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  • Object LessonsArt Collection and Display as Historical Practice in Inter-War Lwów
  • Sarah Ellen Zarrow (bio)

In 1934 Tsemah Szabad and Zalmen Reyzen wrote a telegram to the leadership of the recently opened Jewish museum in Lwow. 'Let us hope', they wrote, 'that the establishment of a museum to protect the traces of the Jewish past will also be dedicated to the further development of Jewish creativity.'1 Writing on behalf of the Jewish Research Institute (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut; YIVO), they had a vested interest in seeing that other organizations took up the dual tasks of documentation and propagation. These two practices would, in YIVO's estimation, provide the framework for the continuation of Jewish life and achievement in Poland. With the establishment of its aspirantur (graduate) programme in the same year, YIVO may also have been attempting to tap into a potential source of aspirantn.

However, the founders of and forces behind the creation of Lwow's museum had an agenda quite different from YIVO's. Though precursor organizations, such as the Society for Lovers of Jewish Art (Koło Miłośników Sztuki Żydowskiej), were predicated on the idea of promoting new art from young Jewish artists, when it opened, the museum showcased only older objects and works of art. It was, in other words, unconcerned with taking an active role in supporting the future of Jewish art in the city as YIVO desired; rather, the Jewish art functioned mainly as a historical exhibit.

The museum used artefacts and art to bolster a sense of Jewish history and rootedness in Lwów. The creators of the museum intended that it should demonstrate Jewish belonging on Polish soil through the historical presentation of fine Judaica and examples of the built heritage of Jewish Lwów.2 In this way, a case [End Page 157] would be made for the continuation of Jewish life in Lwów that bypassed its contemporary fraught reality. In contrast to other Polish Jewish art collections in the inter-war period, Lwów provides an example of art collection and display as a handmaiden to history and of zamlung (collecting) as a patriotic (Polish Jewish) rather than a nationalist (Jewish) practice.3

While Eastern Galicia produced a notable number of Jewish historians, the inter-war period saw them move to other parts of Poland, mainly Warsaw.4 Jan Kazimierz University, Lwow's premier academic institution, subsequently boasted no academic historians of the Jews.5 Previous historical studies of Lwow seem to have engendered little further work in the inter-war period,6 but this does not mean that Lwow's Jews lost interest in historical documentation, far from it; although, at a time when historical practice served to bolster Jewish claims to rootedness in Poland, Lwow's importance as a Jewish city, coupled with its lack of locally based Jewish historians, appears anomalous. Lwow's Jews used the tools they had available to them—an abundance of beautiful but time-worn synagogues, artworks, and Judaica—to demonstrate Jewish belonging on Polish soil and a sense of an all-Polish (not merely Galician) Jewish society. Despite being in a different medium from other history projects, Lwów's unconventional practice caught the attention of historians such as Majer Bałaban, who considered art collection, ethnography, and display as part of the historical toolkit.7

The collection practices in Lwow and the engaged scholarship they both produced and were inspired by mimicked in many ways the practices of academically trained Polish Jewish historians. However, while the professional historians produced work that was both Jewish and nationally oriented, using the Second Polish Republic as a unit of analysis, this sense was slower to emerge amongst art collectors and ethnographers, though, as in the case of historians, the work undertaken was all published in Polish.8 An 'integrationist school' of Polish Jewish collectors was not an immediate outcome of the reconstitution of Poland, as it seems [End Page 158] to have been in the case of historians, whose work began even before the establishment of the Second Polish Republic.9

Bolstering a sense of Leopolitan Jewish heritage and history through the display of art and...


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