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While Nazi troops stormed and burned synagogues during the Kristallnacht pogrom on November 9, 1938, German museum directors were waiting in the wings, eager to acquire Jewish cultural artifacts for their collections.
Wielding axes and torches, SA and SS forces stormed the "Little Synagogue" in Würzburg during the night from the 9th to the 10th of November, 1938, known as the Kristallnacht progrom. On their rampage they tore lighting fixtures from the walls and hacked away at the interior, splitting the door of the Torah ark. To this day, the crack stretches across the door like a scar.
During the November 1938 pogroms, Nazi troops tore down nearly 1,400 synagogues — about half the total Jewish places of worship in Germany and Austria. Thousands of Jewish business were destroyed. Over 30,000 Jews were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Many people died.
The Nazis also pilfered Torah rolls and finials, rabbis' robes, Hanukkah candelabras, Kiddush cups and plates — much to the satisfaction of German museum directors.
Greed the common theme
"We museum people need to look in our own back yards. There was the pure greed to have as much as possible and to expand one's own collection," says Bernhard Purin, director of the Jewish Museum in Munich. Museums in cities like Aschaffenburg, Mainz, Würzburg and Vienna were the beneficiaries of Nazi-looted Jewish ritual objects or were actively involved in acquiring them.
That happened even in small communities such as Schnaittach, near Nuremberg. Seeking to relocate his Nazi-era homeland museum in the local synagogue, museum director Gottfried Stammler sprang into action, preventing the structure's destruction during the pogrom and gathering ritual objects and furnishings. In the days that followed, Stammler repeated the action in other congregations in central Franconia. Experts call it "for a while, probably the most extensive collection of Jewish artifacts in the rural regions of southern Germany."
Seven boxes of Jewish objects
A discovery in the Main-Franconian Museum — today the Museum of Franconia — in Würzburg was even larger. Seeking to inventory its complete holdings, employees stumbled across several boxes of Torah shields and finials, cups, Menorahs and other artifacts. Many of the roughly 150 objects were destroyed beyond recognition through damage sustained during air raids in 1945.
Purin studied the objects over a period of time. "You have to approach them like a puzzle," he says. "First you don't have a clue. Then you see things that point in a certain direction." The complete picture: about one-third of the objects were confiscated from synagogues in and around Würzburg during the pogroms of November 1938. They are currently on display in the Jewish Museum in Munich — including the Torah ark with the cracked door.
Close cooperation with Nazi authorities
The museums acquired Jewish properties not only around the time of the Kristallnacht but also from personal belongings whenever Nazis dispossessed Jews — as documented, for example, at the Gestapo headquarters in Würzburg.
Such exchanges came about largely through cooperation between museums and Nazi authorities, says Purin: "In Würzburg it was an amiable arrangement. The district head of Lower Franconia, for example, was a former classmate of the director of the Main-Franconian Museum." That's how, for example, a Hanukkah chandelier from Miltenberg ended up in Würzburg, the above-mentioned district head having been in Miltenberg on the morning of November 10. "Whether he took it along with him, we don't know for sure."
Interest in artisans' work
The objects were seldom exhibited in those times. In 1939, Vienna's Museum of Natural History presented an anthropological survey of the "Jews' bodily and spiritual appearance." In Prague, the SS maintained the "Central Jewish Museum."
The museum directors were often interested mainly in the Jewish artifacts from a point of view of artisans' work and cultural history. Most had been manufactured by Christian silversmiths, or — in the case of brass objects — bronze founders. "We know for example that in Munich, they were interested in documenting local handcrafted arts in the city museum," says Purin.
On a surface level, it might be explained as a service to a higher cause, agree Christine Bach and Carolin Lange of the Museum of Franconia: "It was about preserving objects from destruction and having free access to new exhibition objects."
Secured, burned, forgotten
After the war, many museums used this argumentation as a pretext. In a letter from a onetime museum employee in Aschaffenburg, the confiscation was euphemistically called "safeguarding."
Researching the history of destroyed Jewish congregations after the war, Holocaust survivor Mordechai W. Bernstein heard a different version. His research led him to Würzburg, where Max Hermann von Freeden, postwar director of the Main-Franconian Museum, explained, "It was warfare, total war, my friend! And the Allies' planes were busy. Oh yes, they destroyed everything, everything!"
"Often they said that the objects were pre-war acquisitions," explains Purin. "After the war, those who'd been active in the museums did everything they could to cover their tracks."
The future of confiscated art
That gradually changed in the 1970s and 80s. German society began to come to terms with the Holocaust, and the museums followed suit. The current exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Munich, titled "Seven Crates of Jewish Material," has advanced the discussion.
According to German law, Jewish congregations founded after the war are actually not the legal successors of pre-war congregations. But in mid-October, the Würzburg City Council decided that as a basic principle, the discovered objects should be handed over on a trust basis to the Jewish congregations. And it signaled that it intends to keep the objects long-term in the Museum of Franconia as items on loan — including the Torah ark.
The exhibition "Seven Crates of Jewish Material" continues through May 1, 2019 and can be seen at the Museum of Franconia in Würzburg from June 4, 2019.
Also worthwhile: For the 80th anniversary of the November pogroms, the documentation center "Topography of Terror" in Berlin is hosting the exhibition "Kristallnacht – Anti-Jewish Terror 1938. Events and Remembering" through March 3, 2019. The Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is also marking the anniversary in an online exhibition.