The Jewish Museum in Prague has a bit of a turbulent history. A major institution with one of largest Judaica collections in the world, the museum also manages the Old Jewish Cemetery and a number of synagogues in town, including the famous Spanish Synagogue.
One of the oldest Jewish museums in Europe, the museum was founded in 1906 by historian Salomon Hugo Lieben and city councillor August Stein. Stein’s participation in the foundation of the museum is particularly important because he had a significant role in expanding and preserving the museum’s collection through the subsequent few years. The original purpose of the museum, however, was to preserve objects that had been taken from other demolished or closed synagogues in Prague.
When the Nazis occupied parts of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the museum was temporarily closed. The museum staff coordinated a large effort to move works of art and historical artifacts from all around the country to the museum, where they could be preserved. The museum’s goal was to preserve Jewish history through the war times, but the Nazis approved the project for a very different reason.
Not only did the Nazis like the idea of having valuable works of art all in one place, but they also had the goal of creating a special “museum of an extinct race” to replace the current one. To make this possible, they coordinated the shipping of valuable Judaica objects from destroyed communities all around the country directly to the museum.
A large percentage of the objects collected by the museum during the war belonged to people who perished during the Holocaust, meaning they couldn’t be returned. As a result, the museum kept the items, re-established its exhibits and reopened to the public in June 1945.
When the Communists took power in 1948, they restricted the type of topics and exhibits the museum could focus on, prohibiting anything they deemed “too religious” or that they felt could affect the government’s position and goals. It wasn’t until 1994 that the museum legally regained not only possession of all its buildings and the collections inside them, but also its independence from the state.