«The young people were not cheerful in the museum.»

Alliya Oppliger looks back at Monumenta Judaica on its 60th anniversary.

The exhi­bi­ti­on Monu­men­ta Judai­ca. 2000 Years of Histo­ry and Cul­tu­re of the Jews on the Rhi­ne ope­ned in Colo­gne on 15 Octo­ber 1963. It was the first major exhi­bi­ti­on on Jewish reli­gi­on and art in the Rhi­ne­land. Alli­ya Opp­li­ger, a histo­ry stu­dent and intern at the Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land rese­ar­ched the histo­ry of Monu­men­ta Judai­ca on the occa­si­on of its six­tieth anni­ver­sa­ry. Muse­um direc­tor Nao­mi Lubrich asked her about its signi­fi­can­ce today.

Nao­mi Lubrich: Alli­ya, in 1963, Monu­men­ta Judai­ca ope­ned at the Colo­gne City Muse­um. What was its scope?

Alli­ya Opp­li­ger: The exhi­bi­ti­on was lar­ge and com­pre­hen­si­ve. Its aim was to show 2000 years of com­mu­ni­ty and intellec­tu­al life of Jews in the Rhi­ne area, from Basel to Emme­rich. 2200 arti­facts were on loans from libra­ri­es and muse­ums in 15 cities, among them Washing­ton, the Vati­can, Moscow, Lon­don, Vien­na, Copen­ha­gen, Buda­pest, Ams­ter­dam and of cour­se Germany.

NL: What were the reasons for moun­ting this exhibition?

AO: One of the goals was poli­ti­cal: In Decem­ber 1959, someone van­da­li­zed the Colo­gne syn­ago­gue in the Roon­stras­se, and this inci­dent trig­ge­red a wave of anti­se­mi­tic graf­fi­ti and inci­dents throug­hout West Ger­ma­ny. Colo­gne deci­ded to coun­ter­act the anti­se­mi­tism with an infor­ma­ti­on cam­paign. At first, the city con­side­red show­ing the exhi­bit Syn­ago­ga, which had been on dis­play in Reck­ling­hau­sen. Syn­ago­ga (1960/61) was the first major exhi­bi­ti­on on Juda­ism in post-war Ger­ma­ny, show­ing magni­fi­cent cult objects. Ulti­m­ate­ly, howe­ver, the city deci­ded to mount its own exhi­bi­ti­on with a dif­fe­rent focus, model­led on the regio­nal histo­ry exhi­bi­ti­ons of the Wei­mar peri­od, par­ti­cu­lar­ly the Jewish sec­tion of the 1925 Mill­en­ni­um Exhi­bi­ti­on of the Rhineland.

NL: Who finan­ced the exhibition? 

AO: The cos­ts were divi­ded into three parts: The city of Colo­gne paid for one part, the fede­ral and sta­te govern­ments for the second part, and the last part came from the pro­ceeds from ticket and book sales.

NL: What was the con­cept of the exhibit?

AO: The moti­va­ti­on for the exhi­bit was, in first place, edu­ca­tio­nal. It show­ed Jewish-Chris­ti­an coexis­tence and their mutu­al cul­tu­ral and reli­gious influen­ces. Less than twen­ty years after the war, the exhi­bi­ti­on wan­ted to coun­ter the hateful images of Jews the Nazis had ing­rai­ned. Many of the exhibition’s ide­as were inno­va­ti­ve: For exam­p­le, the cura­tors avo­ided show­ing Jewish histo­ry mere­ly as a sto­ry of per­se­cu­ti­on. They focu­sed on how many Jewish tra­di­ti­ons were born from the sur­roun­ding cul­tu­re. Unli­ke many other exhi­bi­ti­ons which dis­play­ed the bio­gra­phies of famous Jews, Monu­men­ta Judai­ca loo­ked at the lives of nor­mal people.

NL: What was the recep­ti­on of the exhibit? 

AO: With 114,450 visi­tors, it was well-atten­ded. Group tours were orga­ni­zed for church mem­bers, edu­ca­ti­on initia­ti­ves, for repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the armed forces and poli­ti­ci­ans. Among the visi­tors were the pre­si­dent of the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Ger­ma­ny Hein­rich Lüb­ke, car­di­nal Frings, the for­mer Israe­li prime minis­ter Mos­he Sharett, the pre­si­dent of the World Zio­nist Orga­ni­sa­ti­on Nahum Gold­mann and the co-foun­der of the Leo Baeck Insti­tu­te, Sieg­fried Moses. The exhi­bi­ti­on suc­cee­ded in attrac­ting young visi­tors: 70,232 visi­tors, more than 61% of the total num­ber of visi­tors, were teen­agers and young adults. Seve­ral jour­na­lists remark­ed that the exhi­bi­ti­on inspi­red the young gene­ra­ti­on to reflect on Germany’s most recent histo­ry, for ins­tance the lawy­er Curt C. Sil­ber­mann, who obser­ved in the Ger­man-Jewish exi­le news­pa­per Auf­bau:

«The young visi­tors in the muse­um were not cheerful; they were extre­me­ly serious and felt visi­bly inse­cu­re in an envi­ron­ment that was ali­en to them and had been dis­tor­ted by their par­ents. If this group of young peo­p­le is repre­sen­ta­ti­ve for their gene­ra­ti­on, the con­clu­si­on is posi­ti­ve, name­ly that the­se young peo­p­le are see­king cont­act, are lear­ning for them­sel­ves and are forming their inde­pen­dent ide­as, mea­ning ide­as that are inde­pen­dent of tho­se they lear­ned at home. At the same time, admit­ted­ly, an encoun­ter with muse­um objects can­not replace an encoun­ter with living beings, despi­te the good expl­ana­ti­ons by word and wri­ting.» (7 Febru­ary 1964).

NL: How inte­res­t­ing! We love to hear about the impact of muse­ums on socie­ty. Dear Alli­ya, thank you for this insight into Monu­men­ta Judai­ca, the exhi­bi­ti­on that also inspi­red the foun­ding of the Jewish Muse­um of Switzerland.


verfasst am 16.10.2023