The head of Prague’s Jewish Museum has ambitious plans to make the institution an international focal point for Jewish scholarship.
One of the ways museum Director Leo Pavlat plans to do this is by setting up a Jewish study and educational center, he said in a recent interview in his office.
“Up until now, I see the museum as having been a bit passive,” he said. “It was a display of objects that could be seen. I would like it to be more active.”
“We need to find how to present the museum as something important, not just for us Czech Jews, but for all Jews,” he said. “And not just as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust – but something that speaks of Jewish civilization.”
When he describes his goals, Pavlat, who was a dissident writer during the Communist era, appears to be chomping at the bit to get his projects under way.
He said he envisages the center, which will be located in a building recently returned to the Jewish community by the government, as serving scholars, tourists and locals. The center will offer classes, lectures and Jewish cultural events as well as programs to teach the non-Jewish public about Judaism and Jewish heritage, Pavlat said.
Pavlat also said he plans to computerize museum archives and documentation; modernize and enrich permanent museum exhibits to make them more meaningful; and install a needed security system to safeguard both visitors and the priceless museum collections.
To accomplish these goals Pavlat has to confront what for both the museum and the Czech Republic is a new phenomenon – fund raising. Among planned efforts to raise several hundred thousands dollars will be the establishment of a “Friends of the Museum” association, a newsletter and an expanded museum shop.
The Prague Jewish Museum is generally considered to have the richest Judaica collection in Europe. Part of this collection toured the United States in the 1980s as “The Precious Legacy.”
The museum owes most of its treasures to the Nazis: During the destruction of more than 150 Jewish communities in what is now the Czech Republic, the Nazis loote synagogues, homes, libraries and study houses and brought tens of thousands of ritual items and personal belongings to Prague. There, they intended to create a “museum to an extinct race.”
After the war, the Communist regime took over the museum, its collections, the Old Jewish Cemetery and the half-dozen surviving synagogues in Prague’s historic Jewish quarter. The institution was run as the State Jewish Museum until it was returned to Jewish community ownership in 1994.