"Remnants Saved from the Fire"

A Transnational History of Jewish Ceremonial Objects after 1945

Anna-Carolin Augustin

Objects store knowledge and create social relationships. They are invested with functions, traditions, symbolic meanings, and memories. This "Wissen der Objekte" (“knowledge of objects”) is preserved, transformed, or lost when objects “migrate” – when they are removed from the cultural contexts and geographic settings in which they were created and change ownership. The material cultural of European Jewry was deeply affected by these processes during the twentieth century. The “remnants saved from the fire” that survived the National Socialist regime’s war upon European Jewry had either been sent into “exile” for safety before the war or circulated into new contexts after 1945 as a result of plunder, sale, or restitution.

My Habilitation project is a transnational examination of the complex biographies of Jewish ceremonial objects and their migration routes. It gives particular attention to the changing meanings and functions that, after 1945, were ascribed to these “material witnesses” to a European Jewish culture that had been largely destroyed. The project also considers the widely differing interests of a broad array of actors, ranging from former owners and their legal successors to diplomats and restitution officials, from Judaica experts and museum curators to antiques dealers and private collectors. Working at the interface of cultural historical research on migration and knowledge with the study of material culture, historical networks, the art market, and memory, this project examines these key players and their interests along with the relationships and networks among them. It also gives particular attention to the hubs in the migration of Jewish ceremonial objects after 1945. The geographic foci of the study are Germany, the United States, and Israel. Methodologically, it will draw upon provenance research, which treats objects as primary sources and explores the biographies of individual objects and entire collections alike. Sources such as auction catalogues and the papers of antiques dealers and Judaica experts will be used to investigate the commercial trade in Jewish ceremonial objects. The project aims not only to establish a basis for researching the provenance of Judaica but also to address a central but little researched chapter in the history of relations between Jews and gentiles that, in turn, illuminates many facets of post-Holocaust Jewish life.