Research Unit Knowledge

A Multilateral Transaction.

The Novalis Estate in Jerusalem and the Nuremberg Haggadot

This project focuses on a set of manuscripts – a significant part of the estate of Novalis (Friedrich v. Hardenberg, 1772–1801) and two Pessach Haggadot from the fifteenth century – that are interwoven in manifold ways with the history of the Holocaust and Jewish migration movements through the twentieth century. So, for example, the history of the Novalis estate leads from the family archive of his descendants via the Berlin autograph collectors market to Jerusalem. This is where the Jewish publisher and businessman Salman Schocken, one of the most significant private collectors in the Weimar Republic, managed after 1933 to transfer his expertly curated collection of Hebrew manuscripts and prints as well as his collection of German literature, including philosophical texts and fragments by Novalis. Until the outbreak of World War Two and then especially after the Holocaust, Schocken invested a lot of effort into bringing the most important Hebrew- and Yiddish-language manuscripts and prints to Jerusalem from various collection points in Germany. In the case of the famous Haggadah manuscripts held at the Germanische Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Schocken managed to trade them in exchange for Novalis manuscripts in a multilateral transaction involving the Freie Deutsche Hochstift in Frankfurt am Main as well as funds provided by the West German state. This is how the Novalis manuscripts returned to Germany.

The archived correspondence regarding this transaction reveals how political and scholarly considerations and perceptions of history were combined in discussions about manuscripts, their location, and appertaining research after 1945. Letters and documents from all the actors involved illuminate the manner in which cultural heritage was conceived of and treated in the immediate postwar years. The actors at first tried to move in established frameworks and to make historically valuable objects accessible to researchers, as these were perceived as forming part of and embodying a long (national) tradition. Yet the relevant frameworks had been cast radically in doubt after the Holocaust, if they had not been destroyed altogether. While the ‘return’ of collections from their ostensible exile was perceived on the German side as a restoration and healing of a materially visible rupture in tradition, Schocken’s pursuit of the ambivalent idea of an exchange represented rather a sense that German Jewish history had failed, although he still could not entirely disconnect either himself or the objects from this history. This research project reconstructs the history behind the translocations of these manuscripts, focusing especially on the language in which the history of collections in Germany and Israel has increased in scholarly, political, and memorial significance. Following the approaches to provenance research in the field of art history (Bénédicte Savoy), it is therefore concerned not least of all with making transparent the connections between the material, sensory, and intellectual appropriation of objects.