Documentation Campaign in Prague
The Jewish Museum in Prague, whose history is intrinsically intertwined with the persecution of Bohemian and Moravian Jews, has been collecting archival sources relating to the persecution and genocide of Jews in the Czech lands since the end of WWII. It holds various types of materials, including interviews with and witness accounts of Shoah survivors.
The testimonies presented within the EHRI online edition were gathered mainly in the framework of the so-called “documentation campaign” (Dokumentační akce). This was one of the earliest postwar projects to document the events of the Shoah, collecting evidence, documents, and witness testimonies. The founder and a driving force behind the campaign was Zeev Scheck, a prewar Zionist and survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, who emigrated Palestine in 1946 to. He later worked as an Israeli diplomat and was an initiator of the Association of Theresienstadt Prisoners which built the Beit Theresienstadt archive and museum.
Taking inspiration from his wartime clandestine documentation in Theresienstadt and from a visit to Budapest after liberation, Scheck and a few of his former fellow prisoners initiated a Czechoslovak Jewish documentation effort. Scheck was thereby continuing the clandestine collection of documents in the Theresienstadt ghetto in which he and a group of Zionist youth activists had been involved. After liberation, Scheck’s partner and future wife transferred his Theresienstadt collection to Prague, later moving it to Palestine. Today it forms the basis of the Theresienstadt documentation in the Yad Vashem Archives.
The “documentation campaign” in Prague was established with the assistance of the Jewish Agency for Palestine (Sochnut) and the EZRA committee and was operated by the Jewish community in Prague. The collection effort was conducted by a small group of about four young enthusiastic Zionist activists, all freshly liberated from ghettos and camps, for whom the documentation of the destruction was just a first necessary step towards the renewal of the Jewish nation in Palestine. They cooperated closely with the Jewish communities in the Czech lands and appealed in postwar community bulletins to the Jewish public to provide documentation of the persecution. Taking inspiration from the Budapest documentation efforts and under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, they collected lists of antisemitic literature, anti-Jewish laws, documents, photographs, testimonies, as well as artwork including literary reflections of persecution. They collected wartime documents still left in the offices and storages of the Jewish community and traveled to Theresienstadt and other places of persecution to secure surviving materials. They cooperated with the Czechoslovak investigation of Nazi crimes and provided, in the context of the denationalization and expulsion of Bohemian and Moravian Germans, materials for exhibitions documenting Nazi crimes.
Even if much more limited in staff and scope, as well as the amount of collected material, the “documentation campaign” was aware of the pan-European context of its work, especially from the perspective of Jewish nationalism. In a report to the Jewish Agency in August 1945, Scheck also implored its donors to “urgently” organize a meeting of representatives of committees from all states where such documentation was taking place.
The “documentation dampaign” in Prague was in operation for only a short period of time. When Zeev Scheck emigrated to Palestine in 1946, he took a part of the documents and testimonies with him, which he handed over to the Zionist Central Archives and then to the Jewish Historical Archives (now the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish people). In 1976, Scheck’s sources were transferred to Yad Vashem. Fragments of the material also found their way to the Beit Theresienstadt memorial, museum, and archives in Givat Haim, which Scheck had helped to create. Following an arrangement, copies of some materials and documents with a clear relationship to Czechoslovakia remained in Czechoslovakia and were stored in the Archives of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
The testimonies today held in the Jewish Museum in Prague and in the Yad Vashem Archives make up only a small portion of the documentation collected, especially in comparison with other documentation committees. It appears that the Prague activists took less inspiration from the grassroots Jewish ethnographic and documentation work and that the collection of testimonies was not entirely systematic. Some were recorded when witnesses visited the small office of the “documentation campaign” in the offices of the Prague Jewish community organization; some were requested due to the knowledge of specific events; yet again others were sent in by those who read or heard about the activity of the committee. It seems that no binding methodology or catalogue of questions was followed during the interviews.
Testimonies gathered within the “documentation campaign” were typed up and took the form of a protocol. Apart from some exceptions, the content often displays a very brief and terse character, with a focus on facts and the identification of perpetrators, with some exceptions. Most were compiled in 1945 and 1946 in either Czech or German.
YVA, O.7.cz, files 263-271.
Veselská, Magda, “Documentation of the Shoah in the Czech Lands: The Documentation Project and the Prague Jewish Museum (1945–1947)”. Judaica Bohemiae 52, no. 1, 2017, pp. 47–86.