Berlin’s first Jewish Museum opened in January 1933, just one week before the Nazis seized power. Karl Schwarz, its founder, realized immediately that the museum was doomed and his life was in danger.
He fled Berlin for Tel Aviv months after opening the museum, which he’d worked for years to turn into a reality.
“The new museum had only just been founded and I had to leave it!” he wrote in his memoir. “But these considerations were hardly worth anything; much more important things were at stake -- my life, my work, my children’s future. I knew absolutely: There was nothing to hope for here.”
Almost 80 years and much painstaking research later, the Centrum Judaicum, on the site of the former museum, has reassembled some of the lost art for an exhibition titled “The Berlin Jewish Museum (1933-1938): Traces of a Lost Collection.”
Schwarz described his last tour of the museum in June 1933, the day before he left. “It seemed to me that the smell of Death already wafted through the halls,” he said.
Next to the New Synagogue on central Oranienburgerstrasse, the museum did survive for another five years, becoming an important refuge for Jewish artists, before being taken over and sealed by the Nazis in the pogroms of November 1938.
Its content, including paintings by Max Liebermann, Marc Chagall, Lesser Ury, Moritz Oppenheim and Leonid Pasternak, was seized and hidden: Some paintings were stashed in a vault on the other side of the city.
The new show is the result of a 30-year quest by Hermann Simon, the director of the Centrum Judaicum, aided since about 1990 by his deputy Chana Schuetz.
Most of the recovered artworks are in Berlin on temporary loan for the exhibition, though the quest -- and the show --also paved the way for at least one restitution.
An examination of the back of a painting by Max Liebermann revealed that it never belonged to the Berlin Jewish Museum but was on loan from Liebermann’s widow, Martha. It will be returned by Jerusalem’s Israel Museum to the artist’s family after the show, the museum said in a statement yesterday.
The 1934 painting, one of Liebermann’s last, shows “The Return of Tobias,” a scene from the Book of Tobit. Liebermann intended it as a call to German Jews to return to Judaism in the face of Nazi persecution -- just as Tobias returned home to try to heal his father’s sight, Schuetz explained.
More than 280 pictures were recovered from the West Berlin vault after World War II. Most were handed over to the Israel Museum and to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
A retirement home in Britain returned two paintings that once belonged to the museum to the Centrum Judaicum after discovering their provenance, Simon said. The Centrum Judaicum also purchased back one of its most important lost paintings, a self-portrait by Liebermann. Other objects were tracked down in Poland, Israel and the U.S., he said.
There is still no trace of the museum’s large collection of silver Judaica, Simon said.
“I don’t think these things have gone forever,” he said. “They are somewhere, and we will find them.”
A collection of North African antiquities is still missing. Schuetz said they have so far also failed to track down some of the biggest-format paintings, which must have been hidden somewhere other than the vault in western Berlin by the Nazis. Two big paintings by Lesser Ury, and the famous “Exile” by Samuel Hirszenberg are reproduced in black-and-white in full size for the exhibition.
“Exile” shows a group of Jews in flight, trudging through a wintry landscape, huddled in layers of clothing.
“This is the most-wanted picture in the Jewish world,” said Schuetz. “We have looked for it everywhere. But the search is still on -- we are sure the Nazis didn’t destroy it and it must be somewhere.”
“In Search of a Lost Collection” is showing at the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin through Dec. 30. For more information, go to http://www.centrumjudaicum.de