University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Precarious Legacy

Dates of the Exhibition

Friday, October 26, 2001-December 31, 2001.
Opening: Thursday, October 25, 2001, 5-7:30
Location: Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art
University of Minnesota East Bank Campus.


Some precious art did escape the Nazi plunderers.

In the 1920s, Dr. Fritz Stransky, an attorney had established a successful law practice in the small city of Most, Czechoslovakia. His family consisted on his wife Lisa, a daughter Anita, and a younger son, Johannes. Besides his law practice, Stransky engaged in his two hobbies-- music and the collection of fine art, particularly paintings. His largest collection was of Ex Libris bookplates. Such original art pieces were placed inside the front covers of books in order to identify the owner. Ex Libris were bought, sold, or traded by collectors, similar to baseball cards by collectors in the United States. However, these works were commissioned by individual artists and tailored to the specifications of the collector, rather than being mass produced.

By the beginning of World War II, Stransky had accumulated over 1200 items in his Ex Libris collection. In the Fall, 1938, after the Munich Agreement gave Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland to Germany, all Jews had to leave the area. Stransky and his family moved to Prague and continued preparations to flee the country. The oldest child, Anita, had just finished high school and had the opportunity to join relatives in Strassbourg, France and later Marseilles.  When the World War and Holocaust began, Anita was the only member  outside of the country.

Stransky had the foresight to save his personal property by entrusting it to neighbors, the Hromada family whom he had known from Most and were also living in Prague. In 1942, many Jews thought that relocation was a temporary inconvenience, and that soon after the war would end, everyone would obtain their property back and life would go on as if nothing happened. Reality tuned out quite differently. From Prague, the Stransky family, along with other Czech Jews, was deported to the Theresienstadt (Terezin) Concentration Camp/Ghetto, about forty miles north of Prague. This "model camp" was for Fritz and Johannes Stransky a station on the way to death in Auschwitz. Only his wife Lisa survived, while Anita was safe with relatives in Switzerland.

After liberation, Lisa went back to Prague and reclaimed the family possessions from the Hromada family. Everything that had been entrusted to the Hromadas was in good order and was returned, including the Ex Libris collection. Lisa and her daughter soon immigrated to Vancouver, Canada and started a new life there. Anita became Mrs. Walter Schwarz in 1949. Lisa Stransky moved to St. Paul in 1990 and died in 1995. Anita inherited the Ex Libris collection and donated it to The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota and the Weisman Museum of Art.

A History of Exlibris Bookplate Collecting

The first bookplate is believed to be dated 1450 from the handwritten manuscript collection of Johannes Knabensberg. After the invention of Guttenberg's moveable type, Ex Libris bookplates seemed to have followed quickly. Albrecht Durer is believed to have created twenty heraldic compositions that became the basis for bookplates. In 1516 he created the first dated bookplate with the Latin inscription: "Liber Hieronimi Ebner."

Early bookplates were usually decorative renditions of allegorical subjects, monograms, mythical creatures and various symbols. The earliest form of the bookplate was the woodcut, followed by copper engraving . By the eighteenth century, a specific tradition had manifested itself: "Engravers strove for fine workmanship and elegance, filling the plate with elaborate decorations in what we now call copperplate script and engraver's roman."   Other processes followed: copper and steel engraving, aquatint, mezzotint, lithography and photoengraving. The last method permitted access to book plates by people of the emerging middle class. "The range of subjects grew ever wider according to the personal inclinations and particular abilities of the artists employed in making drawings."

Bookplate collecting, like stamp collecting, became popular during the last half of the nineteenth century. By 1880, A Guide to the Study of Bookplates by J. Leicester Warren had been published, the first attempt to classify ex libris bookplates by styles. Henry Fincham's  Artists and Engravers of British and American Book Plates (1897) listed more than 1,500 artists who had made bookplates.

Collecting reached its height before World War I and declined thereafter but revived after the war ended in 1918. Still popular in Europe as measured by international competitions during the 1990s, bookplate collecting has only a small following in the United States.

Precarious Legacy

The Fritz Stransky collection  is a good representation of a hobby that was especially popular in the lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its successor states. It has been noted that "German artists were prompt to employ the newly invented lithographic process for producing bookplates in several colors, a trend not followed to any great extent elsewhere. During the Jungenstil period (represented in the Stransky Collection), Germany and Austria were also the principal sources for bookplates made by etching, aquatint, and gravure.

The exhibition is divided into categories based upon styles. Titles on the plates indicate they belonged to many different owners and suggests that the trading of bookplates was an active middle class hobby. Styles exhibited include those with mythology, periods of History, eroticized or less than erotic images of men and women, images of World War One, and the influences of new art movements. An understanding of the style of the art, rather than the representations, can be placed in a context by comparing the work in the bookplates with mainstream art of the same period:  Art Nouveau at the turn of the century, to cubism and futurism, German expressionism, secession movements and art deco.

As a reflection about Jewish existence in pre-war Czechoslovakia, the bookplates are testimony to a "normalcy" of Jewish life and perhaps high level of assimilation  before the Holocaust. Jews like Fritz Stransky viewed themselves as Czechs, although Jews in their faith. Thus, the selection imposed by the German occupation between Czechs and Jews was unexpected, as were the catasrophic results.

Visual Themes Found in the Stransky Collection

  • Images of World War I
    • The trauma of World War I is immeasureable by any standard. Ex Libris Book Plates of this period were done in lithography with simpler, often propagandistic images. The plate exhibited here support the cause of the Central Powers.
  • Images of Women
    • Images of women, as is the case of formal painting, utilize poses that recall the figures of the Baroque and Renaissance, often of the Odalisque.Images of women are often eroticized in the book plates. The variety of examplkes shown here suggests a private vision of male owners and possibly of male artists who made the engravings.
  • Images of Men
    • While images of men in classical plates are shown in pursuit of enlightenment or nature, the twentieth century unleashed images of male physical strength that would be become a typical form of the at deco style in the West and "Aryan art" under Nazism.The image of man if often how he sees himself, compared to the vision of woman as object.
  • Music
    • The late 19th and early 20th centuries were important periods for development of new trends in musical composition. Also, in an age before the breakthrough in new audio technologies, playing instruments and having recitals at home became a very bourgeois preoccupation. The Ex Libris plates that refer to music in varying forms suggests the possible occupation of the owner, to another extreme of his or her delight with such sound.
  • Contemporary
    • Even before World War I, European art was convulsed by many modernist movements that emphasized everything from expressionism to varying forms of deconstruction. The Ex Libris was rarely compatible to the type of color and light contrasts found with impressionism. However, cubism and futurism were two movements that seem to have attracted a following among artists who were producing engravings for book plates.
  • Enlightenment
    • The 18th Century, the "Age of Reason" had a great appeal as a subject for a book plate. It symbolized the conquest of nature and the "barbaric," and reflected optimism. Those some values were associated, from the 18th century onwards, with the value of book ownership.
  • Nature
    • Nature has always offered clashing visions, especially since the 17th century. To Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature was a place of horror. To Rousseau, it was the site of "natural equality." This clash between catastrophe and imagination seems to be repeated in Ex Libris bookplates that deal with the theme of nature. In the 20th century, of course, in the aftermath of World War I, the state of nature represented perhaps contentment.
  • Mythology/Classical/Neo-Classical
    • While the religions of ancient Greece and Rome are extinct, references to mythology continue in literature and taste. There they still hold their place, and will continue to hold it, for they are too closely connected with the finest productions of poetry and art, both ancient and modern, to pass into oblivion.
  • Erotica
    • The production and collection of erotic images may be viewed as some insight into the sexual imagination of the ex libris collector, or a modest commentary on the clash of conservative traditions regarding sexuality that were challenged by the post-World War I culture, especially in the Weimar Republic. Most people associate Weimar culture, especially that of Berlin, with films - Cabaret and Sally Bowles, The Blue Angel and Marlene Dietrich - films that, for all their fictionalizing, are some of the only reminders of a very hedonistic time and place. Weimar-era Berlin (1919 to 1933) was most certainly not the epitome of propriety - it was, and still is, commonly referred to as the "Babylon on the Spree."
  • Religion
    • Various representations of religious themes are found in the Stransky collection. The most obvious are representations of the Crucifixion. The Swastika appears on one plate in an ambiguous manner. In the Buddhist tradition, the Swastika is a positive symbol of luck. In Germany after the rise of the Nazis, it was the opposite for the groups who became victims.
  • Medieval
    • The Medieval period was always an attractive model, not only for its romance and Gothic characteristics, but also because it represents a complete period, with a beginning, middle and end. Medievalism also presented the notion of aristocracy that was compatible with a type of bourgeois intellectualism associated with book collecting. The Ex Libris in this context recalls the early Coats of Arms and Heraldry that served as the first form of Ex Libris in the 15th Century.

Thanks To

Walter and Anita Schwarz, St. Paul, Minnesota for their generous donation of the Fritz Stransky Collection to the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art.

Partial support for this project came from the Florence Dworsky Endowment, Department of Jewish Studies, University of Minnesota.
Special thanks to:

Students in Jewish Studies 5900 Seminar, Spring, 2001 who worked on the project.
Constantin Parvulescu, Research Assisant, CHGS
Karen Duncan, Registrar, Weisman Museum of Art
Patricia McDonnell, Curator, Weisman Art Museum
Lyndel King, Director, Weisman Art Museum
Walter and Anita Schwartz, St. Paul
Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
Center for Austrian Studies
German and West European Studies Program/DAAD
Mark and Muriel Wexler Endowment for Holocaust Studies, University of Minnesota Foundation