On-line exhibitions

  • Souvenirs from the Sea

    The collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague also contains a small and rather curious group of objects in the form of sea snail shells with etched inscriptions in Hebrew. This is evidence of an interesting cultural phenomenon that emerged in what was then Palestine at the very beginning of the twentieth century, probably continuing for the next 30 or so years. These inscribed shells also appear in other Judaica collections, as well in specialized auctions, which suggests that this was indeed a mass phenomenon.

    The use of sea snail shells as souvenirs with inscriptions or decorations is not new, but it was not until the rise of tourism in the latter half of the nineteenth century that this practice became more widespread. In coastal locations, this type of souvenir with etched scenes is popular to this day. The vast majority of shells with Hebrew inscriptions, however, differ from ordinary souvenirs on account of their specific purpose and, for the most part, their customization.

    From the inscriptions on the surviving sets of shells in this museum’s collection, it may be inferred that most of them were originally presented as unusual New Year’s gifts. They usually include the traditional Hebrew greeting for the new year, sometimes in abbreviated form. Occasionally, they contain the date in Hebrew or Roman script, along with the name of the donor or donee. The linguistic combinations of the inscriptions differ according to the language of the recipients, with additional text usually in German; English inscriptions can be found on shells in collections elsewhere in the world.

    All of the shells in the museum’s collection are tiger cowrie (Cypraea tigris) and are approximately eight to nine centimetres in length. As this species of cowrie does not live in the Mediterranean Sea, its shells had to be imported to the territory of the former Palestine from its nearest habitat, the Red Sea, where it is still quite common. The technique of inscribing and decorating the shells was very simple and did not require any special equipment, which is what probably contributed to its widespread popularity. First, a layer of varnish was applied to the surface. Once dry, the whole area was exposed to a weak acid, probably ordinary kitchen vinegar. After the shell was etched to the required depth, it was then washed with water, and the varnish was removed with an appropriate solvent.

    The exhibition has been prepared by Jaroslav Kuntoš.

    Translantion: Stephen Hattersley

  • Left-handed Torah pointers

    The Torah, which contains the Five Books of Moses, is the central concept of the Jewish religion. In its physical form, it is a parchment scroll which, when not in use, is kept in an ornamental cabinet at the front of the synagogue. Out of reverence, the Torah scroll is covered with a decorative mantle of cloth, over which are placed a set of adornments – finials or a crown (over the upper ends of the rollers), a shield, and a hand-shaped pointer (hung in front of the scroll when stored in the ark). Although the pointer is one of the Torah ornaments, its main function is practical; it is used to follow the text as it is being read so as to avoid any mistakes. In addition, the pointer ensures that the scroll is not touched with one’s hands – which is prohibited – when reading from it.

    The physical form of the Torah pointer is reflective of its purpose and its use, which is far more intensive than that of other types of Torah ornaments. It is fairly compact, usually with few decorative elements, and of a size that allows for comfortable and safe use. The typical pointer made in Central Europe has a shaft which terminates in a small hand with an extended index finger, drawing attention to its use. The pointer’s segments (handle and reading end) are articulated by knops roughly halfway along the length of the shaft. A chain is attached to the rear end of the shaft to suspend the pointer from the Torah staves. In the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague, however, there is also a small group of Torah pointers that differ in one small detail from all the others – the reading end is shaped as a left hand.

    About one-tenth of the human population are left-handed. Like any difference, left-handedness was once regarded as suspicious and inappropriate, and the bearers of this trait were restricted in many ways. Indeed, until historically very recent times, various efforts were often made to ‘re-educate’ left-handed people. In Judaism, left-handedness was originally defined as a physical defect. This definition was of grave significance to left-handed people; it provided a basis to prevent them from being called upon to read from the Torah, which in effect led to a substantial decline in their social status and to their marginalization from the Jewish community. From about the end of the 18th century onwards, however, this attitude was gradually relaxed, and left-handed people over time became full members of the Jewish community. Left-handed Torah pointers are a visible expression of the emancipation of these people, reminding us that left-handedness is no longer a reason to discriminate.

    This exhibition was put together by Jaroslav Kuntoš.

    Translantion: Stephen Hattersley

  • Dragons and Cornucopias – Tomáš Höpfel’s Torah shields

    The Torah is a central feature of the Jewish religion. In its physical form, it is a parchment scroll containing the Five Books of Moses, which is kept in a decorative case at the front of the synagogue. As a sign of reverence for the Torah scroll, it is wrapped in a mantle of cloth and is decorated with a set of ornaments – finials or a crown placed on the upper part of the rollers, and a shield and pointer suspended over the front of the scroll. The Torah shield developed from what was originally a simple plaque hung on the outside of the scroll for indicating which part of the text was to appear immediately after being unwound. Over time, the shield became larger and its functional purpose became overshadowed by its decorative one.

    Due to its size, the Torah shield is the most visible Torah scroll ornament and its fashioning has always been the focus of great attention. Judging from extant historical examples, its appearance was already established in the Bohemian lands by the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries; it had a relatively uniform basic shape and iconography with a limited number of decorative elements. Minor deviations from this standard model can usually be explained by a particular client’s specific requirement for individualization. In the first half of the 19th century, however, a group of Torah shields were made here that completely deviated from the traditional norm. All of these items came from the workshop of the Prague silversmith Tomáš Höpfel.

    Tomáš (Thomas) Höpfel was probably born in 1790 or 1793 in Bernau in the south-eastern corner of Bavaria. There are no extant reports on his training, but it is possible that he learned the silversmithing craft in Nuremberg. As a journeyman he moved to Prague, where he married in 1814 and was declared a full master of the Goldsmiths’ and Silversmiths’ Guild of Prague in the following year. From the very outset, he focused his activities largely on cooperating with local Jewish communities, which at the time were in the process of replacing their ceremonial objects, which had been confiscated by the state to pay off its debts. He continued this collaboration, which was very fruitful in terms of the number of objects made, until his death in 1847. In the following years, his workshop produced several pieces of Judaica under the supervision of his widow.

    It is not clear what led the master silversmith to fundamentally rework the standard Torah shield. As already mentioned, we have no information about his training as a craftsman and artist, but the technical craftsmanship in his work was clearly better than average. After arriving in Prague, he was probably employed in the workshop of Václav Rummel Sr., whose surviving work for Jewish clients was of a common standard, which suggests that he found no inspiration here. All that remains is to assume that Höpfel either used his own creativity or modified objects in a way that was not initially deliberate, but perhaps based on mere verbal assignments from clients. One can only speculate both on the extent to which Jewish clients were able to determine what the shield was to look like, and on the details of the made-to-order specifications for similar objects. In any case, the first extant Torah shield from the workshop of the new master silversmith, dating from 1815, differs greatly from the regular production. Nevertheless, it was accepted by those who had commissioned it, which somewhat calls into question the commonplace notion regarding the conservatism of Jewish clients. Furthermore, Höpfel was able to develop his own ideas as to what the Torah shield should look like, sometimes with very surprising results.

    Exhibition created by Jaroslav Kuntoš

    Translation: Stephen Hattersley

  • The Yahrzeit Is Not a Season

    In a small-town shul (synagogue) there’s a dispute about who should daven shacharit (say morning prayers) far’n omed (at the pulpit). One Jew shouts out: “I have a Yahrzeit today, so I have to daven today!” A second Jew shouts out: “Yahrzeit is Yahrzeit. But I, I have shloshim (the thirtieth day of mourning) today. I take precedence, I have to daven! A third Jew shouts out: “It’s not even 14 days since my father died, I have to daven.” And while they are arguing, another Jew goes up to the pulpit and shouts out: "I myself am a corpse, so I have to daven!”

    This charming joke appeared in Židovské zprávy [Jewish News] (Volume 18, No. 38, p. 4) on 20 September 1935, as written by Josef Pollák, later the chief curator at the Central Jewish Museum in Prague. What does Yahrzeit mean? For those who speak German, this word can evoke one of the four seasons. But in Yiddish, the term Yahrzeit (or yortsayt, sometimes spelled jahrzeit) has taken on a different meaning: it refers to the anniversary of the day of death of a loved one. Important members of the community and, in particular, influential scholars are also commemorated on their Yahrzeits by unrelated persons. Their graves are visited by their former pupils, and these Yahrzeits are memorable days for the entire community.
    Until the 19th century, it was not difficult to determine the date of a Yahrzeit, as it corresponded to the Hebrew date of death, or, less frequently, to the date of the funeral of the person being commemorated. A certain problem could have occurred only in the event of a postponed funeral that took place later than the second day after a death, or if the person died during a leap year in the first or second month of Adar. The religious literature provides solutions for such cases. The time of remembrance for the deceased came to be seen as a more general complication only with the changing perception of time in the Jewish world in connection with the problems brought about by the Jews’ shift towards the civil/Gregorian calendar.

    The Yahrzeit date is calculated according to the Jewish calendar, which differs in many ways from the civil calendar. It represents the traditional count of years since the creation of the world as described in Genesis; the year 2021, for example, corresponds to 5781. Based on the lunar calendar, the months are either 29 or 30 days long. As a result, the Jewish year is eleven days shorter than the standard solar year. In order to keep the dates of Jewish holidays aligned with the seasons, a thirteenth month is added to the Jewish calendar in a leap year; this happens seven times in nineteen years.

    The collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague contain a set of Yahrzeit plaques, which are traditionally used to memorialize the passing of a loved one. Each plaque is inscribed with the Hebrew name of the person who is to be remembered in prayer (including the names of their father and/or mother). The main purpose of the Yahrzeit plaque is to record, for several years in advance the civil calendar dates that correspond to the Hebrew date of death of the departed (usually a parent, or both parents). These dates also impact the family life of the bereaved: on the Yahrzeit of the departed, it is not appropriate to attend any celebrations or parties, to make wedding preparations, or to indulge in entertainment. Yahrzeit plaques recall that the death of a person is part of the lives of others. Despite the solemnity, the Yahrzeit ritual provides a comforting way to remember a loved one for many years to come.

    Exhibition created by Lenka Uličná

    Translation: Stephen Hattersley

  • Going into Battle with Prayer. The Story of Rabbi Hanuš Rezek

    During World War II Jews from Czechoslovakia significantly participated in the fight against Nazi Germany. They were entering the Czechoslovak foreign troops both in the East and the West. The estimates vary, but their representation in the United Kingdom in 1943 accounted for approximately 32% of the soldiers, in the Soviet Union in 1942 around 35% and in the Middle East they were supposed to form as much as 50% of all soldiers. A considerable proportion of Jews in the Czechoslovak Foreign Army was due to their significant number among the refugees. They were mostly leaving Czechoslovakia via Poland to France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Jewish soldiers fought in the famous battles of World War II - at Tobruk, Sokolov, Dukla and Dunkirk. Their active participation in the foreign resistance was a sign of allegiance to the Czechoslovak state proving their full civic responsibility.

    With the online exhibition "Going into Battle with Prayer" we want, on the background of selected documents and photographs, to honor JUDr. Hanuš Rezek (Rebenwurzel), the military field rabbi in the Czechoslovak Foreign Army who served in the Middle East and later in the UK. His psychological and moral support was being recalled even after many decades following the Second World War by numerous former soldiers in their testimonies. In addition to daily tasks associated with religious practice, Rezek was in an intense contact with individual soldiers and used to have long talks with them in which he tried to encourage and motivate them in their struggle for the liberation of Czechoslovakia. After the Second World War Rezek returned to Prague, where he tried hard to restore the Jewish community and religious life. He was also at the birth of the organization The Circle of Jewish Participants in the Czechoslovak Resistance, and sought, among other things, to refute the false claim that the Jews had not participated actively in the fight against the Nazi Germany. Hanuš Rezek died tragically in a plane crash in December of 1948.

    We would like to thank Mr. Yehoshua Rezek, son of Hanuš Rezek, for providing digital materials to the Shoah History Department of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

    The exhibition was curated by Magdalena Sedlická.

  • "I no longer have to be afraid of my neighbours": the life of Ivana Beranová (Fantlová) and her family

    "I'm glad I've had this opportunity to recall my parents in this way. By remembering them, I think I've prolonged their lives, and the lives of their parents. They will not be forgotten. I'm happy that you're preserving the memory of them." Ivana Beranová's words introduce this archival materials presentation, which comprises excerpts from a biographical interview she provided to the Jewish Museum in Prague, along with unique photographs and documents from her family archive. Personal accounts from both Ivana and her mother, Marta Fantlová (whose testimony was recorded 16 years earlier) appear in the texts that accompany the photographs and documents. Her mother's words are cited in quotation marks.

    By focusing on Ivana Beranová's life, the online presentation "I no longer have to be afraid of my neighbours" intends to highlight the impact of major historical events of the 20th century on Jewish families living under the Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes. Based on interviews with two generations of a single family, the presentation seeks to outline how Shoah survivors and their children (the second generation) have dealt with their traumas. It also draws attention to life in the Jewish community as a locus of common experience, sharing and close relations, as well as something that is more or less compelled to identify itself against the wider society. Despite the horrific attempt to liquidate the Jews and its traumatic impact on survivors and the next generations, the story of Ivana Beranová's family points to the continuity of Jewish life in the Czech Republic, to the sense of belonging in the Jewish community and to the preservation of Jewish traditions.

    The online presentation also highlights the work of the Jewish Museum's Shoah History Department and its Oral History Collection, in this case reflecting the importance of testimonies from several generations of a single family. The Jewish Museum's oral history collection has been carefully put together since 1990 and is one of the largest and most diverse of its kind in the Czech Republic. At present, it includes more than 1,300 testimonies. The collection also contains valuable material from family archives that has been provided by the interviewees. Through oral history, we aim to document the lives of Jews in this country throughout the 20th century. Our focus is not only on recollections of the Shoah period, but also on the post-war experience of the first and second generations of Jewish survivors. We therefore welcome other testimonies and related material.

  • I regard the parents as the heroes

    Zuzana Marešová is one of “Winton's children” who managed to escape Nazi persecution in 1939, thanks to the unprecedented efforts of Nicholas Winton and his colleagues. Her story has a happy end – unlike many of the other children, her parents also made it to England.

    In honour of Nicholas Winton, who died on 1 July 2015 at the age of 106, we are publishing excerpts from an interview that Zuzana gave to the Jewish Museum in Prague, together with unique photos and documents from her family archive. Sir Nicholas would certainly have wished that we continue to ponder the status of refugees in Czech history and in the present-day world.
  • The unKnown

    The Photo Archive of the Jewish Museum in Prague contains hundreds of photographs about which very little was known just a few years ago. These include more than 700 portrait photographs of about 400 people (some of whom appear in several photos); to date, most of these have been described briefly with the caption “Photo Workshop, 1942–1944”.
    In addition, some of the archive records have been found to include the surname, first name or initial (e.g., W. Lang) of the portrait subject. The subjects were often referred to as “unknown man”, “unknown woman” or “unknown child”, hence the project title The unKnown. The use of the capital letter “K” is connected to the initial hypothesis and expectation that it will be possible to find the identity of many of the people in the photographs, so that the prefix “un-” can be deleted later.
    Researchers were often requesting some of these photographs as illustrative material for their work on Auschwitz and other concentration camps. But what if that little girl with the glasses, bow in hair and Jewish star sewn onto her clothes was never in a concentration camp and survived the war in Prague?
    Initial research led us to make the following hypotheses: the people portrayed in the photographs were employees of the wartime Prague Jewish community or their relatives, they mostly came from mixed marriages, and the photographs were taken mainly in Prague between 1942 and 1945, perhaps by one of the five photographers who were active at the local Jewish community in this period. These assumptions – apart from the question of authorship – have been confirmed for more than 150 of the subjects who have been identified so far (i.e., more than a third).
    The main reason for taking these photographs was the need to keep records of wartime community staff on so-called “staff photographs”. They were also used for various identity cards and perhaps, in part, as a way of documenting a difficult period.
    The search for the identity of people in these photographs involves various means. It is often based on findings from different archive materials, internet searches, online genealogy sites, social networks and telephone directories, as well as information gained from meeting with eyewitnesses.
    Family archives, in particular, provide a hidden wealth of details that can be of significant help when charting the period in question. Some of the results of research undertaken in such archives are available in this online exhibition.

    Jewish Museum in Prague would like to thank the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, the Prague Jewish Community Foundation and the Prague Jewish Museum Foundation for supporting this project in 2012 and 2013.

    project conceived and co-ordinated by: Martin Jelínek
    email: martin.jelinek@jewishmuseum.cz , tel: +420 222 749 270
    translation: Stephen Hattersley
  • Terezín collection on-line!

    During WWII, the ghetto Terezín (Theresienstadt) was one of the major sites of suffering and death for the Jews of the Bohemian Lands and several European countries. Out of approximately 150 000 prisoners, over 30 000 died there between 1941 and 1945 due to starvation, poor hygiene conditions, overcrowding and disease. Another 90 000 were deported to the ghettos and extermination camps in the East, and only roughly four thousand of them returned.

    Many of the original documents of the Jewish “self-administration” were destroyed, on the orders of the Nazis, at the end of the war. However, already during the existence of the ghetto, several individual prisoners or groups set out to save documents; and some of those who survived continued after the war. With the Terezín archival material fragmented and spread in several archives around the world, the Terezín collection in the Jewish Museum in Prague became one of the major resources for any scholar researching the history of the ghetto and the fate of Jews from Bohemia and Moravia.

    Between 2009 and 2012, with the kind support of the Claims Conference, the collection has been completely digitised and re-catalogued. This exhibition covers some of the major events and problems in the history of the ghetto and illustrates the types of documents that can be found in the online collection. The exhibition was curated by Magdalena Sedlická, Wolfgang Schellenbacher, and Michal Frankl.
  • “You are now my only hope.” The Goldberg Family letters between occupied “Protectorate” and England

    The collection of letters from their family to brothers Oskar, Moses (Max) and Norbert (Bubik, Bertie) who, after the occupation of Bohemian Lands (western part of Czechoslovakia), made their way through Poland to the United Kingdom, provides a unique glimpse of the communication of a family divided by the Holocaust. While the brothers managed to escape and establish themselves abroad, their mother and sisters with children stayed behind in the occupied “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia“. Their father lived with his parents in the town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz). They were all deported and murdered later.

    The letters express the emotions of the divided family, discuss business matters as well private plans. But it’s mainly the emigration and the desperate pleas for visa and travel documents which illustrate the difficulty facing Jews trying to escape from Nazi occupied Europe. The family already had experience of being refugees. During the First World War, the parents fled from Oświęcim from the approaching Russian army, in fear of pogroms, to Ostrava in Czechoslovakia. During the WWII, however, there was no escape for most of Jews in East-Central Europe.

    This exhibition was created as a part of the cooperation between a group of enthusiastic volunteers from the Kingston, Surbiton and District Synagogue (“The Kingston Ostrava Group”), in South West London and the Jewish Museum in Prague. The Jewish Museum would like to express warm thanks for the kind support of Mr. Norbert Goldberg.