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Remembering a lost museum: The first Jewish museum and modern art collection of the world
Jewish Museum, entrance hall, c. 1933. © New Synagogue Berlin - Centrum Judaicum.

By: Dr. Kai Artinger

BERLIN.- Perhaps only a few people in Berlin and elsewhere know that there was a Jewish museum in the German capital from 1933 to 1938. Astonishingly enough, the first Jewish museum worldwide was opened one month before the seizure of power by the National Socialists. It was situated next to the new sinagogue in Oranienburger Strasse, in the centre of Berlin. The collections contained not only art works and historical artifacts of the past but also modern art. In its five years of existence the Jewish Museum was able to build up a unique collection of modern Jewish art and it did it under circumstances, we can call today only hostile in every respect. Finally the museum was closed down on the 10 November 1938 and its collection seized.

The idea of a museum of Jewish culture and art was born in the early twenties. But it took almost another ten years and great efforts by friends and supporters to bring the idea to life at the very end of the Weimar Republic. Despite its late opening and bleak future, the new museum became very soon an important centre of Jewish cultural life. For Jewish artists it was after all the only remaining place in the city to exhibit their work of art in public.

It was at the Jewish Museum, too, where the only memorial show of Max Liebermann took place. The former president of the academy of arts, one of the most famous painters of his time who was immediately forced to resign by the National Socialists, died in complete isolation in 1936. No other institution wanted to remember the great painter who had been in a forerunner of naturalism and impressionism in Germany.

The small but fine exhibition presents above all a selection of the paintings which survived the Third Reich and the Second World War. The paintings are scattered all over the world. But the organizers have traced them to Poland, the United States and Israel. Beside paintings of Liebermann, Lesser Ury, Arthur Segal and others there are also to be seen some individuell rituell objects, photographs and documents on display which give an insight into the original richness of the lost collections.

Unfortunately the information given is a bit sparse. Visitors who want to know it in more detail have to consult the two-volume catalogue. Here we learn in scientific detailedness much about the founders and the difficult conditions the collaborators of the museum had to deal with. Despite these minor flaws the exhibition is highly recommendable and worth a visit. It shows that Jews tried to withstand the fascist terror and barbarism even in the field of arts.

Auf der Suche nach einer verlorenen Sammlung - Das Berliner Jüdische Museum (1933-1938), 10.09.-30.12.2011, Berlin, Centrum Judaicum, Oranienburger Strasse 28/30.

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