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Historiography in the Bohemian Lands

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Jewish historiography in the Bohemian lands (Bohemia, Moravia, and Austrian Silesia) began in earnest with the publication in Prague in 1592 of David Gans’s Tsemaḥ David—a chronicle encompassing both Jewish and universal history, deeply influenced by the culture of the Renaissance and Northern European humanism, which found special relevance in the contemporary era. Aside from the writing of family histories and megilot, which was quite common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the next major period of active engagement in the writing of Jewish history in Bohemia and Moravia occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the context of Haskalah pedagogy and scholarship. Prominent contributors in this area included Peter Beer (1758–1838), Salomon Löwisohn (1789–1821), and Markus Fischer (1788–1858).

In the nineteenth century, the school of source-based, critical Jewish historiography (Wissenschaft) was represented above all by the biographical investigations of Prague’s chief rabbi, Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport (1790–1867), while individuals such as Markus Hirsch Friedländer (1836–1918) and Simon Hock (1815–1887) produced local histories. In 1906, the Prague industrialist Bohumil Bondy (1832–1907) helped publish the first major collection of medieval sources relating to Jewish life, Zur Geschichte der Juden in Böhmen, Mähren und Schlesien, 906–1620 (also published in Czech as K historii Židů v Čechách, na Moravě a v Slezsky, 906–1620; On the History of the Jews in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, 906–1620), a work that proved indispensable to subsequent historical writing yet was criticized on scholarly grounds by the Czech historical establishment.

It was only in the interwar period, with the entry of Jews into the humanities and government offices, that the writing of Jewish history in the Bohemian lands became professionalized. A major development occurred in 1927, when the B’nai B’rith lodges in Prague underwrote the publication of a history of “Jewish Prague” titled Die Juden in Prague: Bilden aus ihrer tausendjährigen Geschichte (The Jews in Prague: Scenes from Their Thousand-Year History), which was published on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Praga lodge. That same year the Praga lodge resolved to establish a Society for the History of the Jews in the Czechoslovak Republic. Formally launched in 1928, it set itself two tasks: (1) to collect and publish all available source material pertaining to the history of the Jews in Czechoslovakia; and (2) to publish serious academic research on the subject. Bertold Bretholz produced the only sourcebook that appeared under the society’s aegis before 1939: Quellen zur Geschichte der Juden in Mähren vom XI. bis zum XV. Jahrhundert (1067–1411) (Sources on the History of the Jews in Moravia from the Eleventh to the Fifteenth Century [1067–1411]).

The second aim of the society was realized primarily through the publication of the annual Jahrbuch der Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Juden in der Čechoslovakischen Republik (Yearbook of the Society for the History of the Jews in the Czechoslovak Republic), under the editorship of Samuel Steinherz, a history professor at the German University of Prague. Nine volumes were published from 1929 to 1938 in both a German and a Czech edition. Containing groundbreaking contributions in all periods of Czech Jewish history, in many respects it remains unsurpassed to this day.

Since the end of World War II, the writing of Bohemian, Moravian, and Czechoslovak Jewish history has spread far beyond the confines of East Central Europe to Israel and the United States. Within the Czech Republic, the major framework for this activity has been the journal Judaica Bohemiae, which began publication in 1965 under the auspices of the State Jewish Museum (now the Jewish Museum) in Prague. Since 1989, it has enjoyed free editorial control and is currently edited by Aleksandr Putík. Major contributors to Czech Jewish historiography in the United States include Hillel Kieval, Wilma Iggers, Rachel Greenblatt, and Gary Cohen; in Israel, Ruth Kestenberg-Gladstein, Livia Rothkirchen, Dimitry Shumsky; and in Europe, Michael Miller (Budapest), Louise Hecht (Vienna), and Vladimír Sadek, Bedřich Nosek, Jiřina Šedinová, Aleksandr Putík, Kateřina Čapková, Arno Pařík, and Tomáš Pĕkný (all in Prague).

Suggested Reading

Mordechai Breuer, “Modernism and Traditionalism in Sixteenth-Century Jewish Historiography: A Study of David Gans’ Tzemah David,” in Jewish Thought in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Bernard Dov Cooperman, pp. 49–88 (Cambridge, Mass., 1983); Louise Hecht, “The Beginning of Modern Jewish Historiography: Prague—A Center on the Periphery,” Jewish History 19.3–4 (2005): 347–373; Guido Kisch, “Jewish Historiography in Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia,” in The Jews of Czechoslovakia: Historical Studies and Surveys, vol. 1, pp. 1–11 (Philadelphia, 1968); Otto Muneles, Bibliographical Survey of Jewish Prague (Prague, 1952).