Prague's Jewish Museum opens new building

Prague's Jewish Museum has opened a new building which is to house its offices and much needed workshops for restoring the exhibits. Olga Szantova was present for the occasion.

The Jewish Musum's director Leo Pavlat showed me around and explained the importance of the new building.

"It's a big break in our recent history, because it is for the first time we have our own building adjusted to our needs, I mean the needs of our specialists, because there are new rooms for the restoration of textiles, paper and metals. There is a new gallery, which will serve as an exhibition hall for items that could not be exhibited so far, and there is also a cafe, which serves our visitors. There is a new room for all those who are interested in Jewish culture, Jewish values, who know nothing about Jews. And of course there are new rooms which are used by our employees who now have better conditions for their work."

The cafe included in the newly renovated building is appropriately called the Cafe Altschul, because this used to be the site of an old Jewish school, founded way back in 1726. It went through many changes, and during the Second World War it was a hospital - the one and only medical center in Prague, where Jews were allowed to be treated. After the war Jewish children who had survived, but lost their parents, lived here. So, the building itself is an integral part of the history of Prague's Jewish community. For the first time since it was founded in 1906, the Jewish Museum has a building adapted specifically to its needs.

In the space of nearly a hundred years, the museum has collected and preserved ritual items from Jewish households and synagogues, old prints and manuscripts - from all corners of the Czech lands. A tragic episode in the museum's history came during World War II, when liturgical objects were collected from synagogues closed down by the Nazis and from many of the households whose members were dragged off to concentration camps.

"There are about 40 000 objects, ritual objects, kept by our Jewish Museum, there are about 100 000 books. I cannot say that we own buildings, because all these buildings we use are the property of the Jewish Community of Prague and we can use them. But every visitor can find our exhibitions in the Maisel Synagogue, the Pinkas Synagogue, in the Klausen Synagogue, in the Spanish Synagogue, in the ceremonial hall. Of course visitors from all countries coming to Prague mostly want to see the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is also a part of our guided tour."

All the workshops, for restoring textiles, metal, paper, as well as the museum archives, have been built with state-of-the art technology, which makes the Jewish Museum one of the most modern, if not THE most modern in the country. Walking through the new building, I was surprised to see how many objects were being restored in the various workshops, and asked Dr. Pavlat, where they all came from. They couldn't all be newly acquired.

"The overwhelming majority of items unfortunately come from synagogues and from property of Jews who were murdered during the Second World War. Almost all of them have been kept in depositories, and only after the fall of the communist regime and recently, after the Jewish Museum has become an independent Jewish institution, we are able to take care of all of them. Of course it will take time, it will be done gradually, step by step. But, nevertheless, we started seven years ago and I think that some results can be seen."

And the new building will enable that process to go much faster.

Author: Olga Szantová
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