Published in “Midrasz” monthly, Special English Edition 2005.
Before the outbreak of World War II Wrocław was a community of German Jews, mostly liberał, seeing themselves as Germans of Jewish faith. During the war, even formal Jewish affiliation meant a death sentence. After the war, the Wrocław Jewish community consisted of Jews from Poland, speaking Yiddish and holding services in Hassidic nusaf. Only since 1995 have they been commemorating the victims of the Kristallnacht of 1938 with prayers; in earlier years, it wasn’t part of the community tradition.
In 2001, the Commission for the Restitution of Works of Art (looted by the Nazis), chaired by Ronald S. Lauder, notified me of the discovery of parts of the collection of the pre-war Wroclaw (Breslau) Jewish Theological Seminary, now stored in the National Libraries of Prague and Moscow. There were also other findings: the archive of Rabbi Schneerson in Moscow, the paintings from the Herzog collection in Hungary and in Poland, the paintings from the Sachs collection in Poland, and some works of art that were kept in Poland before the war, and now can be found, for instance, in the USA. In 1999, the Washington Principles were passed, stipulating the restitution of the looted works of arts, libraries and archives to their pre-war owners. Thanks to this, and to the activity of the Lauder Commission, the possibility appeared of returning the cc lection of the old Jewish Theological Seminary library to Wroclaw. The Seminary was founded in 1854 thanks an endowment contained in Jonas Frenkel’s will, which also included a passage on transferring the Seminary’s property in case of its liquidation, to the Jewish Community in Wroclaw. Meanwhile, the 1997 law regarding the State relation to Jewish Faith Communities in the Polish Republic gave the communities the right to attempt recovery of their pre-war possessions. Also, the 1946 agreements between the Czechoslovak and Polish governments concerning the restitution of cultural property were reestablished. Legal doubts soon arose: is the present Jewish Religious Community in Wroclaw heir to the Juedische Gemeinde of Breslau; are the 1946 Czechoslovak-Polish agreements still in force; does the Czech Republic National Library has a right to hand over its collection to Poland. Thanks to the Lauder Commission lawyers these issues were in 2002 settled favorably for Poland. The arrangements between the Polish and Czech governments concerning the procedure of transferring the collection from Prague to Wroclaw took two years. They were finalized on December 8th, 2004 with the Czech and Polish Republic Ministers of Culture, Zdene Novak and Waldemar Dąbrowski, signing the act of transfer of the Saraval Collection to Poland.
The Manuscript Collection the Jewish Theological Seminary in Wroclaw (Breslau)
The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in Wroclaw was founded at the initiative of Rabbi Abraham Geiger. According to Jonas Frenkel’s will, the Foundation was to be formed with the capital of 300,000 Thalers and an estate at Wtodkowicza Street 4A, what is now 14. By 1903, 452 graduates had left the Seminary, 276 of whom had come from Germany.
The JTS Library in Wrocław
The basis of the JTS Library was the collection of Leon Vit Saraval (1771 -185 I) of Trieste. Through the subsequent gifts of the wife of Dr Bernard Beer of Dresden (36 vol.), thanks to Raphael Kirchheim of Frankfurt, Frenkel, Bernays, Adler, Zukerman, Rosin, Tiktin, Kohn and others, and through purchase as well, the library collection rose to 405 manuscripts, 54 incunabula, and about 18,000 works in 24,000 volumes (according to varying sources, the collection amounted to 30,000 or even 40,000 volumes.) It constituted the largest Judaica collection in Germany and, in those days, it was one of the largest in the world.
The Second World War Period
During the Second World War, Jews were forbidden to use libraries. Already during Kristallnacht, the Nazis threw book collections on the street. After having been gathered in one building, at the beginning of the war the books were packed and transported to Berlin, initially to the Freemason Lodge at Emerstrasse, and subsequently to the Grand Masonic Lodge at 12 Eisenacherstrasse, where Judaica looted from various libraries were collected.
The collection first came under the Gestapo, and later the Reich Main Security Office, in collaboration with the Institute for Research on the Jewish Question (Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage) in Frankfurt upon Main, founded by Alfred Rosenberg. The collections were transported by a special division, the so-called Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg fur die Besetzen Gebiete, ERR.
In August 1943, the collection was evacuated from Berlin and transferred to different locations in Lower Silesia, in the Czech north and in Germany, mainly to:
- The Niemes Castle near Reichenberg (Liberec);
- in Bohemia, where, among others, the manuscript collection was planned to be (and was) left;
- The Schlesiersee (Sława) Castle near Gtogów;
- The Perstein Castle near Deutsch-Gabel (Jabłonne v Podjestedi)’
- The Hausek Castle in Deutsch-Gabel’
- The Prince’s Castle in Walenburger Bergland j- Daggendorf upon Danube;
- Zwiesel in Bayrischen Wald;
- Greiz in Thuringen;
- Arnstadt in Thuringia.;
A collection of literature in Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino was moved to Czech Terezin. Several packs of books were left in the RSHA cellars at 13 Muenchenstrasse in Berlin-Schoeneberg. The details of the collection’s migrations are not entirely clear. In 1945, part of the Seminary’s collection was found in the Gestapo cellars in Kłodzko and in a train at the town’s train station. It was handed over to the Polish government and is now kept in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw (including about 160 manuscripts).
Other parts of the collection, found after the war in various places impossible to identify today, were seized either by the Red Army, the Czech authorities or other institutions and private persons. Thus fragments of the priceless Seminary collection may also be found in:
- The Czech Republic National Library (34 manuscripts and 6 incunabula in 7 volumes)
- The Russian National Library in Moscow (manuscripts and remains of the library’s
- New York
- Other cities.
In 1988 and 2000, international conferences on the restitution of looted works of art and collections took place in Washington and Vilnius, respectively.
In 2001, the Commission for the Restitution of Works of Art, chaired by Ronald S. Lauder, notified the Jewish Community in Wrocław of the JTS collections in Prague and Moscow. On behalf of the JFC in Wrocław, the Ronald S. Lauder Commissions lawyers negotiated this question with the Czech and Russian governments in the years of 2001-2002.
The Moscow collection may be seen in a Catalogue published in collaboration with the Ronald S. Lauder Commission. The Prague collection is to be transferred in accordance with art. 5 of the February 12th agreement, 1946 between the Czechoslovak Republic and the Republic of Poland, with the addition of point I b of art. 5 signed in Prague on March 29th, 1958, regarding cultural heritage and archives. Representatives of the Polish side: Prof. Wojciech Kowalski (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Jerzy Kichler (JRC Wrocław), and Dr. Jan Paweł Worończak (University of Wrocław) signed the initial protocols on December 3th. The collection was delivered to the Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski by the Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus on December 3rd, and the collection was delivered to the Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski by the Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus on December 7th returned to Poland on the following day.
The JTS Manuscript Collection in Prague
It contains 34 manuscripts and 6 incunabula in 7 volumes, mostly from the Saraval collection.
The oldest manuscript was completed at the end of 1285, the newest – in 1833. They come from a number of cities in Europe, North Africa and the Near East, Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Turkey, Italy, Germany and Poland. The manuscripts represent various writing traditions of the Jewish Middle Ages in Europe. Though not numerous, they are extremely diverse – ranging from the Bibie through the commentaries on it, mystic works, and prayer books, to poetry, philosophy and astronomy. Some of them are beautifully illuminated; they also display examples of interesting micrographics (text on a page purposefully formed into an image). Without any doubt, one of the books was written at the end of the 13th century in Rome by a woman whose family emigrated from Eger (now Cheb in Bohemia).
After 2000, the collection was digitalized in a UNESCO project, Memoriae Mundi Series Bohemica (Memoria), in collaboration with of Olga Sixowa and Jerzy Stankiewicz of the Jewish Museum in Prague. Thanks to this, most of the research into specific manuscripts can be done using digital copies, without the risk of damaging the precious originals.
In 2002, the Board of the Jewish Religious Community in Wrocław signed an agreement with the Director of the University of Wrocław Library concerning the depositing of the collection in the Library’s Department of Manuscripts and Old Prints, where it would remain under Professional care. The agreement was renewed in 2004. (Formally, the owner of the collection is the Jewish Religious Community in Wrocław). Thus at least a fragment of the wealthy Jews’ fortune and the institution they created, after being shattered by the Nazis and the war has been returned to Wrocław.
The modern – day Jewish Community may find its new identity in researching it, together with the University of Wrocław and other institutions, both in Poland and worldwide.