Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

The Otto Schneid “Treasure”

Date posted: Tue, May. 12, 2020

Exactly forty-six years ago today, on 12 May 1974, Otto Schneid passed away in Toronto. In 1998 Schneid’s widow, Miriam, donated his archive to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. The initial donation of 1998 was followed by two additional, smaller, installments of materials from his archive, in 1999 and in 2001. Miriam describes her late husband’s archive as a “treasure". But who was Schneid and is his archive indeed a “treasure”?

Born in Jablunkov, Moravia, on January 30, 1900, Otto Schneid became an artist as well as an expert in art history. He also wrote poetry. He completed a doctorate at the University of Vienna in 1926, and continuously worked on his own art as well as on research and writing on the history of art. A study on the representation of plants and animals in Chinese art was his first book, published in 1934. He also wrote authored books about the drawings on the walls of the ancient synagogue in Dura-Europos (modern Syria), about classical Greek art, as well as on the Bible in Rembrandt’s art.

Yet Schneid’s central focus and contribution was on his work on modern Jewish art. In 1936–1938 he established one of the world’s first museums of Jewish art at the YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute in Vilna (Vilnius, modern Lithuania). The museum’s collection, which included many works of contemporary Jewish artists, as well as religious art and ritual objects, was confiscated by the Nazis after the invasion and never recovered. In addition to the museum, during those years Schneid focused on a book he was intending to write on 20th century Jewish artists. For this work he corresponded with Jewish artists scattered throughout Europe, and received from them their biographies, as well as samples and pictures or reproductions of their work. This was thus an extensive and comprehensive compilation of material on the Jewish artists of Europe, among whom were many well-known artists, such as Marc Chagall. Schneid completed his manuscript in 1938, and the book was set to be published with the title Der Jude und die Kunst, but before that could happen the plates were confiscated by the Nazis and the book was never published.

Schneid was then barely able to escape Nazi persecution and, in 1939, eventually made his way, along with his archival materials and the manuscript of his book, to Mandate Palestine. There he met Miriam Goldshmid, and the couple married in 1945. In 1957 he completed a Hebrew version of his unpublished German book on Jewish artists of the 20th century, which was meant to be a sort of memorial to those artists. However, again the book would remain unpublished, this time because the publisher went back on his agreement to publish it. The Otto Schneid archive at the Fisher Library thus consists not only of his articles and the manuscripts of his published books, but also includes the typescripts of both the German and Hebrew of his unpublished magnum opus. Of no less importance, the archive also holds the raw research materials which he so scrupulously collected for that huge undertaking, including autobiographies of artists, exhibition catalogues, and photographs of works by many artists, as well as his correspondences with them.

Thus, the Schneid archive is indeed a treasure trove awaiting to be further explored. ­As argued by Dr. Barry Walfish years ago, Schneid’s unpublished book still deserves to be published (Halcyon 32, November 2003, p. 7). It and the archive’s raw materials would be most important and useful for anyone researching Jewish art and artists of the twentieth century, and that world that was destroyed. Some relatively recent works have, in fact, made important use of this archive. For one example, Elizabeth Rynecki used the letters between Schneid  and her great-grandfather Moshe Rynecki, a Jewish-Polish artist who was murdered in the Holocaust, as well as the photos of her ancestor’s art in the Schneid archive, for her book Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter's Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy (2016). However, there is much more to be explored.

In addition to its profound importance for art history, the Schneid archive also includes Schneid’s correspondences with world and public leaders, such as the American senator J. W. Fulbright and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as books and typescript of poetry written by both Otto and Miriam.

Following the unfortunate turn of events surrounding the Hebrew version of his magnum opus Schneid left for the United States in 1960, but in 1964 he moved to Toronto, where he continued to work on his art and writings during the next decade. 46 years ago today Otto Schneid passed away, leaving behind this treasure.

*For more on Otto Schneid and his archive see, Barry D. Walfish, “Otto Schneid: Artist with a Mission,” Halcyon 32 (November 2003) pp. 5–7.

Nadav Sharon, Judaica Librarian