Hitler’s proposed “Museum of an Extinct Race” was mentioned in an article here about British school teachers visiting Auschwitz to learn how to teach the Holocaust.
This quote from the article caught my attention:
This was extermination on an industrial scale and it involved huge numbers of people. Neighbours and employers reported Jews to the Gestapo. Bureaucrats processed notices of deportation. Postmen served them. Railway staff marshalled their departure. Others drove the trains and manned the signals. It was all logically and legally planned in an inversion of all the values on which human civilisation had been built.
So perverse was it that Hitler ordered the collection of 200,000 Jewish artefacts (sic), which were photographed and catalogued to be displayed at the end of the war as a trophy case of archaeological remains. It was to be called The Museum of an Extinct Race.
Ten years ago, I visited Prague in the Czech Republic and learned that there is, in fact, a collection of Jewish artifacts on display, although the museum is not called “The Museum of an Extinct Race.” I don’t know if Hitler actually wanted to call the museum by that name or not, but I learned from a tour guide in Prague that it was not Hitler who proposed the Museum. Here’s the real story on the “Jewish Museum,” which I learned on my visit:
The original Jewish Museum was founded in 1906 in order to preserve artifacts that were saved when all the buildings in the old Jewish quarter of Prague were demolished at the turn of the century, including some of the synagogues. Dr. Hugo Lieben and Dr. Augustin Stein were the leaders in the founding of the museum. Only six synagogues, the Ceremonial Hall, the Old Town Hall, and the Old Jewish Cemetery were left standing when the old Jewish quarter was torn down because it had become a rat-infested slum that was a major health hazard. Tearing down the Jewish quarter was an effort to get the Jews to assimilate, instead of having their own section of Prague.
Soon after Germany occupied Bohemia and Moravia on March 15, 1939, the Jewish Museum was closed down. Bohemia and Moravia were formerly in Czechoslovakia and these two states became a German protectorate in 1939, while other parts of Czechoslovakia were taken over by Poland and Hungary. Prague is located in Bohemia, which is one of the two states, that now make up the Czech Republic.
After Germany started liquidating the Jewish communities, in what is now the Czech Republic, Dr. Augustin Stein suggested to the Germans that they set up a Jewish Museum to hold all the objects that the Germans were confiscating from the synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia.
Following long negotiations between Germany and the Jewish leaders, Hitler approved the project and in 1942, the Central Jewish Museum was created. As a result, precious objects from the synagogues in the Czech Republic were saved and they are now on display at four of the old synagogues in Prague: the Pinkus Synagogue, the Klausen Synagogue, the Maisel Synagogue and the Spanish Synagogue.
This is the museum which Hitler allegedly wanted to call “the Museum of an Extinct Race.” Hitler was originally from Austria, and the Austrians are famous for having good manners. Can’t you just see Dr. Stein sitting down with Hitler to discuss the Jewish Museum, which was Dr. Stein’s idea, and Hitler saying, “Great idea, Dr. Stein! Let’s call the Jewish Museum the Museum of an Extinct Race because I have plans to make the Jews extinct.”
The Jewish Museum in Prague consists of exhibits in four of the old Synagogues and the Ceremonial Hall, along with the Old Jewish Cemetery which extends from the courtyard of the Pinkas Synagogue to the rear of the Ceremonial Hall and the Klausen Synagogue.
The Ceremonial Hall and Mortuary was designed by architect J. Gerstl, and built in 1911 – 1912 for use by the Jewish Burial Society Hevrah Kaddishah, which was originally founded in 1564. It is part of The Jewish Museum and contains the second half of the exhibit called “Jewish Customs and Traditions,” which is a continuation of the exhibit in the Klausen Synagogue next door. In this building, the exhibits are about Jewish cemeteries in Bohemia and Moravia and the activities of the Jewish Burial Society.
The Jewish Museum in Prague has one of the most extensive collections of Jewish art, textiles and silver in the world; there are 40,000 exhibits and 100,000 books. The collection is unique because everything in the museum was gathered from Bohemia and Moravia and it represents Jewish history and heritage in the present Czech Republic.
Although Hitler was not the one who came up with the idea of a Jewish Museum, I was told by a tour guide in Prague that he was enthusiastic about the project and supported it. The story, about the alleged name that Hitler proposed for the Museum, may have come from the fact that Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I, and on January 30, 1939, he had predicted in a public speech that, in the event of another world war, European Jewry would be annihilated. In fact, he predicted this a couple of times, but as it turned out, he was wrong.
During World War II, Jewish artifacts from all over Europe were brought to Prague and stored in preparation for the Jewish Museum. As it turned out, the artifacts that were saved, with the help of the Nazis, ended up in Prague, but not in a museum of an extinct race.
After the defeat of the Fascists in World War II, Czechoslovakia became a Communist country in 1948. Under Communism, all property is owned by the state, so in 1950 the Jews were forced to transfer ownership of the Jewish Museum to the state, and a number of restrictions were imposed. After the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989, the Museum buildings and their exhibits were returned to the Jews on October 1, 1994. At this time, The Jewish Museum in Prague was founded as a non-state organization.
In 1996, the Educational and Cultural Center was established as part of the Museum complex. It is located on the corner of Maiselova Street and Siroka Street in the heart of Josefov, which is the name of the old Jewish quarter.
The purpose of the center is to give visitors a detailed account of the history of the Jews, particularly the history of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia. The Center is a teacher-training institution, recognized by the Czech Ministry of Education. The program at the Center includes lectures, seminars, tours of Josefov, movies, concerts, debates and literary evenings.
The Old-New Synagogue, shown in the photograph above, dates back to the 13th century; it was open to the public as part of the Jewish Museum, except on Saturdays and Jewish Holidays.
When I visited Prague in 2000, there were two other Synagogues in the old Jewish quarter that were still being used as places of worship, so they had no exhibits. The other synagogue, that was in use, was the High Synagogue, which was in the same building as the Old Town Hall. Neither the town hall, nor the High Synagogue, were on the museum tour in October, 2000. Some tourist guidebooks for Prague mention the textile exhibits in the High Synagogue, which were not open when I visited.