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The Braginsky Collection


This exhibition and catalogue of unique treasures of Jewish culture from my collection admittedly represent a gift to my family, my wife Susanne, our son David, as well as to myself on the occasion of my sixtieth birthday. Having spent more than three decades passionately and enthusiastically collect- ing illuminated manuscripts, printed books, marriage contracts, and Esther scrolls, I now take great pleasure in presenting a selection of this collection – chosen by a group of eminent scholars – to those interested in Jewish culture, history and art. I sincerely hope that my passion and enthusiasm will prove contagious to any who visits the exhibition or reads this catalogue. For, as our religion teaches us, experiencing joy and giving joy to others are often closely related.

Each item in this collection has its own history and, as such, bears witness to the Jewish past and, on a more private level, to my Jewish past. Without knowledge of the past, one can hardly come to terms with the present, much less prepare for the future. It is from this perspective that I would like to reflect on my reasons for collecting and under- standing these exceptional works.

Ancestral history, both that of the Jewish people and of my immediate family, has had a great impact on me. My paternal grandfather, of Ukrainian descent, went missing during the First World War. My father was orphaned at the age of sixteen and survived the Second World War in Switzerland. It is only in our day that my brother and I have the privilege of leading peaceful and secure lives here in Switzerland, something for which we are profoundly grateful.

My heritage has had a great influence on who I am and what I have done, as I strive to comprehend my past and shape my life accordingly. Encouraged by my long-time Dutch friend Michael Floersheim, of blessed memory, and frequent visits to his impressive collection, I was inspired to purchase my first works of Judaica. Each piece became special to me, representing a personal connection to an intriguing past I yearned to understand. My admiration for the magnificent art and craftsmanship, as well as my respect for the deep piety characteristic of many of the objects, continues to this day. Particularly in our fast-paced, often hectic, age, contemplating these manuscripts fills me with calm, serenity, and the confidence that what is truly important will endure. In this way I seek to comprehend my heritage, the Jewish destiny as well as the major forces that have shaped our past and present and are leading us to the future. Although uncertain, one hopes this future will be influenced by the precious legacy of objects such as those found in this collection.

This may explain my passion for collecting on an intellectual basis. Yet, as every collector knows, there is undoubtedly more to it. The line between the pleasure and the burden of collecting is quite fine at times. I cannot describe the passion for collect- ing in general, only that of my personal experience.

After I started collecting, the bar mitzvah of our son David became the decisive catalyst for the swift growth of my collection both in quality and quantity. For this occasion, almost twenty years ago, I searched for an old illuminated manuscript of a Birkat ha-Mazon (Grace after Meals) to reproduce for our guests. I could not find what I was looking for at the time and on this important occasion had to settle for a reproduction of a manuscript that be- longed to another private collector. Those who know me will understand that this concerned me greatly and motivated my search until I finally found what I was looking for, with the help of a knowledgeable manuscript dealer. This expert subsequently called my attention to other exceptional works and was thus instrumental in my becoming a collector.

After it became known that I was interested in acquiring Jewish manuscripts – and that I was a solvent customer who was easily swayed – I was bar- raged with offers. It is fortunate that I had the expert guidance of the renowned scholar, Professor Menahem Schmelzer, a relative of my wife. He organized and catalogued my collection, and has been a valuable advisor. For this I am very grateful. It became our shared vision to one day present the collection to a wider audience.

After deciding to organize an exhibition we secured the help of other people. I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Emile G.L. Schrijver, Curator of the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana at the Special Collections of the Amsterdam University Library, the first venue of this exhibition, who is the primary organizer of both the exhibition and this catalogue. I would also like to gratefully acknowledge Sharon Liberman Mintz, Curator of Jewish Art at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and Judaica expert for Sotheby’s, not only for her vital role in bringing about this exhibition, but also for her professional support in building my collection over the past few years. Dr. Evelyn M. Cohen’s role in the preparation and production of this catalogue can hardly be over- estimated. I would like to thank her for that as well. Last, but not least, I am grateful to Ardon Bar-Hama, who took on the tremendous task of digitizing not only the items shown in this catalogue, but in fact my entire collection. His efforts will be published on the Internet in due course.

My collection grew, not randomly, but systematically; I continued to be passionate about each new item I managed to acquire. I often had bids placed anonymously on my behalf at major auction houses, and have rarely made a personal appearance. Thus, my identity as a collector has remained largely un- known until now. This exhibition, therefore, is a premiere of sorts. I had previously become known, often unwillingly, as an entrepreneur, and as a philanthropist through the charitable activities of the René and Susanne Braginsky Foundation. My commitment to collecting objects of Jewish art and culture may come as a surprise to some. Yet, recognition as a collector is not my objective. Instead, collecting and learning about Jewish manuscripts have become critical, ongoing passions. My foremost motivation is the desire to understand through connecting in a meaningful way with the art and culture of the past. I also wish to make these precious works available to others, so that they, too, may appreciate and en- joy them. The present exhibition and catalogue are thus not the culmination of my Judaica collection, but rather an important milestone. It is my hope that the presentation of these works will allow all of us to learn from the past and benefit from it in our futures.

René Braginsky