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Museums and Exhibitions

The history of Jewish exhibitions, both of ceremonial objects and memorabilia (generally known as Judaica) and of Jewish painting and sculpture, begins in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Essentially a postemancipation phenomenon, the founding of Jewish museums housing permanent collections, as well as the periodic display of Jewish exhibits, started in Western Europe. A portion of Isaac Strauss’s collection of Judaica was displayed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878 and, 10 years later, at the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition, opened at Royal Albert Hall as well as at three other London venues. Praised by the Russian art critic V. V. Stasov in a review published in the literary journal Evreiskaia biblioteka (The Jewish Library), these forays into what the historian Richard Cohen has called “self-exposure” came to have special significance for East European Jewish culture, associated even by Western Jews with the institutionalization of memory that Jewish museums came to exemplify. Although the phenomenon of Jewish museums and exhibitions remained limited prior to World War II, it expanded considerably in the West after 1945 and moved eastward after 1989; in the twenty-first century nearly every East European capital and regional center will have its own Jewish museum.

Turn-of-the-century European interest in the cultivation of national consciousness and in the demonstration of local achievements in industry, art, and science found a resonance first among the urban Jewish elites of the Habsburg Empire. The first Jewish museum in East Central Europe opened in Vienna in 1895 under the auspices of the Gesellschaft für Sammlung und Konservierung von Kunst und historischen Denkmälern des Judentums in Wien (Society for the Collection and Preservation of the Art and Historical Landmarks of Vienna Jewry). By 1911, the Vienna Jewish museum contained more than 3,000 objects and included Isidor Kaufmann’s famous Gute Stube, the decorated “Sabbath Room,” as well as a model of Vienna’s medieval Jewish quarter. In 1904, Lesser Gieldziński (1830–1910), a successful grain merchant of Polish extraction and a distinguished citizen of Danzig (Gdańsk), transformed his private collection of Judaica into a public landmark, donating it for display at the city’s main synagogue.

In Prague, the creation of a Jewish museum was part of the general project of urban renewal and renovation that involved several of Prague’s Jewish notables. In 1906, the scholar of Czech Jewry, Salomon Hugo Lieben (1881–1942), spearheaded the creation of the Verein zur Grundung und Erhaltung eines jüdisches Museums in Prag (The Organization for the Establishment and Maintenance of a Jewish Museum in Prague). Its initial mandate involved finding a site to house the ceremonial objects formerly in use at the Zigeuner and Great Court synagogues, torn down as part of the gentrification effort aimed at Prague’s old Jewish quarter. Lieben, together with a number of other local patriots, expanded the purview of the new museum beyond Prague itself to include exemplary Czech Judaica gathered from the Bohemian and Moravian countryside. In 1912, the museum moved to a new, expanded location in the reconstructed home of Prague’s venerable burial society. In 1942, the Nazis, driven by the desire to document the physical remains of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, used Prague’s Jewish museum as the storehouse of looted Judaica collections from more than 150 communities throughout Bohemia and Moravia. Ironically, as the result of the Nazi “rescue” of Jewish artifacts from the ravages of the battlefront, the Prague Jewish museum today contains one of the largest and most important repositories of prewar Jewish objects in Eastern Europe.

In other instances, Jewish museum building was driven less by local patriotism and more by the expansion of the field of Jewish folklore and ethnography. This was the case in early twentieth-century Budapest and Saint Petersburg. In Hungary, Jewish religious objects had been on display as part of two national exhibitions of arts and crafts, in 1884 and in 1896. The distinctive work of Jewish goldsmiths inspired the systematic collection of Jewish artifacts spearheaded by three men: Miksa Szabolcsi (1857–1915), editor of Budapest’s Hungarian Jewish weekly journal of literature and politics, Egyenloség (Equality); Sándor Büchler (1870–1944), a prominent Reform rabbi, historian, and educator; and Ignác Goldziher (1850–1921), an outstanding scholar of Islamic law who also served as secretary to the Budapest Jewish community and had an enthusiastic interest in Jewish mythology and folkloristics. In 1909, sufficient material had been collected to create a committee devoted to finding a space: in 1915, the collection was first displayed in a private apartment under the auspices of the Izraelita Magyar Irodalmi Tarsulat (Jewish Hungarian Literary Association). The museum, relocated to a newly designed building in 1932, contained three rooms, the first of which was dedicated to Hungarian Judaica, the second to special items from private collections, and the third to liturgical objects. The second floor also contained a gallery of historical portraits. During World War II, thanks to the efforts of two Hungarian curators, most of the collection was safely hidden in the basement of the Hungarian National Museum; after the war, it was returned to the Jewish museum, renovated and housed, as of 1995, in one of the wings of the Central Synagogue of Budapest.

In the Russian Empire, purveyors of modern Jewish culture followed a similar path to that of their counterparts under Habsburg rule. Here, the impetus for the creation of a Jewish museum came from Stasov, an enthusiastic proponent of national self-assertion in the arts, and from Stasov’s close friend and protégé, Mark Matveevich Antokol’skii (1843–1902), Russia’s first acclaimed Jewish artist, and the founder of realism in Russian sculpture. Initiatives remained confined to print until after the Revolution of 1905, when restrictions on assembly and institution building eased and Russian Jews dove into the creation of a public culture. The first attempt to bring attention to the collection of Russian Judaica came from Stasov; together with Baron David Gintsburg (1857–1910)—son of the most prominent Russian Jewish dynasty and himself an avid collector of Jewish objects and books—he published a catalog of illuminations from the collection of Hebrew Bibles held by the Saint Petersburg Imperial Library.

It was not until the establishment of the Evreiskoe Etno-istoricheskoe Obshchestvo (Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society; JHES) in 1908, however, that the effort to collect and exhibit Russian Judaica truly began. Founded by the historian of Russian and Polish Jewry, Simon Dubnow, the political activist and lawyer Maksim Vinaver, and Mikhail Kulisher, also a lawyer as well as a historian, and the anthropologists Lev Shternberg and Samuel Weissenberg, the organization called for the collection of archival documents, published its own periodical called Evreiskaia starina (The Jewish Heritage), and supported amateur ethnography and collecting. In 1912, the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society sponsored a three-year expedition to Volhynia and Podolia, headed by the writer and Russian Jewish populist, S. An-ski, and devoted to the “systematic collection of folk art,” not to mention manuscripts, oral material, images, legal documents, and any other data relevant to the study of East European Jewish life between the seventeenth century and the twentieth.

The expedition produced one of the largest collections of East European Judaica—more than 800 objects, more than 2,000 photographs, and an equal number of folktales and songs—and helped inspire a Jewish artistic renaissance in revolutionary Russia. In the wake of the February Revolution, the JHES established the Jewish Ethnographic Museum, where An-ski’s collection was housed between 1916 and 1918. After the Bolsheviks closed the museum, the history of the collection became murky. Parts of it have been preserved in Russian and Ukrainian state museums and libraries; some of the material was exhibited as recently as 1992 in Amsterdam’s Jewish museum under the title In An-sky’s Traces.

While the collection has never been shown in its entirety, it left an indelible impression on the work of a new generation of Jewish artists coming of age in the heroic early years of Soviet rule. The celebration of Jewish folklore inspired several attempts to display contemporary Jewish painting and sculpture that ostensibly drew on the same folk heritage and stock of images. The Soviet Society for the Encouragement of Jewish Art—many of whose members had worked with An-ski on cataloging the collection—sponsored its first exhibition of modern Jewish art in 1916 in Petrograd and its second in Moscow’s Galerie Lemercier in April 1917. After the revolution, these were followed by collective shows of the work of Jewish artists associated with the Kultur-lige; exhibitions were held in Kiev, Moscow, and eventually Warsaw. The last exhibition of Jewish art on Soviet soil was held in 1922 in Moscow; it brought together the work of Marc Chagall, Natan Al’tman, and David Shterenberg. Thereafter, art with a Jewish theme or subject became part of the underground Soviet culture of dissent; exhibitions were held at private homes and in the workshops of individual artists such as Robert Fal’k and Aleksandr Tyshler.

Outside of these efforts, the history of exhibiting modern Jewish art either in Eastern Europe or by Jewish artists of East European origin—as opposed to Jewish objects and other kinds of historical material—is comparatively thin. In 1901, the Fifth Zionist congress in Basel exhibited a “small collection of Jewish art works” exemplifying the artistic spirit of the Hebrew renaissance and championed by Martin Buber and Berthold Feiwel. The exhibition—which included paintings, lithographs, and sculptures by (among others) Ephraim Moses Lilien and Oskar Marmorek, both from small towns in Galicia, Solomon Kishenevskii of Odessa, Yehudah Epstein from Minsk, Alfred Lakos of Budapest, and Alfred Nossig, a native of Lemberg—lasted only one day. Six years later, an exhibit devoted explicitly to modern Jewish art opened in Berlin; here “modern painting and sculpture were exhibited alongside ceremonial art and other Jewish artifacts but this time the former were at the center of attention” (Cohen, 1998, p. 209). For the first time, the works of notable East European Jewish artists such as Maurycy Gottlieb and Szmul Hirszenberg could be viewed as part of an evolving tradition of Jewish imagery and style.

Characteristically, even in the postwar period the only collective exhibitions that showcased the work of East European Jewish artists took place not in situ but in the various outposts of the East European Jewish Diaspora. Two major exhibitions were held: in 1987, Tradition and Revolution: The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-garde Art, 1912–1928 (Ruth Apter-Gabriel, curator), at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; and in 1995, Russian-Jewish Artists in a Century of Change, 1881–1981 (Susan Tumarkin Goodman, curator), at the Jewish Museum in New York. In both cases, the curators creatively juxtaposed disparate materials drawn from a variety of private and museum collections in Eastern Europe and abroad. Nevertheless, the collection and display of the painterly and sculptural heritage of modern Jewish Eastern Europe has remained something of a rarity even though the work of individual East European Jewish artists regularly appears in shows devoted to particular styles and movements; well-known figures including Chagall and Lissitzky are exhibited in shows devoted to their works alone (almost always in the West).

The postwar history of East European Jewish museums and exhibitions largely follows and elaborates the prewar tendency to feature the role of the museum as a vehicle of Jewish education; few postwar Jewish museums promote the talents of new East European Jewish artists or devote themselves to displaying the works of their predecessors. Instead, most of the new Jewish state museums created in postcommunist Eastern Europe—in Vilna and Bucharest, for example (there is still no national Jewish museum in Ukraine, largely, it seems, for lack of funds)—expend a considerable amount of gallery space and curatorial attention on documenting the agony of local Jewish communities under Nazi occupation. Such efforts at memory operate parallel to the exhibitions of Jewish victimization on permanent display at the sites of Nazi concentration camps and ghettos in Poland. Two of the newest Jewish museums on East European soil—Kraków’s museum of Jewish Galicia, founded in 1995, and Warsaw’s Jewish museum, to be located on the site of the Warsaw ghetto—exemplify the attempt to transcend the focus on commemorating Jewish death at the expense of chronicling Jewish life. While they remain focused almost exclusively on the task of educating visitors—primarily local non-Jews and Jewish tourists from abroad—about the texture of a millennial East European Jewish past, they are also driven by explicitly aesthetic concerns and are highly attuned to the possibilities of creative expression. These new Jewish museums are, one might say, works of East European Jewish art in their own right, jointly fashioned by fledgling postwar East European Jewish communities and the descendants of East European Jews in Israel and America.



Muzej Marka Shagala (Marc Chagall Museum), Vitsyebsk (Vitebsk)

Czech Republic:

Židovské Muzeum v Praze, Prague


Magyar Zsidó Múzeum (Jewish Museum and Archives of Hungary), Budapest


Museum “Jews in Latvia,” Riga


Valstybinis Vilniaus Gaono Zydu Muziejus (Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum), Vilnius


Żydowski Muzeum Galicja (Galicia Jewish Museum), Kraków; Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich (Museum of the History of Polish Jews; under construction), Warsaw


Muzeul de Istorie al Comunitatilor Evreiesti din Romania (Museum of the Jewish Community of Romania), Bucharest


Múzeum Zidovskej Kultúry (Museum of Jewish Culture), Bratislava

Suggested Reading

Ilona Benoschofsky and Alexander Scheiber, eds., The Jewish Museum of Budapest, trans. Joseph W. Wiesenberg (Budapest, 1989); Richard I. Cohen, “Self-Exposure, Self-Image and Memory,” in Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe, pp. 186–219 (Berkeley, 1998); Reesa Greenberg, “The Jewish Museum, Vienna: A Holographic Paradigm for History and the Holocaust,” in Image and Remembrance: Representation and the Holocaust, ed. Shelley Hornstein and Florence Jacobowitz, pp. 235–250 (Bloomington, Ind., 2003); Aleksandr S. Kantsedikas and Irina Sergeeva, Al’bom evreiskoi khudozhestvennoi stariny Semena An-skogo / Jewish Artistic Heritage Album by Semyon An-sky (Moscow, 2001), parallel text in Russian and English; Erna Podhorizer-Sandel, “The Museum of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland,” Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego 111.3 (1979): 37–46; Daniel Polakovic, “The Jewish Museum in Prague: A Selective Bibliography, 1911–1996,” Judaica Bohemiae 32 (1997) 164–181; Izabella Rejduch-Samkowa, “Lesser Gieldziński - pierwszy kolekcjoner i organizator Muzeum Żydowskiego w Gdańsku,” in Żydzi i judaizm we wspólczesnych badaniach polskich, vol 1., Materiały z konferencji, Kraków 21–23 XI 1995, ed. Krzysztof Pilarczyk, pp. 383–394 (Kraków, 1997); Dirk Rupnow, “‘Ihr müsst sein, auch wenn ihr nicht mehr seid . . . ’: Das ‘Jüdische Zentralmuseum’ in Prag, 1942–1945,” Theresienstädter Studien und Dokumente (2000): 192–214, a revised English version appears in Holocaust and Genocide Studies 16.1 (2002); Hana Volavková, A Story of the Jewish Museum in Prague, trans. K. E. Lichtenecker (Prague, 1968); Isabel Wollaston, “Negotiating the Marketplace: The Role(s) of Holocaust Museums Today,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 4.1 (2005): 63–80.