At the beginning of the 20th century in Bavaria, when a great many Jews moved to the cities or emigrated, rural congregations faced the threat of disappearing altogether. What remained were the sometimes splendid synagogues with their exquisite ritual objects. To save these from being lost, the Verband Bayerischer Israelitischer Gemeinden (Association of Israelite Congregations in Bavaria) commissioned the art historian Theodor Harburger (1887–1949) to visit these places and document the synagogues’ holdings. The objects photographed and described by Harburger at that time have either been scattered around the globe since then or else their whereabouts is unknown. Eighty years after the Kristallnacht, when the furnishings of the synagogues were either desecrated or confiscated, little hope exists today of ever finding the ritual objects which disappeared and of returning these to the descendants of the original owners.
Against this background, a spectacular find was made in 2016 in the depot of what is now the Museum für Franken in Würzburg. In the process of cataloguing its holdings for the first time since 1945, the museum came across several crates of Jewish ritual objects, some of which had been burned beyond recognition while others were mere fragments. Bernhard Purin, Director of the Jewish Museum Munich, has been able to complete an survey of these items over the past two years and, with the help of the documentation compiled by Theodor Harburger, determine that these objects came from seven synagogues in Würzburg and the surrounding area.
A research project in collaboration with the Landesstelle für die nichtstaatlichen Museen in Bayern and the German Lost Art Foundation has since revealed that around one third of the some 150 objects had been confiscated from the synagogues during the Kristallnacht in 1938. Sources state that “seven crates of Jewish material” had subsequently been handed over to the museum.
The exhibition is the first presentation of these long-forgotten, looted Jewish ritual objects—which include valuable Torah ornaments, Hanukkah lamps, Seder plates, and many others—and their history. Thanks to inscriptions, mostly in Hebrew, is was possible to determine the names of a number of donors, who gifted these objects to the synagogues at that time. Their biographies, some of which date back to the 18th century, as well as those of their descendants, can also be traced in the exhibition. The path of life of many met a gruesome end during the Shoah. Several, on the other hand, led out of Germany to different places around the world. This exhibition commemorates all these people, members of former rural congregations in Bavaria, and the objects which were once so precious to them.