The Jewish Museum of Westphalia (Dorsten)

In June 1992 the Jewish Museum of Westphalia started its first activities in Dorsten, a small town located in North Rhine-Westphalia. The Museum is a private institution run by the “Association for Jewish History and Religion” (Verein für jüdische Geschichte und Religion e.V.) and the “Jewish Museum of Westphalia Foundation”. While the association is primarily responsible for the work of the museum, the foundation is concerned with funds for cultural activities and exhibits.

A few years ago a modern extension was built which was opened in August 2001 and it is here that the permanent exhibition is now housed. Visitors can learn about Jewish history in Westphalia and the Jewish religion and they have the opportunity to experience Jewish history and culture in a regional context as well as to reflect on Jewish life in Germany in the past and present.

The permanent exhibition is divided into two sections: “Jewish Religion and Culture” and “Jews in Westphalia”. The first part of the religion and culture section focuses on “Torah – Synagogue – Community”. The Torah is the centre of Jewish Life. The Torah scroll written on parchment contains the five books of Moses. It is kept in the Synagogue, the house of prayer and meeting for the Jewish community. In the second part where Jewish life is shown in relationship with the Torah, visitors can find out more about the subject of “Home – Family – Individual” and Jewish life under the influence of a changing social environment.

The third part “Jewish Life in Westphalia – Destruction and a New Start” refers to the terror that Jewish people were subjected to during the Nazi regime which ended in the loss of all their rights and destruction. Despite their experiences during the Shoa, after 1945 some of the survivors decided to start a new life in Germany. In the fourth part of the permanent exhibition, “New Jewish Life in Westphalia”, large black and white photos give some impressions of modern Jewish community life. Since 1996 the photographer Dirk Vogel has had personal contacts with Jewish communities in the area allowing him to take pictures of many special events like Purim, family celebrations and afternoon get-togethers for senior citizens. Other pictures show the celebration of Chanukah, synagogue services of the liberal Minyan and other official and private activities. Dirk Vogel’s pictures show people who have found a new Jewish home in Westphalia.

In the “Jews in Westphalia” section, fourteen stories illustrate the history of Jewish people in Westphalia from the Middle Ages to the present day. The stories of the men and women – merchants, teachers, artists, rabbis, politicians, footballers and others – illustrate the life of Jewish and non-Jewish Germans together in Westphalia in difficult and easier times. This part of the exhibition begins with a medieval collection of coins which was found in Münster in 1951. It also tells the story of how many Jewish families moved from rural areas to towns where their social status grew in importance and describes the confused times in Weimar and the terrible situation during the Nazi regime: stories of discrimination, camps, exile, liberation and a new start after 1945. The exhibition ends with testimonies of the politician Jeanette Wolff from Bocholt and the textile merchant Rolf Abrahamsohn from Marl who still plays an important role in discussion of the past as well as German-Israeli friendship.

The exhibition of “Jews in Westphalia” not only shows the crises and catastrophes of German-Jewish history but also looks at other aspects: good relationships between Jews and gentiles benefiting everybody. The decision to display both an historical chronicle and impressions of Jewish life gives visitors the opportunity to experience different aspects of past and present.
Special exhibitions are housed in the refurbished old building of the Museum. And the library with more than 5000 books on Jewish culture and life provides interested visitors with a wealth of information. In the foyer of the museum there is a fine selection of books from the “LiteraturHandlung” book store which has large shops in Berlin and Munich.

 

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