Hebrew grammar book from 16th century returns to Prague Jewish Museum

A rare 16th century book that used to belong to Prague’s Jewish community before World War II and was considered lost has been returned after it reappeared at an auction in New York City.

art and culture Updated: Jan 17, 2018 12:04 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press
Associated Press
Prague Jewish Museum,Jewish community,Mikne Avram - Peculium Abrae
The book titled Mikne Avram - Peculium Abrae is displayed at the Prague's Jewish Museum in Czech Republic. (AP/Petr David Josek)

A 16th century book that belonged to Prague’s Jewish community before World War II and surfaced at a New York City auction last year was brought back to the Czech Republic on Tuesday.

Titled Mikne Avram - Peculium Abrae, the recovered volume is a grammar book published in both Hebrew and Latin in 1523. It was written by Abraham ben Meir de Balmes, an Italian Jew, and published in Italy. It belonged to the library of Prague’s Jewish community before the war, and it is not clear under what circumstances it disappeared.

“It’s an exceptional moment for us that such a rare book returns to Prague after such a long time,” Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, the legal successor to the Czech capital’s pre-war Jewish community.

The book turned up last year at an auction organised by Kestenbaum & Company, a New York auction house that specialises in Judaica and rare books. The auction house withdrew it from the sale at the museum’s request.

Daniel E. Kestenbaum, right, president of New York based auction house, hands over the book titled "Mikne Avram - Peculium Abrae" to director of Prague's Jewish Museum Leo Pavlat, left, in Prague, Czech Republic. (AP/Petr David Josek)

Auction house director Daniel Kestenbaum identified the book’s most recent owner as a scholar in Jerusalem who had agreed to let the museum have it. Kestenbaum brought the book to Prague and read a message from the scholar, who wanted to remain anonymous.

The scholar said he was willing to return the book because a refusal would be “an active continuity of those terrible thefts committed against Jewish property and cultural treasures perpetrated by the German Nazis.”

“I’m happy to grant my support to the course of historical justice,” the message said.

The previous owner was Ze’ev Ben-Haim, a leading linguist and former president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Ben-Haim was born in 1907 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire when it including the territory of the modern Czech Republic and moved to Palestine in 1933.

It is not clear how and when he acquired the book, but the scholar in Israel acquired it after Ben-Haim’s death in 2013.

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First Published: Jan 17, 2018 12:04 IST