The Chess Master Portraits That Escaped the Holocaust

David Friedmann's daughter traveled the globe searching for his famous drawings, lost for decades

“You see Miri, I was really a famous artist before the war. I was known for these portraits.” Miriam Friedman Morris with her father, the chess enthusiast and portraitist, David Friedmann. St. Louis, 1957

The Netflix miniseries “Queen’s Gambit” inspired recollections of world-famous chess master portraits created roughly a century ago by my father, David Friedmann. It was exciting to hear some of the names he portrayed, including Capablanca, Bogoljubov, Grunfeld, Alekhine, and Réti.


Chess, Art, Celebrity

My father was a violinist and chess enthusiast. As a professional artist, he had the opportunity to befriend notables in sports and culture.

Among these celebrated personalities, he captured the great chess champions of the 1920’s. I can visualize my father at tournaments, standing among other spectators with pencil and sketchbook in-hand.

His portraits convey an intimacy of one who understands the game. Drawings show players in deep concentration, looking down at their chessboard and pieces. One feels the drama of the tournament in the quiet atmosphere of a smoke-filled room.

Lithograph portrait of Max Euwe by David Friedmann, 1923. From the National Library of the Netherlands

My father was born in Mährisch Ostrau in 1893, then Austria-Hungary, today Ostrava in the Czech Republic. At the age of seventeen, he ventured to Berlin and studied etching with Hermann Struck and painting with Lovis Corinth. He became a successful painter and graphics artist renowned for portraits drawn from life.

He planned to attend an international chess tournament in Ostrava from July 1 to July 18, 1923. In Berlin, he met with chess legend Dr. Emanuel Lasker, who, until 1921, had reigned as world chess champion for nearly three decades. As my father explained his intent to issue a portfolio of the players’ portraits, Lasker enthusiastically endorsed the idea and later wrote the portfolio’s foreword.

By the end of 1923, my father’s art was propelled in a new direction due to the widespread recognition of his sensational portraits. He was sought after, and became a leading press artist in Berlin.

However, when Hitler came to power in 1933, my father’s flourishing career abruptly ended.

His talent for quick-sketching and portraiture played a central role throughout his career and saved his life during the Holocaust. In 1941, Nazi authorities looted his left-behind art in Berlin and Prague.

His wife Mathilde and young daughter Mirjam Helene were murdered in Auschwitz.


Wandering and Rebuilding

Torn from his memories, after liberation he created the powerful series, “Because They Were Jews!” The artwork shows the scenes he witnessed, from deportation to the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, and further to other concentration camps until his liberation.

In Prague, in 1948, my father wed Hildegard Taussig, also a survivor. Their marriage began at a refugee’s pace as they fled Stalinist Czechoslovakia to Israel a year later. In 1954, the couple immigrated to the United States with me, their daughter, also named Miriam. The family became American citizens in 1960 and dropped the double “n” spelling of their surname.

The walls of our St. Louis home were covered with postwar art produced during my father’s journey from Czechoslovakia to Israel and the United States.

David Friedmann adds final touches to his charcoal drawing, “Liberation?” St. Louis, USA, 1964 (Photo: Peter Rosvik)

He had little to show from a collection of hundreds of paintings, drawings, etchings, and lithographs.

In June 1973, a search by my father turned up a portfolio at the Ostrava Museum. My father radiated with excitement when professional photos of his portfolio arrived.

“You see Miri, I was really a famous artist before the war. I was known for these portraits.”

A significant piece of his legacy had escaped Nazi destruction. Thus, I was introduced to Emanuel Lasker, Richard Réti, Ernst Grünfeld, Alexey Selesnieff, Machgielis (Max) Euwe, Savielly Tartakower, Efim Bogoljubow, Siegbert Tarrasch, Rudolf Spielmann, Akiba Rubinstein, Amos Pokorny, Karel Hromádka, Heinrich Wolf, and Max Walter.

A Vanished Portfolio

At the time, I was unaware the portfolio would be a catalyst for unfolding layers of David Friedmann’s history. I knew my father as a prolific artist with many talents, but it would take decades after his death in 1980, to piece together his extraordinary life and contributions to the art world.

I came to Ostrava in 1994. The city was as my father recalled. The air in this mining and metallurgical center still hinted of the smoke and smells of coal and sulfur. The chimneys and mining towers documented by my father were testimony to the city’s industrial past. Two works showing this side of Ostrava surfaced in the Visual Arts Collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

“Hüttenwerk Ostrau” (Iron works in Ostrava) lithograph on paper by David Friedmann, 1918. From the Visual Arts Collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague (Id# 79.680); Provenance: received through the Treuhandstelle Prag in 1944

At the Ostrava Museum, no record existed of the titled portfolio, Das Schachmeister Turnier in Mährisch Ostrau (The Chess Master Tournament).

The portfolio my father had been thrilled to find had simply vanished.

I placed advertisements in newspapers, but received no response for any David Friedmann artwork. I continued my pursuit in Berlin.


Jewish Chess Masters

In the 1920’s, chess masters were the superstars of their time. An important newspaper without at least a page of daily chess news was inconceivable. It was gratifying to find Friedmann portraits in Berlin’s newspapers.

The drawings were produced simultaneously with current events. I felt especially victorious each time a chess player appeared on the page. It became apparent my father attended chess matches – often. Editors throughout Germany and German-speaking countries, published the portraits repeatedly for years to come.

Anticipation was in the air as fragile pages were cautiously turned, hoping something new would emerge.

The majority of articles featured Bogoljubow, Capablanca, and the Jewish players Lasker, Tartakower, Nimzowitsch, and Spielmann.

Published in The Sentinel, 20 November 1925. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In 1933, all professional careers of Jews in Germany ceased to exist. Alekhine and Bogoljubow played in Nazi-sponsored events.

Players of Jewish origin were not eligible for chess club membership in Germany or to participate in national tournaments. Despite worldwide fame, they shared the fate of millions of their fellow Jews – they suffered Nazi persecution, loss of home and country, and annihilation. As I would discover, German Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis brought my father’s portfolios and artwork to England and other countries around the world.

Emanuel Lasker versus Jose Raul Capablanca. Published in B.Z. am Mittag, 11 November 1925

Rediscovering the Portfolios

At the newspaper archive in Berlin, the first drawings I came across were mainly published in the B.Z. am Mittag and 8 Uhr-Abendblatt. During subsequent research trips, an abundance of portraits turned up in numerous newspapers.

Most were signed by the subject and by the artist in various signatures and unknown versions: DaFrie, D.Fr, Fried, and Fr.Dav.

I had not paid much attention to artwork signatures at home. Now I saw that my father enjoyed changing his signature from the time of his early career until he could no longer paint.

“The Grandmasters of the Berlin Chess Tournaments,” from left to right:
Efim Bogoljubow, Aron Nimzowitsch, Savielly Tartakower. Published in
Gross-Berliner Ost-Zeitung, 2 September 1928

The September 1996 issue of the U.S. Chess Federation magazine, Chess Life, featured my article, “David Friedmann’s Artwork for Berlin’s Newspapers,” which tells the story of my father’s interwar career and my search for his lost and looted art.

The editor chose to publish the portfolio portraits instead of those found in the newspapers. This brought about astounding results in terms of my search. I received news from a collector owning a portfolio titled Köpfe berühmter Schachmeister (Portraits of Famous Chess Masters).

Title page of Köpfe berühmter Schachmeister (Portraits of Famous Chess Masters) © 1999 Miriam Friedman Morris. From a private collection

An extraordinary find, because it had belonged to Emanuel Lasker. The title page carried a personal inscription handwritten to Lasker and signed by Dav. Friedmann, dated May 12, 1924, Berlin.

The Nazis drove Lasker out of Germany. He fled first to England, then from the U.S.S.R to the United States, all the while somehow managing to save my father’s portfolio. The portfolio consisted of only 12 portraits, and was numbered 27/50. This presumes there had been 50 portfolios with this title. Here was evidence that my father produced sets different from the original.

While my father searched for his art in Europe, this collector was in California, where he had purchased part of Lasker’s estate. Twenty-three years later, at the collector’s home, I joyously held Lasker’s portfolio, a celebratory event I wished I could have shared with my father.

Miriam Friedman Morris in 1996 with Portfolio No. 27 of Köpfe berühmter Schachmeister, once owned by Emanuel Lasker

Finally, I saw an original portrait portfolio.

All of the lithograph prints bear the depicted player’s signature, which, along with the portrait, were part of the original plate. A signature variation of Dav. Friedmann was handwritten in pencil on each print.

Additional portfolios with this title were found with 12 or 14 portraits. Portfolio No. 23 was purchased by a collector from a London dealer. Dutch collector Dr. Meindert Niemeijer donated Portfolio No. 28, which includes Ossip Bernstein and Richard Teichmann, to the National Library of the Netherlands, where it is now part of the second largest public chess collection in the world and can be viewed in its entirety online.

Lithograph portrait of Heinrich Wolf by David Friedmann, 1923. Wolf did not escape Europe and was murdered in the Riga Ghetto in 1941. From the Special Collections of the Cleveland Public Library
Lithograph portrait of Richard Réti by David Friedmann, 1923. Réti is remembered as a legendary player and author of books about chess; he died of scarlet fever in 1929. From the National Library of the Netherlands

Questions and Answers

I speculate that my father’s first sets were limited to those interested in the Ostrava tournament, a good reason to continue his numbered sets with the new broader title.

This also gave the opportunity to customize a portfolio according to a buyer’s preference. Perhaps, besides Lasker, there were portfolios in the estates of other noted players. Rubinstein’s portrait, also with a handwritten dedication, turned up at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

Lithograph portrait of Akiba Rubinstein by David Friedmann, 1923. During the Nazi occupation, Rubinstein hid in a Belgian sanitarium. From the collection of the Jewish Museum in Brussels

Both had been sent to the masters in August 1923. I wonder if my father sent first prints to all the players in the tournament.

The Chess Life article prompted author Felix Berkovitch to convey a most intriguing observation in a letter dated September 24, 1999:

“Enclosed are several pages from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, The Defense (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, NY, 1964). I was stunned to read about an artist who had been sent by his newspaper to the Berlin International Chess Tournament to sketch the participants (page 125). It is a novel, but we can recognize a number of the real people. For instance, the German Grandmaster with an extinguished cigar is Emanuel Lasker. Turati, as he is described on page 96, is Richard Réti. You may certainly guess who is the artist!”

Emanuel Lasker at the Berlin International Tournament. Printed in
8 Uhr-Abendblatt, 20 November 1926

Back in Ostrava

Then, in 2006, an incredible stroke of fortune.

I received news from Jiřina Kábrtová, the director of the Ostrava Museum, that she had found the lost Portfolio No. 4/50 of Das Schachmeister Turnier.

During the library’s move to the old city hall building, the portfolio surprisingly appeared at the bottom of a book stack!

Title page of Köpfe berühmter Schachmeister (Portraits of Famous Chess Masters) © 1999 Miriam Friedman Morris. From the Ostrava Museum Collection

Kábrtová was emotional to find the long sought-after treasure.

How had the portfolio been lost? It had apparently not been registered as art, but rather as a book in the museum’s library collection. No one thought to look for it there.

In 2013, the museum held an exhibition about the fate of Ostrava’s Jews: “Nezapomněli jsme na ně? Stopy židovských rodin v Ostravě” (Have We Not Forgotten Them? Traces of Jewish Families in Ostrava).

David Friedmann was a featured biography.

David Friedmann’s famous portraits on display at the Ostrava Museum in 2013, eighty years after his first exhibition at Gallery Slatner. The exhibition featured July 1923’s Portfolio No. 4 of Das Schachmeister Turnier in Mährisch Ostrau, the only known portfolio with this title. Screenshot: Česká televize

The original chess player portraits were displayed along with digital prints of his renowned musician sketches printed in Berlin publications. In his diary, my father remarked upon his return to Ostrava in 1945 that he was an unknown.

Now, he was honored with an exhibition in his birthplace.

One feels the gap in the artist’s life – the absence of artwork depicting family and the multitude of landscapes and still lifes he would have produced in various media.

Later the same year, Portfolio No. 26 of Köpfe berühmter Schachmeister, with 14 portraits, surfaced in the estate of New York chess player and collector Fred Snitzer.

Apparently, he had acquired the portfolio from a London art dealer in 1967. The Snitzer heirs contacted me, truly a heartwarming understanding of my quest.

Upon my recommendation, the portfolio was donated to the John G. White Chess and Checkers Collections, Fine Arts & Special Collections of the Cleveland Public Library, the largest chess collection in the world. It is now available online.

American International Master of Chess John Donaldson wrote to me, “You are doing great work making your father’s art available to all to appreciate.”

It is important to have my father’s works in public collections where people can view them and learn his story. That is my goal.


Chess and Life

It is a victory that six portfolios were rescued from the devastation of World War II. The sixth find is in a private collection and holds only 10 portraits. Every portfolio has a story, but the details of their survival are mostly lost. I recall my father’s passion for art, his enjoyment in playing chess, and even to teaching me to play.

Chances are slim that original portraits will still surface. It is likely that German Grandmaster Lothar Schmid, one of the world’s leading collectors, would have found a portfolio if there was one to find. He remarked in a 1996 letter, “let us try more or less together to find more about your father’s steps.”

At Berlin’s 1925 Juryfreie Kunstschau (Jury-free Art Show), four David Friedmann works were displayed, including the watercolor, Die Schachspieler (The Chess Players).

This painting has a title, one of few found in exhibition and auction catalogs of the 1920’s and early 1930’s. Die Schachspieler represents hundreds of his lost works – testimony to Nazi-looted art and the destruction of European civilization.

The Nazis nearly erased my father from history, but they did not succeed. His life was a chronicle of resilience, courage and achievement.

David Friedmann posing with a self-portrait. St. Louis, USA, 1967

David Friedmann’s artwork has received international acclaim and his chess player portraits are recognized as iconic collectibles.

My father’s artwork launched a journey of discovery into his past, and a unique first-hand look into the fascinating world of chess.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

For more about David Friedmann and to provide information you may have about existing works, please visit: or the “David Friedmann—Artist As Witness” Facebook page.

All images from Das Schachmeister Tournier in Mährisch Ostrau, Juli 1923 and Köpfe berühmter Schachmeister © 1999 Miriam Friedman Morris. All Rights Reserved.

The Continued Destruction of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter

Local landmarks approved for demolition

Though the chances of stopping the destruction seem small, activists continue their efforts to save cultural heritage sites in the Hungarian capital (Source images: Fortepan / Berkó Pál and Kispados; CC BY-SA 3.0)

A few days ago, news that one of the oldest houses in the Jewish district of Budapest will soon be demolished spread like wildfire on social media, sparking outrage.

The house at Kazinczy Street 55 will be leveled to make way for a 5-storey hotel belonging to a company linked to people with friends in high places. Although from an architectural perspective the house is rather nondescript, it is one of the last remnants of how the Jewish district looked before large-scale construction projects at the end of the 19th century.

This little house witnessed the crushing of the Revolution of 1849, the Second World War, the Revolution of 1956 and the horrors of the ghetto in 1944-45.

Budapest, 1945 (Photo: Fortepan / Kramer István dr; CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1834, a man named József Schneider bought the building, which at the time had only one floor. It was here that he created the “Magyar Kártya” card game still popular today. Schneider decided to illustrate some of the cards with the figure of William Tell, as a symbol of the Hungarian struggle for independence from the Habsburgs.

“Magyar Kártya” cards, ca. 1860

Towards the end of the 19th century, the building housed a fashion store that belonged to Mór Rothauser, a distant relative of the famous opera singer Teréz Rothauser, who starred for years as part of the  Berlin Royal Opera before ultimately being murdered in Theresienstadt during the Holocaust.

Kazinczy Street 55 when it was the Rothauser fashion store
(Source: Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum,

In 1895, Cecília Fischer established a brothel in the house, which was equipped with running water and modern toilets, a first for such an establishment in Budapest.

Ten years later, followers of the Theosophical Movement, founded by Helena Blavatsky, bought the building. This esoteric movement influenced some of the greatest minds of the turn of the 20th century, including Thomas Edison, Alfred Russel Wallace, Vassily Kandinsky, Paul Gauguin, Arthur Conan Doyle and even Maria Montessori.

The disciples of the movement left their symbol on the door of the house.

The symbol of the Theosophical Movement remains on the front door of Kazinczy Street 55 until today (Photo: Vincent Vizkelety)

After it was vacated by the movement’s adherents, the building housed several small businesses before being purchased by Tamás Wichmann, three-time Olympic medal-winning canoeist. He opened a famous tavern there, which survived Hungary’s 1989 regime change and quickly became a legendary hangout for locals.

No sign indicated the establishment’s existence, and its prices made it a hidden gem amid the dozens of bars catering to tourists’ tastes (and budgets).

Wichmann’s tavern, 2009. A small plaque next to the door indicates that József Schneider created the “Magyar Kártya” game in the very same building (Photo: Jerzy Celichowski; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, in 2018 Tamás Wichmann announced that he was forced to close his business after becoming seriously ill. The Olympic champion, who passed away in 2020, had greatly improved the quality of life in the district by funding a new playground in place of a parking lot next to his establishment.

The building was bought by a company with ties to government officials, which initially rented the ground floor to a pizzeria. On December 23, 2019, a building permit was filed for a hotel, which was approved on August 10, 2020.

Leading Hungarian news outlets have recently reported that adjacent and nearby lots on Király Street, including the playground developed by Wichmann, will also be demolished soon. These tenements, built during the first half of the 19th century, are also part of Budapest’s Jewish district, each an important part of the city’s history.

A Jewish wedding on Kazinczy Street, 1946 (Photo: Fortepan / Hámori Gyula; CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1891, a wealthy Jewish man named Mór Ungerleider opened a café at Király Street 27. Five years later, to attract clients, he came up with the idea of screening a motion picture there – for the first time in Budapest!

Ungerleider immediately understood that movies were going to become very popular, and he went on to own a number of theaters including the Royal-Apollo and the Apolló mozgó, the biggest movie theater in Budapest in the early years of the 20th century. Along with partners Lajos Weitzenfeld and Imre Roboz, Ungerleider founded the Főnix movie production company, which produced many films throughout the 1920s.

Ad for a screening of Cecille B. DeMille’s film “The Sign of the Cross” (known as “Ave Caesar” in Hungarian) at the Royal-Apollo Theater in Budapest, printed in Egyenlöség⁩⁩, 4 February 1933; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Despite their importance and the mobilization of many local history and culture enthusiasts, the chances of saving these historic landmarks from demolition seems small.

The news leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those who witnessed a wave of destruction in the Jewish quarter between 2002 and 2010, when the disappearance of many historic buildings occurred after the district’s local council considerably weakened protections for historical monuments.

Plaque on Kazinczy Street placed by a group of artist activists, 2014 (Photo: Kispados; CC BY-SA 3.0)

Activists continue efforts to save historical treasures from destruction, as countless buildings linked to Jewish and general Budapester history are constantly under threat, with the prospects of financial profit unfortunately often outweighing the importance of preserving cultural heritage.

UPDATE: Soon after this article was published, following extensive civil society and media efforts, the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office announced that the building at Kazinczy 55 will be registered as an historical monument, and saved from demolition.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

The Ghost Shtetl of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Youth

30 years after his death, the Nobel laureate's village is being rebuilt, including a massive replica of a synagogue that was never there

Isaac Bashevis Singer in his Nobel Prize ceremony tuxedo appears in front of the Wolpa Synagogue [Source: Photo by Israel Zamir, from the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at NLI / Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem]

In his 1978 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer employed memories from his earliest years as a source of hope for coping with the troubles of modern times:

“In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper. In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation.”

As a teenager, in the midst of the First World War, Singer moved with his siblings and his mother to her hometown, the small shtetl of Biłgoraj, where they belonged to a prominent rabbinical family.

The main square in Biłgoraj around the time Singer lived there

Following a short stint in a Warsaw rabbinical seminary, a young Singer would return to the ancestral shtetl, where he would fail to support himself by giving Hebrew lessons – an interesting historical detail for the man destined become the first Yiddish writer to win the Nobel Prize.

Biłgoraj was home to a thriving, if modest, Jewish community, and would inspire many of Singer’s later works.

A rabbinic text printed in Biłgoraj, 1912. From the National Library of Israel collection

Nearly a century has passed since Singer left Biłgoraj for good. Other notable former residents included Rabbi Mordecai Rokeach of the Belz Hasidic Dynasty, who famously fled Europe for the Land of Israel in 1944, and the well-known writer and educator Shmuel Ben-Artzi, father-in-law of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The town has long been bereft of Jewish inhabitants, yet a replica shtetl now stands there, the brainchild of Tadeusz Kuźmiński, a businessman and philanthropist, who recently passed away.

Tadeusz Kuźmiński stands in front of the replica synagogue in Biłgoraj, 2016 (Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Kuźmiński dreamed of building a site that reflected the multicultural nature of pre-War Poland, which could also serve as a contemporary cultural, commercial and residential center. With the vision only partially realized, Biłgoraj is now home to a recreated Jewish marketplace, with plans ready for a second market square set to include replicas of wooden churches and a wooden mosque (of the type long-used by some descendants of Tatars in eastern Poland).

The new square in Biłgoraj, 2016 (Photo: Ruth Ellen Gruber)

A small museum in Singer’s honor is housed in one of the replica town’s structures, yet the most striking feature of the modern reincarnation of Jewish Biłgoraj is Kuźmiński’s full-scale reproduction of the destroyed wooden synagogue of Wolpa (a town in modern-day Belarus) – some 400 km (250 miles) away.

Postcard featuring a ca. 1930 photo of the Wolpa Synagogue (Publisher: Tomy). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection
Prayer for the czar inside the Wolpa Synagogue (Photo: Alois Breyer). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Somewhat ironically, Wolpa was probably most well-known for the very synagogue now recreated in Biłgoraj.

Wood synagogues were quite common throughout Eastern Europe, and yet the Wolpa Synagogue was considered to be one of the finest examples, an aesthetic and technical masterpiece, which stood for well over two centuries – surviving one world war before being destroyed in the next.

Interior photo of the Wolpa Synagogue’s dome, ca. 1910-1913 (Photo: Alois Breyer). From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After receiving his Nobel Prize, Singer addressed the distinguished guests at the subsequent banquet:

“People ask me often, ‘Why do you write in a dying language?’ And I want to explain it in a few words.

Firstly, I like to write ghost stories and nothing fits a ghost better than a dying language. The deader the language the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish and as far as I know, they all speak it.

Secondly, not only do I believe in ghosts, but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: “Is there any new Yiddish book to read?” For them Yiddish will not be dead.

Thirdly, for 2000 years Hebrew was considered a dead language. Suddenly it became strangely alive. What happened to Hebrew may also happen to Yiddish one day, (although I haven’t the slightest idea how this miracle can take place).

There is still a fourth minor reason for not forsaking Yiddish and this is: Yiddish may be a dying language but it is the only language I know well. Yiddish is my mother language and a mother is never really dead.”

Isaac Bashevis Singer preparing his speech before the official Nobel Prize ceremony, 1978 (Photo: Israel Zamir). From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Isaac Bashevis Singer passed away some two decades before Tadeusz Kuźmiński’s dream of a simulated pre-War Biłgoraj began to take shape.

What would Singer have thought or written about Kuźmiński’s renascent Biłgoraj?

Would he have seen humor in the idea of a replica shtetl with no Jews?

Or the notion of a once-iconic synagogue transported through space and time, plopped down in tiny Biłgoraj, steps away from a modest museum in his honor (despite the fact that he himself only lived there for a brief period)?

Is Kuźmiński’s Biłgoraj a living ghost? A mother that was never really dead?

Or – in the spirit of Singer’s childhood home – an attempt in post-Holocaust Poland to “find… happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation”?

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

For more on the replica shtetl in Bilgoraj and other news, information and resources about Jewish monuments and heritage sites all over Europe, check out Jewish Heritage Europe.

Five-Hundred Years in the Life of the Amon Family

From the surrender of Spain to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent and beyond, they were there

For centuries, members of the Amon family served as advisers and physicians to sultans, esteemed rabbis and businessmen across three continents

The name first appears in the first book of the Torah.

The Almighty – in bestowing a new name upon Abram – announces to him that “Your name will be ‘Abraham,’ for I have made you the father of many [Av Hamon] nations.”

Abraham contemplating the multitude of stars, by E.M. Lillien. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The name ‘Hamon’ thus translates as ‘multitude’ or ‘many’.

Talmudic scholars, moreover, indicated that there exists a deeper meaning to this name. Indeed, the commentators state that the very name “Abraham” is but an abbreviation of “Av Hamon,” (‘Father of Many’), while each letter signifies a special attribute or character trait of Abraham, the progenitor of not only the Jewish people, but of monotheism itself.

As a last name, it will variably be spelled “Hamon” or “Amon”.


Abraham to Isaac

The first individual who bears this name in the historical record (and thus my family’s first appearance) seems to be Isaac Amon of Granada in the late 15th century.

Private physician to Muhammad XII (or Boabdil) the last Nasrid sultan of Granada, Isaac witnessed the surrender of the last Muslim ruled city to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs, in January 1492.

A patio in the Alhambra illustrated in the 19th century book Reino de Granada. From the National Library of Israel collection
Alhambra design details illustrated in the 19th century book Reino de Granada. From the National Library of Israel collection

Besides some speculation, history tragically reveals no more of this forebear of the Amon family.

It does, however, record the existence of another Amon named Joseph, a younger relative who was also in Granada at that time.

One historian believed that Joseph was born in Italy, scion of the famous family of Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura, though the consensus is that the Amon family is of Iberian origin.

Three months after the capture of Granada, and with it the end of the Reconquista (the Christian reconquest of Muslim Spain), Ferdinand and Isabella promulgated the infamous Edict of Expulsion from the Alhambra, ordering all professing Jews to convert or leave on pain of death by July 31, 1492. Following Tisha B’Av of that year, the last Jews left Spain, on the same day Christopher Columbus departed on his voyage of exploration.

Depiction of Jews fleeing Spain, from a 19th century book on the Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collections

At the sultan’s court

Joseph and his infant son Moses fled to the safety of the Ottoman Empire, along with multitudes of their co-religionists. As countless Jews arrived in Constantinople, Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512) is famously said to have declared that by expelling their country’s Jews, Ferdinand and Isabella had impoverished their own country and enriched his own.

Bayezid II

Notwithstanding this venerable story, Amon family lore holds that Sultan Bayezid ordered Joseph to declare the Shahada and convert to Islam.

He was given three days to decide.

Joseph refused and defiantly proclaimed that he, his family, and his brethren had fled their ancestral homeland in search of religious liberty. He offered up his life but declared that he would not betray his faith.

Impressed by his staunch conviction, Bayezid invited Joseph to become his physician and advisor. Consequently, Joseph loyally served Bayezid and his son Selim I (r. 1512-1520), often accompanying them on military expeditions to Egypt and Syria, as the Ottoman Empire continued to increase its vast territorial holdings.

Joseph’s son Moses, who had left Spain as an infant, rose even higher than his father in the esteem and service of the Sultan and his Jewish brethren. He served as physician, advisor, and diplomat to Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566), the longest reigning Ottoman sultan, throughout much of his 46 years in power.

Excerpt on ophthalmology from a 16th medical text apparently written by Joseph or Moses Amon. From the Aharon Meir Mazia Collection, available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection


Recently published edition of a treatise on dentistry by Moshe Hamon

Moses funded a yeshiva, paid Jewish scholars to translate great works, and valiantly defended his brethren from infamous blood libel allegations. Most significantly, he persuaded Suleiman to intervene on Dona Gracia Nasi’s behalf with Venetian authorities, thus allowing her to immigrate to Constantinople.

Etching of Doctor Moses Amon by 16th century French diplomat Nicolas de Nicolay

Although other Amons may be mentioned in various encyclopedias and resources, none of them merited to receive the historic stature or station of these three forefathers, all of them medieval physicians.


The Amons of late-Ottoman Istanbul

Closer to our own time, my great-great grandfather Ishak Amon Effendi is the earliest known member of my directly traceable family branch.

Born and raised in Istanbul, he was a teacher of mathematics, a rabbi, and a member of the Communal Council. His grandson (my grandfather) told me that as a sign of his prestige, Rabbi Ishak was even offered the position of Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire following the Turkish War for Independence.

Unwilling to become involved in political machinations, he declined the offer to succeed Rabbi Haim Nahum Effendi, who had left to become Chief Rabbi of Egypt. Nonetheless, the Ottoman government bestowed “Effendi” (a title of nobility equivalent to being knighted in England and rarely given to Jews) upon him as a sign of the esteem in which he was held.

In this article published in the Eliezer Ben-Yehuda publication Hashkafa on 9 November 1906, Ishak Amon (in Hebrew “יצחק המון”) is mentioned as one of the notable residents of Istanbul (in Hebrew “קושטא”) who voted for the new Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

In August 2019, with the assistance of the Turkish Chief Rabbinate, the Neve Shalom Synagogue, a good friend named Ismail Baran Can Yildirim, and several cemetery employees (who barely spoke English), Rabbi Ishak’s grave was finally found in the Sephardic cemetery of Istanbul, located in the Arnavutköy neighborhood.

Isaac Amon at the grave of Rabbi Ishak Amon Effendi in Istanbul

Though the letters are fading, words in Turkish and Hebrew note that he was honored by the nation for his contributions and mourned by his people.

Rabbi Ishak’s son Davit was my great-grandfather. Born in 1881, the same year as Ataturk, he owned and operated his own import-export business in Istanbul. Married by Rabbi Raphael David Saban, the future Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Davit had two brothers and a sister. He died in 1977, the year after my father started medical school, and a dozen years before I was born in the United States.


The Midwest via modern Turkey

His son – my grandfather – Rene Isaac Amon, was a formative influence in my own life. Born in December 1923, a month and a half after Ataturk proclaimed the Turkish Republic, he grew up in a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, multi-national neighborhood of Istanbul. He was a polyglot, who spoke French with his parents, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) with his grandparents, Greek with his friends, Turkish in the streets, and Hebrew in school. He later learned German and Russian for study purposes and perfected his English as an attaché between the Turkish Army and the British military during the Korean War.

As a teenager, he met Ataturk a few months before the latter’s death. He married my grandmother, Denise Nehmad from Beirut, in Istanbul’s Neve Shalom Synagogue in December 1952. Then-Chief Rabbi Raphael David Saban presided over the ceremony.

Wedding photo of Denis and Rene Isaac Amon

Shortly thereafter, my grandparents made the decision to move to America, with a young child – my father Erol – in tow. Arriving in Chicago during fall 1957 (when my dad was three years old), my grandparents had to reorient themselves to a new culture.

My grandfather’s Masters in Engineering from Istanbul Technical University was insufficient for career advancement.  As such, despite 15 years of practice, he attended Northwestern University to obtain his PhD (and thus earn “his union card” as he put it). In his early 40s, he was thus writing his dissertation, teaching full time at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and raising my father.

Living in St. Louis, I visited my grandparents every summer growing up. During the High Holidays, they would take the train or get a ride from Chicago to St. Louis and stay with us for a few months.

Denis and Rene Isaac Amon

My grandfather’s interests were numerous and his curiosity insatiable. He continued to read works in multiple languages, discuss religion, history, literature, engage with mathematical problems, and watch movies with us at night.


Into the 21st century

My grandmother (of Nahmad and Safra family origin), passed on in September 2013, while my grandfather passed on in October 2018, two months’ shy of his 95th birthday.

Mentally lucid and cognizant until the end, (speaking in French and Ladino with friends in person and on the phone even just a few days before his passing), he impressed upon our family the importance of remembering our history and passing it on to future descendants, to those who will unfortunately not know him except through our indelible recollections and memories.

In this final enterprise, he followed the notable example of our lawgiver and prophet Moses, who near the end of his own life exhorted the Nation of Israel to “remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past. Ask your father and he will inform you; your elders and they will tell you.”

Lesser Ury’s “Moses am Sinai”, early 20th century (Publisher: J. Wieland & Co). From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center at the Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; available via the NLI Digital Collection

My genetic story (from 23&Me) reveals that I have relatives on five continents. Indeed, the Amon Diaspora spans the globe; members live in the United States (such as Cleveland, Seattle, New York, Boston, and St. Louis), Costa Rica, Turkey, Israel, France, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

Even more significantly, my Amon ancestors hail from Egypt, Iraq, Italy, Turkey, Lebanon, Spain and Portugal. Though great expanses of space and time separate us, they live on in us.

Our DNA is the “living embodiment” of our chronicle in the scroll of family, Jewish, and human history.

It is said that we are only remembered for three generations. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon us to bear witness to the lives of our ancestors throughout the centuries, so they may live on for posterity. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and member of the House of Lords memorably wrote, “I hear their call to write the next chapter… [and] continue their journey because… I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll.”

Ultimately, from 15th century Isaac Amon to 21st century Isaac Amon, the story and legacy continues.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.