Kurt and Ursula Schubert In Memoriam

By Katrin Kogman-Appel

Kurt Schubert, the pioneer of Jewish Studies in post-war Central Europe passed away on February 4, 2007. Schubert was the founder of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Vienna University, and the Austrian Jewish Museum in Eisenstadt Burgenland. For decades students and scholars of Jewish art all over the United States and Europe were familiar with the intellectual symbiosis of Schubert and his wife Ursula, an assyrologist and art historian, who died earlier, on August 29, 1999.

Born on March 4, 1923 in Vienna, Kurt Schubert was educated at the traditional Viennese high school Theresianum, and, after the transformation of the latter into a "Napola," - the popular abbreviation for a "Nationalpolitsche Erziehungsanstalt," - at the Elisabeth-Gymnasium. Already as a young high school student, before the war, he had recognized the threat of the Nazi regime. During the war his father who was active in the resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo and tortured, but eventually released shortly before May 1945. Having been exempted from military service because of asthma, Schubert served as a civil air raid warden from 1942 on. In this capacity he was able to save the library of the Rabbinic seminar in the Vienna Tempelgasse, which he had discovered by chance. He stored the books in the deserted library of the Institut für Orientalistik in one of the University buildings. After the war the books were transferred to the newly reconstituted Jewish community of Vienna, and later donated to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem.

Schubert began his studies of Hebrew and other Semitic languages in 1941, in the midst of the war, at Vienna University. In 1944 he met Ursula Just, who, as the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father (and thus a "Mischling ersten Grades"), was denied enrollment at the University, and had arranged for a private tutor of Syriac. Thus the Schuberts' first professional symbiosis began. The couple was married in 1948.

Ursula Just was born on August 27, 1927 in Graz. In 1939 the family moved to Vienna attempting to make arrangements to emigrate to Brazil. The emigration never materialized, and the Justs remained in Vienna. Ursula graduated from high school in 1943, and, after being denied a place at the university, sought ways to prepare herself for the study of Semitic languages, once the war was over.

In May 1945 Kurt Schubert was entrusted by the Russian authorities with the reopening of the University of Vienna, and already on May 2 he gave his first lecture - a lesson in Hebrew. From then on, after further study of modern Hebrew, Aramaic, Talmud, and other related subjects, and several journeys to Israel, he devoted his time and energy to the establishment of a department of Jewish Studies, the well known Institut für Judaistik. It opened first in 1959 as part of the Institut für Orientalistik and became an independent department in 1966. Meanwhile Ursula continued her studies and received a PhD in assyriology in 1950, only to discover quite soon that her real love was art history. She studied for several more years and began independent research on early Christian art around 1970, opening the path to another professional symbiosis with her husband.

From then on and throughout the years until Ursula's death in 1999 the Schuberts researched, wrote, published, and taught in close association. They shared a beautiful office in Vienna's Ferstelgasse - together with Theo, a small black Hungarian Puli, who - well-known to students and colleagues - accompanied the Schuberts over Europe and Israel for many years. Their joint scholarly activity was crowned in 1988, when they received an honorary doctorate from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

The Schuberts' initial studies were guided by Kurt Weitzmann's suggestion, made in 1964, that early Christian art was indebted to Jewish pictorial sources. Since the late 1960s this assumption met frequent criticism. It was from the early 1970s on, that Ursula and Kurt Schubert joined this discussion and put forward more judaistic views that stress the Rabbinic elements in Early Christian art. Ursula contributed her art-historical knowledge, and Kurt the expertise of Jewish texts from the mishnaic and talmudic periods. Among the results of this project was a small exhibition, accompanied by a catalogue, Spätantikes Judentum und frühchristliche Kunst, published in 1974.

The second focus of the Schuberts' joint research was the study of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. Again, Ursula offered her knowledge of art history and manuscript painting, whereas Kurt was responsible for the reading and analyzing of Jewish texts. During the 1970s and 1980s the Schuberts and Bezalel Narkiss, based at the Hebrew University at Jerusalem, established a relationship of collegiality based not only on their shared enthusiasm for medieval Jewish art, but also on some common views about artistic archetypes and Weitzmann's theories. Numerous visits of the Schuberts in Israel provided the stage for their contacts.

The year 1978 brought a major exhibition curated by the Schuberts and held at the Castle of Halbturn, in Burgenland, Austria. The exhibition, entitled Judentum im Mittelalter, was in part dedicated to Hebrew manuscript painting of the Middle Ages, and the contribution by the two scholars to the catalogue summarized their methodology and conclusions of the past years. The work on Hebrew manuscript painting finally led to the publication of two survey volumes on Jewish book art. The first, published in 1983, was co-authored by Ursula and Kurt, and discussed medieval manuscripts; the second, on early modern books, was written entirely by Ursula and appeared in 1992 (later translated into Hebrew).

During the early 1980s most of the Schuberts' energies were devoted to a new discovery that had generated much excitement in the Ferstelgasse Institute. An Austrian publishing house had approached them and proposed a commentary volume to a planned facsimile edition of an early modern Jewish picture Bible in Warsaw. Soon it became apparent that the Warsaw codex was, most likely, a faithful copy of the lost woodcut picture Bible of the early modern Venetian Jewish artist Moses dal Castellazzo. Ursula took upon herself to search for the iconographical models of the series, and Kurt contributed an analysis of the rabbinic sources that had a determining influence on the imagery. These findings, together with a biography of Moses dal Castellazzo reconstructed from various archival materials were published in 1986 together with the planned facsimile edition. Unhappily the codex was lost on its way back from Austria to Warsaw and the volume has not been located since.

Already in the late 1970s when the focus of the Schuberts' research moved from early Christian art to Hebrew manuscript painting, an extensive collection of photographs was established. For many years the Schuberts had traveled to libraries and manuscript collections all over Europe, Israel, and the US. During their visits they had examined and catalogued manuscripts and established contacts with manuscript keepers and curators. Several grants from the Österreichischer Fonds zur Förderung der Wissenschaften allowed them to acquire full sets of photographs of many manuscripts they had visited. Over the years their collection grew into an impressive archive, the Schuberts' major research tool during the 1980s and 1990s. Open to every student and colleague the office of the Bildersammlung in the Ferstelgasse opposite the Institute became a symbol of scholarly generosity and sharing, typical of the Schuberts' work and teaching, that many have benefited from over the years. After Ursula's death in 1999, Kurt donated the collection to the Center of Jewish Art at the Hebrew University.

Apart from the Ferstelgasse Institute, the Österreichische Jüdische Museum in Eisenstadt, Burgenland formed another major focus in the lives of the Schuberts. Kurt's idea to establish a Jewish museum in the Wertheimerhaus, the most prominent building of the former Jewish community of Eisenstadt, began to materialize in 1969, when the former governor of Burgenland, Fred Sinowatz (later to become the Prime Minister of Austria), initiated the foundation of a Museum. In 1972 a society was founded with the aim to develop a concept. The Museum officially opened in 1982 with the exhibit 1000 Jahre österreichisches Judentum. It was the first post-war Jewish Museum in Austria.

Kurt Schubert taught at Vienna University without interruption since 1945. He retired officially in 1993, but continued teaching. When I saw him in the summer of 2005 he proudly announced that he had just finished his 120th semester. At that time he was 82. Ursula had taught courses on Jewish art since 1978 and continued to do so as long as her health allowed. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1973, she began to suffer a severe deterioration of her condition during the later 1990s.

Kurt Schubert was known world wide as a scholar of Jewish studies. In Vienna and in Austria, however, he was more than a well-known scholar. He was a public figure who stood for the renewal of the University of Vienna in 1945, for post-war anti-Nazi education, for the attempt to overcome antisemitism, and for Jewish-Christian dialogue. On July 5, 2006, a few months before he died, he received the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) Sir Sigmund Sternberg Award in appreciation for his lifetime achievements.


Katrin Kogman-Appel (Ph.D., The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1994) Alexander von Humboldt Professur für Jüdische Studien, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster. Sie publizierte Arbeiten über die Beziehung zwischen jüdischer und christlicher Kunst in der Spätantike sowie über hebräische Handschriften in verschiedenen Fachzeitschriften wie z. B. Gesta, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, The Art Bulletin, Speculum, Studies in Iconography und andere. Katrin Kogman-Appel war Schülerin von Kurt und Ursula Schubert. https://uni-muenster.academia.edu/katrinkogmanappel/Papers