Saturday, August 29, 2009

Germany: University of Potsdam and Jewish Museum Berlin Collaborate on Memmelsdorf Genizah

Germany: University of Potsdam and Jewish Museum Berlin Collaborate on Memmelsdorf Genizah
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) On July 22, 2009 Jan Kixmüller reported in the Potsdamer Neueste Nachrichten that the University of Potsdam is partnering with the Jewish Museum Berlin to further identify, investigate, transcribe and translate various items discovered in a geniza in Memmelsdorf (a Franconian town in Southern Germany) in February 2002. The Genizah was discovered during the renovation of an old half-timbered building, when a ceiling fan was removed, and a linen bag containing a variety of Judaica fell from the ceiling. In the bag were fragments of Jewish prayer book, a community order, letters, a calendar, lottery tickets and business cards. Investigation of the space in the ceiling revealed other items – not all typical of a Genizah - including childrens' shoes, tobacco and prayer belt pouch. Though many genizot from synagogues have been found, including one in the (conserved and open to the public in 2004) former synagogue of Memmelsdorf discovered in 1979, such finds from private houses are rare (I can’t recall any). Researchers have determined that the house in Memmelsdorf had been owned by Jews from 1775 until 1939. The fate of final Jewish owners is unknown. The Geniza materials date from 1770 to 1830.

Now, Jewish Studies students at Potsdam University’s Wintersemester are selecting items from the Genizah for research and exhibition. This the first cooperative project between the University and the Museum. The full significance of the collection, which was purchased by the Jewish Museum Berlin in 2003, remains to be researched.

Material from the Memmelsdorf synagogue genizah comprised about 20 percent of the items shown in an exhibition created the Hidden Legacy Foundation of London, in the mid-1990s, that traveled to many German and European cities, Jerusalem and the United States. Much of the material form that genizah has been conserved and is stored in the Jewish Documentation Center in Wuerzburg. The catalog of the Hidden Legacy edited by Falk Wiesemann remains an excellent introduction to the subject and materials of south German genizot. See: Genizah - Hidden Legacies of the German Village Jews / Genisa - Verborgenes Erbe der Deutschen Landjuden (Vienna: Hidden Legacy Foundation, 1992. ISBN 3-570-10501-6)

The 1990s was a period of renewed interest in rural German Jewish culture. Hundreds of forgotten former synagogues - many reused as homes, garages, workshops, and firehouses - were identified. Researchers were on the lookout for genizah materials. Some of these were literally rescued from dumpsters where they had been tossed during local construction work, as this was also a period of renovation of older buildings by a new and more prosperous generation. In addition to materials from Memmelsdorf, much material was found in the former synagogue of Veitschocheim near Wurzburg and has been studied and conserved and is on view in a permanent exhibition next to the restored synagogue in that small town.

Genizot materials as especially valuable to historians for several reasons. They usually contain otherwise unknown printed works - often ephemeral but once popular items including religious and secular texts. Genizot also often contain original unique documentary material often of a personal nature, including receipts and contracts. In Germany they shed light on many aspects of everyday life for Jews in small towns and villages, and they also include material valuable in the interpretation of local Hebrew and Yiddish language usage.

The Potsdamer Institute of Jewish Studies Potsdamer is one of the largest (perhaps the largest) such program in Germany, with more 300 enrolled students. The Berlin Jewish Museum is the most visited Jewish Museum in Europe. The collaboration between Potsdam and Berlin in intended to benefit both institutions, and to help shape the next generation of German Jewish museum scholars and professionals.

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