items, one we've published on occasion of the exhibition a big catalogue containing all 762 items that were in the pre-war collection.

As for the exhibition, the basic idea was to make a reconstruction of the pre-war installation. You will see a reconstruction of the pre-war showcase, and many other items as well. The first criteria was to create the reconstruction. Second I wanted to show items that were precious or interesting in terms of material, or technique, or exceptional in the context of the collection as a whole. Many of the items included are on display for the very first time.

This item is a torah pointer which is decorated with animal motifs. We have two such objects here in Prague and they belong among the very best pieces in our collection. This torah pointer is also combined with a spice box, a small space to put the spice in, so it has, in fact, two functions."

The paintings and photographs from roughly the same period, for example rabbinic portraits, show differences in approach: the old and the new, where we can see differences in pose as well as dress, more traditional and more modern.

From its inception in the pre-war years the Jewish Museum in Prague also gathered a great many photographs, and important part of its early collection as whole:

"It was very progressive in many ways. First of all, it reflected the new media like photographs which captured the situation of the Jews here. But it was also progressive in the sense that it collected anti-Semitic leaflets which are also on display. As a part of Jewish life of course, as one of the very important aspects of Jewish life here."

JV: Tell me about this photograph, this butcher's photograph that you're fond of...

"The butcher's photograph depicts a scene from the life of a butcher's in Vienna. It's composed as a 'tableau vivant', a real scene but of course it's not a 'real' scene because all of animals are very quiet. But, I think it's a beautiful picture. It depicts something that isn't, that doesn't exist anymore."

It's true: the anonymous face of the butcher and his staff look out, the expressions vivid, but the scene is all too calm, too frozen, to be an actual moment in life. Yet, this is what we have, frozen moments of a not-too-distant past. The people in the photo had their lives ahead of them. And though we do not know their names, or "really" know what they were like, in a sense they are not forgotten.

"I think that what is special about the Jewish Museum in Prague is that we are kind of a memorial. Of course, we are a museum, we do exhibitions, we do a lot for the public, but on the other hand we also play a big role in educating the public for example on what happened during the Second World War, the Holocaust. We play also other roles. This is something that is very important for us. There are many people visiting the museum, taking part in educational programmes, and many people who are interested, and I think this is what counts. We can see that people deal with the information, that they consider the presence of Jewish culture here as something very vivid."

"Defying the Beast" is not a massive exhibition by any means - it doesn't take long to view, but it does leave a lasting and even haunting impression - see the show's main image of a synagogue half-torn down, almost buried in the rubble. As Magda Veselska points out, who knows when some of the more valuable or fragile objects on display will be shown publicly again, so it is definitely worth seeing when visiting Prague, especially as an introduction to the Jewish quarter of Josefov "Defying the Beast" continues at the Jewish Museum in Prague until October 1st.