The Vienna Jewish Community Collection
By far the largest holding of the Jewish Museum Vienna is the collection of the Jewish Community, which gave their stock to the Museum as a permanent loan in 1992.
This is only partly a collection in the classic museum sense, and can more accurately be described as the remainder of the world’s first Jewish museum, which was founded in 1895 in Vienna.
In 1938, the collection was confiscated by the Gestapo, and 6,474 objects were transferred to the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna and to other Viennese institutions. In the early 1950ies, most of the holdings of the local community were returned, but quite a few only made it back as late as the 1990ies. Today we can identify in our portfolio 3,517 objects of the first museum.
The second part of the Jewish Community stock should be understood more as a selection than a collection. It comprises ceremonial objects that used to stand in Vienna’s formerly numerous synagogues and prayer houses, and in Jewish communities in other provinces, from which they were violently ripped out in 1938, as well as liturgical objects and personal memorabilia that private citizens entrusted to the Community before their deportation and death.
These objects are in that sense not only a testimony to the magnificent history of Austrian Jewry, but forced into a museum context, also evidence of the community’s annihilation. This stock reminds us that these objects, beyond their aesthetic value and beyond all historical sensation, also document destruction and dehumanization.
Silent witnesses to a looted collection
The first inventory entry in a Jewish museum was made exactly 120 years ago. On February 24, 1893, the first Jewish museum in Vienna – and in the world for that matter – was given the early eighteenth-century book “Die alten jüdischen Heiligtümer, Gottesdienste und Gewohnheiten” written by Johannes Lundius. It was donated by the doctor Emanuel Kolisch, who died at the end of that same year. This object, which inaugurated the idea and vision of a Jewish museum, today an integral component of the art and cultural scene of many cities and countries, is listed as missing today.
In fact, not only this item but more than half of the objects in the first Jewish museum are missing. The Museum was closed in March 1938 by the Nazis and its collection confiscated by the Gestapo. Some of the items were incorporated in the inventories of the Museum of Ethnology, the Austrian National Library, the Natural History Museum, and other institutions. These items were restituted between 1949 and the 1990s to the Jewish Community of Vienna (IKG) as legal successor. The remaining objects are still missing, and only a few have turned up on the art and antiques market so far.
The Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna, which was established twenty-five years ago, carries out extensive provenance research within its own collections. The collection of the old Jewish Museum was donated to the Jewish Museum Vienna as a permanent loan by the IKG, and intensive investigation is all taking place to identify objects with a stamp or label from this old museum. On the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the first donation, the Museum calls on institutions and private collectors in Austria and elsewhere to study their inventories for signs of provenance (see gallery).
In November 2013 the Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna will be celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of its foundation and the twentieth anniversary of its move to Palais Eskeles in Dorotheergasse on November 18, 1993. As with all Jewish institutions in Vienna founded before 1938, the 120th anniversary of the first Jewish Museum, which was closed and destroyed in 1938 and its members and visitors expelled and exterminated, is not an occasion for celebration. On the contrary, it should act as a stimulus to intensify efforts to pin down the objects from the original collection that are still missing today.
The Jewish Museum Vienna requests your active assistance in provenance research. Any indication that would assist in the ongoing investigations would be very welcome. We also rely on your assistance in relocating missing objects from the old Jewish Museum. Examples of indications that an object comes from the old Jewish Museum can be found here.