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  • Renate Evers

Posts from the Past & Shared History: Activities and collections of the Leo Baeck Institute

New York | Berlin


Moses Mendelssohn's glasses, Leo Baeck Institute NY | Berlin, Art and Object Collection, 95.20, © Leo Baeck Institute New York | Berlin,,

The Leo Baeck Institute (LBI) is a special research collection which has been dedicated to preserve and to promote the history and culture of German-speaking Jews for more than 66 years. The collection was established in 1955 by German-Jewish scholars and intellectuals – including Martin Buber, Max Grunewald, Hannah Arendt and Robert Weltsch – based on the bitter experience of the Shoah. They were determined to preserve the vibrant cultural heritage of German-speaking Jewry that was nearly destroyed in the Holocaust. The founders named the Institute after Rabbi Leo Baeck, the last leading representative of the Jewish communities in Nazi-Germany.

In addition to the institute in New York, sister institutes were established in London and Jerusalem. All locations had in common that large German-Jewish emigrant groups were located there after World War II. In 2001, the New York LBI established a branch of its archive in Berlin, located at the Jewish Museum there, and has since been called the Leo Baeck Institute New York | Berlin.

The collections should be available as source material primarily to historians and other scholars for the academic study of “what was once German Jewry.” [1]


The Leo Baeck Institute New York | Berlin is one of five founding partners of the Center for Jewish History in New York. Since 2000, the centrally located Manhattan building has provided access to not-yet-digitized collections in a shared reading room and is a focal point for cultural events and exhibitions, © Leo Baeck Institute New York | Berlin

Mostly comprising books, documents, memoirs and keepsakes donated by Jewish refugees from Central Europe and their descendants, the LBI collection has a unique history. The German texts and other objects, often cherished through many phases of exile, demonstrate the strength of their owners’ emotional and psychological links to their lost home, despite radical breaks, uprooting, and trauma. The Leo Baeck Institute is dedicated to the preservation and presentation of this extraordinary heritage.

With a library of more than 80,000 volumes, an archive of more than 12,000 family collections, memoirs, and photographs, and an ever-growing collection of art and objects, LBI NY | Berlin houses one of the most important collections of primary and secondary sources of German-speaking Jewish families and individuals. Original documents can date back to the seventeenth century, relevant literature to the fifteenth century. The focus is on everyday history.

Transition from communicative to cultural memory

The dwindling of the founding generation and witnesses who experienced the destruction of German-Jewish life and culture under National Socialism challenges the LBI to find connections with new user groups and to present its collections in context. After decades, the transition from ‘communicative’ to ‘cultural memory’ is now taking place - as the historian Jan Assmann observes and describes this phenomenon. [2] A collection is no longer seen merely as a (still important) passive source of information, but can and must actively engage in current discourse, e.g., through projects, events, and social media.

Since 2012, almost all of LBI’s archival holdings, as well as a large part of the journals, the art collection and the object collection, have been available in digital form. How can the present public now work with source material that was originally mainly interpreted by scholars?

The Leo Baeck Institute strives to meet these challenges through two strategies: first, the Institute seeks to communicate history in context both to a broad audience and to selected user groups; and second, it seeks to make the “past present” by demonstrating the relevance of history to contemporary problems.

Posts from the past: virtual exhibitions to make the LBI visible

LBI has used the first strategy on a larger scale in its 1938 Projekt: Posts from the Past, a curated calendar project, and most recently in its 2021 Project: Shared History: 1700 Years of Jewish Life in German-speaking Lands.


1938Projekt: Posts from the Past: Escape from Cologne to Kenya: Calendar entry for February 26, 1938: Despite the restrictive immigration policy of the British colonial power, twenty-year-old car mechanic Paul Egon Cahn from Cologne manages to escape to Kenya with this passport. Paul’s sisters Erika and Inge manage to find safety in England and Australia respectively. The siblings’ parents, Siegfried and Renate Cahn, remain behind in Germany. Paul Egon Cahn Collection, Leo Baeck Institute, AR 25431. © Leo Baeck Institute New York | Berlin


LBI’s Shared History Project: 1700 Years of Jewish Life in German-speaking Lands, tells the story of Jews in central Europe using 58 objects. On May 9, 2021, the entry and the essays for Moses Mendelssohn’s eyeglasses will be released, one of the most iconic treasures in the LBI collections. © Leo Baeck Institute New York | Berlin

The second strategy of the Leo Baeck Institute, to increase the visibility of its holdings by bringing collections thematically into the current political discourse, has so far been realized by two successful series of lectures and events.

Cataloguing and contextualization projects and relevance events are very costly, especially for a small institute, and depend on third-party funding. Partners, funds, and project collaborators have to be found. But these efforts provide an opportunity to make the existing collection or parts of it more accessible to a broad audience, to define new target groups, and to connect them more closely to the institute. The importance of special collections is rooted in the fact that they make it possible to question the past and to use this to shape the present. To be sure, the value of a collection should be measured by how well and permanently it secures, preserves, and makes documents accessible. [3] But it cannot be underestimated to actively introduce the significance of the collection into the respective public political, social, and cultural discourse and to increase its accessibility.

Renate Evers is Director of Collections at the Leo Baeck Institute New York | Berlin.

[1] Siegfried Moses, Leo Baeck Institute of Jews from Germany, in: The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 1, no. 1 (1956): XI–XVIII, here: p. XIV.

[2] Jan Assmann: Kollektives Gedächtnis und kulturelle Identität, in: Assmann, Jan/Hölscher, Tonio (ed.): Kultur und Gedächtnis, Frankfurt a. M. 1988, p. 9–19, here p. 11.

[3] Olaf Zimmermann, Aus dem Schatten treten: Archive sind zentrale Kulturorte, in: Politik & Kultur 2020, no. 3 (März 2020): S. 15.


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