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Prager Vorträge: Jewish Freemasons or Welfare Organization? The Independent Order B’nai B’rith in the First Czechoslovak Republic (1919–1939)

Lecture by Dr. Johann Nicolai (Potsdam)

Date of event
14. 5. 2024, 17:00 – 14. 5. 2024, 18:30
Place of event
Collegium Carolinum, 3th floor, Valentinská 91/1, Praha 1

The lecture will investigate the history and activities of the Independent Order B’nai B’rith (I.O.B.B.) in Czechoslovakia during the period of 1919 to 1939. The I.O.B.B., originally founded in New York City in 1843, expanded its presence into Central Europe, particularly in Germany (1882), subsequently in the Habsburg Empire (1894), and its successor states. Focusing on the unique development of the I.O.B.B. in the Czechoslovakian context, this study explores the organization's role as a Jewish fraternal order and its interactions with local communities amidst the socio-political challenges of the interwar period. The I.O.B.B.'s distinct identity contrast with both conventional Freemasonry and the Zionist movement, particularly due to the order’s public highlighting of its humanitarian activities, including assistance to Jewish immigrants to North America. Special attention is given to the I.O.B.B.'s establishment in Central Europe, focusing on its development in Czechoslovakia as a particularly key country in this regard.

I explore the unique challenges faced by the I.O.B.B. in Europe due to prevalent antisemitism, which necessitated a departure from mainstream Freemasonry and a more intellectual orientation. Notably, the Czechoslovakian district of the I.O.B.B. emerged in 1919 as a successor of the old Austrian district, reflecting the significant German-speaking Jewish population in the region. My research questions probe into the extent of collaboration between German, Austrian, and Czechoslovakian I.O.B.B. districts during the years 1933-1938, particularly in supporting Jewish self-help efforts and emigration assistance. It also examines the logistical and humanitarian challenges faced by I.O.B.B. lodges located in border regions, highlighting the impact of political events such as the German occupation of Czechoslovakia beginning in 1938/39.

Based on my research in the Czech National Archive and the Jewish Museum of Prague, which included analysis of internal sources and published material such as the monthly newsletter of the order in Czechoslovakia (“Monatsblätter der Grossloge für den Čechoslovakischen Staat”), this study aims to integrate findings from I.O.B.B. records with existing research on Jewish communities in Central Europe to provide new insights into the fraternal organization's role within the broader socio-political context of interwar Czechoslovakia and Central Europe

Dr. Johann Nicolai is a postdoctoral researcher specializing in the history of German-speaking Jewry in Central Europe. He received his PhD from the University of Potsdam in 2014 following his university studies in Berlin, Jerusalem, and Baltimore. His dissertation topic was the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (Centralverein) during the years 1933 to 1938. Since completing his doctoral studies, Dr. Nicolai has undertaken a series of significant research projects. Notably, he contributed to the "Religion and Politics" project at the University of Haifa's Center for German and European Studies in 2018. He also participated in the "Topography of the Shoah in Breslau/Wroclaw 1933–1949" research project, collaborating with the Universities of Wroclaw and Technische Universität Dresden on an extensive article examining the activities of the Centralverein in Lower Silesia. In 2021, Dr. Nicolai commenced a postdoctoral fellowship at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw, delving into the history of Jewry in the former German Eastern territories, with a specific focus on Silesia and Greater Poland. Subsequently, he engaged in diverse projects, including research on Protestant “Baltic Martyrs" at the Academic Library of Tallinn, Estonia, and a critical analysis of the antisemitism of Berliner Stadtmission's founder, Adolf Stoecker. Currently, Dr. Nicolai holds a postdoctoral researcher position at the Prague branch of the German Historical Institute Warsaw, where he is devoting himself to the exploration of the history of the B'nai B'rith Order in Czechoslovakia during the period 1919–1939.

Lecture series Prager Voträge are organised by Collegium Carolinum, Deutsches Historisches Institut Warschau and Leibniz Institut für Geschichte und Kultur des östlichen Europa in cooperation with the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the CAS and other institutions.

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