Monday, October 15, 2012

The Archives of Vienna's Jews stays in Israel

Earlier today we published the decision of the State Archivist in the matter of the archives of the Jewish Community of Vienna.

Prior to the Shoah, the Jewish community in Vienna was Europe's second largest. After the Shoah only a small remnant remained. The leaders of the remnant decided in the early 1950s to transfer their library, the archives of the community, and various other cultural possessions, to the newly founded State of Israel. The collection found a home in the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People,in Jerusalem.

In 2011, the present leaders of the Jewish community in Vienna sued the Central Archives in the Jerusalem district court, demanding that the collection be returned to Vienna. Earlier this year the court passed the case to the State Archivist, as the official responsible for archival matters in Israel.

One of the important legal tools in the tool-chest of the State Archivist is paragraph 14a of the Law of Archives (1955), whereby archival material which has been deposited in an official archives cannot be removed unless to another official archives, or with the permission of the State Archivist. Thus, a central aspect of the case which the State Archivist had to decide on was whether there are conditions to justify the removal of the collection from its present archival home.

The decision is in Hebrew, obviously.

The main findings of the decision are that the collection was originally transferred as a permanent loan (permanente Leihgabe). A permanent loan in not an oxymoron, but rather a procedure used rather often by museums and sometimes by archives when the owner of an important cultural artifact wishes to transfer it forever to a cultural institution, while retaining some connection to it. Often this is done for tax purposes, but there can be emotional motivations or other considerations. In some rather rare cases the agreement between the depositor and the institution will even foresee the return of the artifact to its original owner if the institution does not live up to its original commitments.

The documentation pertaining to the Vienna collection clarifies that the depositors felt they were strengthening the cultural importance of the young State of Israel as the center of the Jewish people; they were proud about their contribution; and they had no intention of the collection ever returning. Since the Israeli home of the collection offers adequate access to researchers--which the present Jewish community in Vienna cannot immediately offer--there is no justification for the removal of the collection.


It is pure coincidence that the Judge in Tel Aviv decided this week in the case of the Franz Kafka papers, and the next day the State Archivist decided in the matter of the Vienna collection. Nor do the two cases  particularly resemble one another. And yet, it must be said, both decisions do assume that the State of Israel has the right to include in its cultural heritage not only items which were created in Israel and since its foundation in 1948, but also artifacts of cultural importance created by Jews prior to the creation of the State which have in the meantime made their way here. The mere fact of possession and location are not sufficient: both authors took the contravening claims seriously and investigated them while entertaining the possibility that they might be justified. Once they were found lacking, however, the claims of the State of Israel to collect and administer the cultural heritage of the Jews are also part of the equation.

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