Was One of Catholic Spain’s Prominent Religious Scholars Secretly Jewish?

New research suggests that Alfonso de Zamora may have remained true to his faith

"Alfonso was certain that whoever read his compositions would never be able to reveal his secrets..." (Source images: The Polyglot Bible, 1514, National Library of Israel & Alfonso de Zamora's translation of Mikhlol, 1527, National Library of France)

For centuries Catholic historians opposed admitting that a prized converso (a Jew who had converted to Christianity) may have actually maintained Jewish identity and practice in secret, regardless of whether he was forcibly dragged to the baptismal font or promised a high post in the Church hierarchy as reward for his heresy.

There were certainly Jews who willingly converted to Christianity, even rabbis such as Solomon HaLevi of Burgos who not only became a respectable Bishop, but an ardent promoter of discriminatory laws against Jews.

Solomon HaLevi of Burgos, later known as Pablo de Santa Maria, converted to Christianity and then persecuted Jews

However, most Jews who remained in Spain, referred to as “Crypto-Jews”, continued to covertly practice their religion in some form and pass it on to their children. Generations later, the descendants of these conversos continued to flee Spain and Portugal to other lands where they sought to live as free Jews.


The Yeshiva-educated refugee Catholic scholar

One of the Spanish “New Christians” most cherished by the Catholic authorities was Alfonso de Zamora (1474–1545/6). A graduate of the famous Campanton Yeshiva in Zamora, he first escaped to Portugal in 1492, but for unknown reasons returned to Spain around 1497 as a converso.

In a few years we find him in Salamanca as a teacher and a scribe until 1512 when he was transferred to the University of Alcala de Henares. His involvement in the editing of the first Polyglot Bible, his books, scribal and teaching positions raised his esteem and importance at the dawn of the Renaissance.

The first page of Alfonso de Zamora’s multilingual dictionary in the Polyglot Bible, 1514. From the National Library of Israel collections. Click image to enlarge

Throughout that almost 40-year period, he was employed by the highest Catholic prelates, the archbishops of Spain, right under the watchful eye of the Inquisition.

Indubitably he was famous.

Top clerics patronized him, hired him to copy Hebrew books, the grammar books of Rabbi David Kimhi (also known as “Radaq”), books about the Bible, including various commentaries, and so on. But as a “blemished” Christian, Alfonso was cheated in court when he tried to claim his rightful wages from the “upstanding” publisher.

Alfonso de Zamora’s signature (bottom right), on a translation of Radaq’s Mikhlol. From the Bibliothèque nationale de France; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click image to enlarge

Alfonso could never become head of his department or immune from being summoned to the Inquisition. All he could do was release his fury in innumerable annotations on the margins of his copied books and in his “diary”, preserved at the Leiden University Library.


Textual hints and imagined students

Over the course of fifteen years, at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem (now part of the National Library of Israel), I examined about 70 manuscripts written or edited by Alfonso de Zamora.

During these intense years I could not but conclude that the man’s notes, essays, poems, criticisms, bible commentary, historical records, books, and teaching curriculum reflected a tormented, resentful, bitter and penitent Crypto-Jew.

Alfonso de Zamora’s translation of the Book of Isaiah, the manuscript that sparked the author’s decades-long interest in researching the scholar. From the Historical Library of the Marquess of Valdecilla, Madrid, Spain; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection. Click image to enlarge

He wrote almost exclusively in Hebrew.

His poems called out for God’s help to heal his emotional and physical pain, to release him from cursed Spain, to punish the greedy and immoral Spanish society from the king to the Church clerics, the businessmen, and the farmers all the way down to the babies.

He attacked the Popes and the judges and mocked King Carlos V and his administration. He supported, at least in words, the revolt of the comuneros against the nobles and the king, and he attacked judges who had converted to Christianity and abused their powers to discriminate against conversos.

In his commentaries, Alfonso emphasized the ethical superiority of the patriarchs, matriarchs, and kings of the Jews over those of the Christians. He insisted that conversos hold on to hope that God redeem them and bring them back to Zion.

Redemption from the “Trouble,” i.e., the Expulsion, would come only when conversos kept God’s Laws – the Torah – as much as they could.

Illustration of an Inquisition proceeding appearing in the book Die Geheimnisse der Inquisition. From the National Library of Israel collections

His advice to the conversos facing the Inquisitors was to stand tall and show knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, for their tormentors were ignorant and inferior. When accused of keeping Jewish customs like avoiding non-kosher foods, he advised to explain them away as stemming from health concerns rather than from religious practices. He encouraged them to continue keeping the Sabbath, to light Sabbath candles, to relinquish debts on the seventh year, and even to keep the counting of the Omer.

Lying to and confusing the Inquisitors was paramount to staying alive.

Alfonso’s Shema was different than the traditional text of this core Jewish prayer. He commanded himself and/or imaginary Jewish students:

“Hear, People of Israel … Know that YHWH who is our God, is YHWH the only One!”


Christian in name

His view of Christianity was clear and unapologetic. He emphatically stated that he did not believe in Christianity nor in the anti-Christ. Christians were those who worshiped mute idols, who would perish before YHWH’s magnificence on the Day of Judgment. Christian dogmas were to kill people. Unlike Judaism, Christianity was flesh-centered, lacking spiritual values. Christians indulged in gluttony; they were fat and boorish; he wished for their dwellings on earth to be destroyed.

At the same time, Alfonso’s public life exemplified pure devotion to his new faith.

Title page of the Polyglot Bible featuring the coat of arms of Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros, who funded the project, 1514. From the National Library of Israel collections

He wore a cross and the manuscripts he produced for patrons were adorned with crosses at the top of the pages. One of his major jobs was to find “evidence” within the Hebrew Bible, that portended Jesus’s life and mission, especially in the Books of Isaiah and Daniel. He distorted the texts and took them out of context.

His Christian commentaries and compositions lacked clarity, consistency and logic. Sensing this discrepancy and detachment, he often excused his questionably-founded renderings by describing them as “the spiritual meaning” or as an “alternative.”

Handwritten excerpts from the Book of Daniel appearing in Alfonso de Zamora’s notebook. From the Leiden University Library; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

To survive his complicated life situation, he subconsciously developed a defense mechanism: Even though Alfonso de Zamora lived a respectable and successful life, he lived in a make-believe, dangerously fragile world.

In Hebrew, he wrote:

“It is better [to gain] freedom [through] resistance than [to live in] peaceful slavery.”

For Alfonso, life in Spain was tantamount to slavery and prison.

In another text, he declared, “We shall not tolerate the abominations [perpetrated on] the holy seed. We shall die before that!” He imagined himself taking up arms to fight back. Through personal notes and comments jotted in the margins of his manuscripts, his frustration is palpable, as are his resolve and hopes, despite knowing that they may forever remained unfulfilled.



Alfonso excused his stay in Spain by comparing himself to Joseph and Daniel, who remained in their respective lands in order to benefit the world by teaching the beauty of Jewish wisdom to the Gentile power structure.

He saw himself not only as a good, honest, and a faithful Jew, but as a man of noble ancestry, as he cited B. Kiddushin 71b: שתיקותיה דבבל היינו יחוסא, “When people keep silent in Babylonia it means a high pedigree.” He described this adage as “A parable for the wise.”

Alfonso was certain that whoever read his compositions would never be able to reveal his secrets which were lodged deep in his heart.

“Blessed is the One who gives strength to the weary and increases the might of the helpless. Blessed is YHWH forever, Amen and Amen!” The closing words of a 1527 Alfonso de Zamora manuscript. From the National Library of France; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Alfonso de Zamora recognized that in spite of his furtive life, he was a sinner. But he honestly believed that God would forgive him, as he turned to the divine attribute of compassion, saying: “Shaddai will forgive all my iniquities.”

With such belief, he could survive to his dying day.


The author has studied Alfonso de Zamora for two decades. Her comprehensive portrayal of Alfonso de Zamora’s evidence as a Crypto-Jew has just been published in Iberia Judaica XII (2021): 15-45. She has also recently published an historical novel based on de Zamora’s writings entitled Dagger in the Heart, which imagines the adventures of his children to leave Spain, the whereabout of his diary, and the murder of Archbishop Cisneros of Spain. Her complete study of Alfonso de Zamora’s writings is forthcoming.

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.

Leaving Auschwitz Twice

In 1945 he left the infamous camp on a death march; 40 years later he came back - and left - a free man

“I am doing what very few people did. I am walking out alive.” Fred Bachner leaving the crematorium on his 1988 visit to Auschwitz. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

My grandfather and father, Abraham and Fred Bachner, survived Auschwitz, but the exact fate of their beloved wife and mother, Erna Widmann Bachner, has remained a mystery for more than 75 years.

Erna, or “Mutti” as she was known to my father, was transported from Chrzanow to Auschwitz on February 18, 1943, but after that, the only “record” that remained was the word of someone who told my father that he saw Mutti as she was herded to the gas chamber.

Looking and inquiring for decades, my father held out hope that by some miracle his Mutti had not been murdered.

Erna Widmann Bachner. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

In 1981, my parents attended the International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. At Yad Vashem, my father put an engraved stone as a marker that Esther Widmann Bachner was one of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

Nearly forty years after her murder, this gave my father some closure.

Stone in memory of Esther Bachner, placed by her son at Yad Vashem in 1981. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

In 1988 he wanted to say goodbye to Mutti at the place she was murdered and took my mother and a video camcorder to Auschwitz.  He was always a logical pragmatist and until I listened to his testimonial, I never knew that he had actually long wondered if Mutti had somehow miraculously survived the camp.

Fred and Ruth Bachner at Auschwitz, 1988. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

Although I was always told Mutti was murdered at Auschwitz and saw the memorial plaque in the synagogue we attended, I also always held out hope, wondering if she had survived. Even 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, whenever I read a story of survivors finding one another, I always thought of Mutti and how painful it would have been had she survived yet never been found by her family.

This idea haunted me until I recently read the following two sentences in Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939-1945:

“February 18, 1943:  1,000 Jews are deported from a labor camp in Chrzanow to Auschwitz.  All the deportees are killed in the gas chambers.”

The question whether or not Mutti survived finally seemed to have a concrete answer.



Walking around Auschwitz four decades later, my father pointed out where the orchestra had played, where the selection process had taken place, and where the gas chamber and crematorium were.

Inside the crematorium, my mother – also a Holocaust survivor – can be seen on the video reading a plaque on the wall and getting emotional.

My father, on the other hand, is very matter of fact and businesslike.  As he walks out of the crematorium he says, “I am doing what very few people did.  I am walking out alive.”

As he walks out the main gates, his hands are raised, he is smiling, and he looks victorious.

Fred Bachner walking out of Auschwitz a free man, 1988. From footage of the visit

I can imagine my father saying, “This time I am walking out free.”

My father, who survived Falbruck, Graditz, Annaberg, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Dachau, gave several testimonials and spoke about the Holocaust at schools and synagogues for decades until he passed away in December 2008.

I watched his testimonials about his life before the Holocaust, listening to the grueling details of being forced out of Berlin, his birthplace, and settling in Chrzanow, where he had to work for the Germans. It was from there that the Nazis took him and transported him and his family to the concentration camps.

Over the years I heard his message of strength, perseverance, and love. I long ago embraced them, and they are now part of me.

My father did not talk in terms of dates so I do not know the exact sequence of events and the dates on which he was transported from one camp to another.

Several times he said:

“I lived hour to hour and day to day. I told myself, ‘I made it through this day and now I have to make it through the next day.’”

I imagine it would have been difficult to keep track of time and there was little to differentiate even which month it was.  Surviving was what mattered. The date was insignificant.


More questions than answers

I know my father was taken from Chrzanow to a concentration camp on February 18, 1943, the same day his mother was taken to Auschwitz.

On September 30, 1944 his transport from Annaberg arrived at Auschwitz. In his testimonial, he recalled the infamous death camp as a place:

“Where the ovens were burning 24 hours a day and starvation, beatings, and hard labor were a constant. My Mutti (Mother) was sent here… and I was pretty sure she was murdered in the gas chamber. I knew I was one step closer to death.”

Crematorium furnaces at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1945 (State Museum in Auschwitz). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies; available via the NLI Digital Collection

While at Auschwitz, he was selected for forced labor at IG Farben and then worked on the railway.

“Food was scarce and all we had were the clothes on our backs that were wet from the snow and rain so we took the paper from the bags of cement we had to carry and wrapped it around ourselves underneath the clothes. It made walking difficult, but we were happy for the little warmth it gave us.”

Though the Germans are known for their perfect penmanship and meticulous recording keeping, in the case of my father detailed accuracy seemed to take a back seat to the more pressing task of murdering Jews.

Besides the dates detailed above, we only know a few other specific dates from that indescribable two-year period of his life.  He left Auschwitz on January 28, 1945, arrived at Dachau on February 21, 1945 and was liberated on May 1, 1945.

Death march

Things changed dramatically in January 1945, as the Russian forces approached.

Russian troops in World War II. From the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) at the National Library of Israel

Worried about leaving behind any proof of their crimes, the Germans dismantled the gas chambers, burned documents, and removed evidence. Thousands of prisoners – the Nazi criminals’ greatest liability – were evacuated out of Auschwitz in the middle of January. They left not knowing where they were going, with no idea how long and brutal their journeys – which came to be known as “death marches” – would be.

I knew my father was on a death march out of Auschwitz and it seemed that he went directly to Dachau.  I recently listened to a testimonial that I had not heard before. The interviewer asked my father the name of the camp he marched to from Auschwitz.

I now know that my father was sent on a death march from Auschwitz to Gross-Rosen with a group that started out with over 1,000 prisoners according to his estimate.

Wearing only striped pajamas and wooden shoes, holding one loaf of bread, they trudged for 170 km.

Rare photograph of prisoners marching to Dachau, 1945. Courtesy: Maria Seidenberger / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Anyone who was not walking fast enough or fell to the ground was shot in the head by the German soldiers. Frozen corpses with bullets in their heads lined the entire route and were a constant reminder to either keep up or die.

January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months that 20th century Europe experienced, with blizzards and temperatures as low as -22° F (-30° C). Snow covered the ground between Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen.

My father remembered the prisoners somehow dragging their skeletal bodies.

“…we walked for days – how many I do not know. The Russians had detected movement and planes were flying all around, dropping flares to see if it was troops moving. The flares lit up the sky like fireworks and fortunately they did not think we were the German army and attack us.  We came to a barn and were permitted to lie down in straw and rest up for a couple of hours. I made a friend and we kept together and promised to help each other as much as we could.”

When it was time to reassemble the next morning, my father’s friend said he could not go on and was going to hide in the straw and stay in the barn. My father tried convincing him to continue.

“When we march away, they’re going to set this on fire.  It will burn with you in there. My friend stayed and there was no doubt in my mind he died. Imagine my surprise when I saw him at the International Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel in 1981.”

On cold blistery days in New York, I think of my Dad trudging through the snow on a death march.

I am bundled up in a down coat, hat, gloves and boots and cannot fathom how my father, or anyone could have survived days and miles of walking when they were starving, emotionally and physically abused, sick, and frostbitten.  I ask myself how my father, who was 19 years old at the time and had been in concentration camps for almost two years, had that enormous desire to live.

He had defied the odds. He left Auschwitz with thousands of prisoners and was one of only a few hundred who made it to Gross-Rosen.



They finally arrived at Gross-Rosen, which was chaotic, dirty, and so overcrowded there was no room to lie down to sleep. With word that the Russians were approaching, my father knew the Germans would evacuate Gross-Rosen as they had Auschwitz.

“I made it through that horrendous death march when I didn’t know if I was dead or living. I didn’t know if I had it in me to survive another death march and I didn’t want to find out that I didn’t.”

My father saw a large crowd waiting to be transported by train out of Gross-Rosen.

“I did not know where they were going and did not care where they were going. I knew my chances of surviving Gross-Rosen or another death march were slim. I needed to get myself on that transport out and I did. I squeezed myself into the group and onto the transport.”

The transport, an open railroad car with no room to sit down, was headed to Dachau.

It was the middle of the winter and it was snowing.

“There was nothing to eat, and the only way to get water was to tilt your head back, open your mouth and catch whatever amount of rain or snow that you could… The area was being bombed and we felt the earth shaking. Sometimes the train did not move for days. I wondered what is going to happen to us… People all around were dying.  Those who had enough strength to lift the bodies picked them up and tossed them over the top of the car.”

I hear my father say those words and am struck by how nonchalant he is in the testimonial talking about how the dead were handled, especially compared to his 14 year-old self who had felt compelled to find a way to bury the corpses he saw thrown into piles at the Trezbina labor camp, just a few kilometers from the Chrzanow ghetto where he and his parents were living.  He returned to Trezbina with a horse and carriage and brought the deceased to the Jewish cemetery in Chrzanow.

It did not matter that he did not know them, not even their names. He was upholding the Jewish commandment of honoring the dead with a proper burial.

Cremation of corpses on pyres at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1945 (State Museum in Auschwitz). From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, The Folklore Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies; available via the NLI Digital Collection

Then, just a few years later, after being immersed in a world where starvation, beatings, murders, gassings and cremating human beings was a daily reality, my father, like many others, became desensitized and immune. I suppose if they hadn’t, it would have been even more difficult to survive.

My father recalled it taking around 12 days to arrive at Dachau, but did not know for certain. He was transported  in an open rail car that was standing room only when it left and had plenty of room to sit when it arrived. He weighed 80 pounds and was barely alive.

Fred Bachner’s Dachau arrival document

It seems plausible that he could have arrived at Dachau on February 21, 1945, as indicated on the official paperwork. There, likely hoping to be selected for work instead of death, he claimed to be an auto mechanic. He was given two weeks to rest and regain some strength before he was sent to Muhldorf, a sub camp of Dachau to work building a factory.

Liberation for some

My father survived the death march from Auschwitz to Gross-Rosen, and the later transport from Gross-Rosen to Dachau. The dates and places are not of paramount importance. To have survived either of those journeys is amazing.  To have survived both is a miracle.

Fred Bachner at the gates of Dachau, 1988. Courtesy: Ellen Bachner Greenberg

With the allied forces approaching, the Germans began evacuating Dachau in the middle of April and my father was sent on a transport heading towards the Alps, where the prisoners would likely be shot. It was six years since my father had to flee his home in Germany. He had spent the past 27 months in concentration camps.

A firm believer in “taking things into your own hands,” he later recalled, “I made it this far and now was not the time to give up.”

Undoing the wire on one of the small train windows, my father leapt from the train to freedom. He hid in a barn for a few days and came out when he saw white flags.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated annually on January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest of the extermination and death camps. In a sense, that day marked the beginning of the end of the Holocaust.

Nonetheless, for millions of victims, January 27, 1945, was a date completely devoid of meaning. For some, like Mutti, it came far too late.

For countless others, it was just another day. Some, like my father, would not be liberated until weeks or even months later. Many were not even that fortunate; murdered in the waning days of the war, before they could once again know freedom.


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 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: www.davidfriedmann.org 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.

Manmade Climate Change 150 Years Ago? In Yiddish?!

1871 article: "Hardly anybody knows that war affects the weather strongly and causes heavy rain falls, strong winds, thunder and lightning.”

Original illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich appearing in the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

With the recent re-introduction of rabbis into the German army, I started to read about rabbis in the German army during the First World War and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the 150th anniversary of which is now being commemorated. As often happens in the course of research, serendipity led me to an unrelated and unexpected, yet fascinating find: an article on the environmental effects of war printed in a leading Yiddish newspaper during the Franco-Prussian War.

Kol Mevaser was published from its inception in 1862 until its discontinuation in 1872-73 in Odessa, an important Jewish center at the time. It was one of the very first newspapers in Yiddish and one of the most important in the history of Yiddish journalism.

Published in Odessa, Kol Mevaser was one of the first and most influential Yiddish newspapers

The National Library of Israel’s online Historical Jewish Press (JPress) collection includes Kol Mevaser, as well as a short historical survey about the periodical by Prof. Avraham Novershtern.

The orientation of the newspaper runs along the lines of the Haskala (Jewish enlightenment) movement, and the editors often aimed to educate their “plain folk” readership about events in the world or about modern science. While they often achieved these goals, to the modern reader, some of these attempts appear rather absurd.

On February 9, 1871 (January 28 according to the Julian calendar date indicated on the newspaper’s masthead), an article was published in Kol Mevaser entitled “The War and the Air”. In it, the author – identified only by the initials G.D.D – argues that during and after big battles there are often heavy rain falls, strong winds, thunder and lightning – as compared to the normal average.

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

“All of this is no coincidence. The cause of it is the continuous shooting with big canons.”

In addition to the then-contemporary Franco-Prussian War, the author provides a list of recent conflicts after which such observations were made, including examples from the Italian War of 1859 and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866:

“In the year 1859, during the War in Italy, scientists have realized for the first time… this phenomenon has been noticed even more clearly in the year 1866 when Prussia was at war with Austria… every time there was heavy rain fall accompanied by winds and also thunder and lightning, as has been reported by the newspapers at the time.”

According to the article, the phenomenon is not limited to the immediate vicinity, but rather extends to a great geographical area, as well:

“After the battle of Königsgrätz, a heavy storm blew for eight days accompanied by heavy rain falls. Not only on the battlefield itself, but in the entire country, and even as far as deep into France.”

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After the Battle of Solferino – the cruelty of which led Henry Dunant to establish the Red Cross – such weather phenomena were said to have affected all of Europe.

To some, the reported connection between war and weather was apparently as reliable as the sun:

“If we look at the present war between France and Prussia, we can notice this strange phenomenon even better… The moment they saw rain, the inhabitants of Alsace already knew it and said: ‘Most likely today there already was a big battle somewhere’ – and indeed it was this way.”

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der Französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The author bases his statements on “scientists” (נאטורפארשער in Yiddish, which translates more literally to “researchers of nature”), but does not name them.

The causal relationship is explained as follows: Rain is caused by the fact that shooting creates heat, which evaporates water, which then ascends and turns back into droplets once a cold northern wind crosses its way.

As to why the air cools down the evaporated water, the author gives a further explanation, though its relationship to the first one (the cold northern wind) is not clear: When shooting, the gun powder is broken up into its component parts which are dispersed into the air; ultimately this creates electricity, which somehow cools down the air.

Illustration of the Franco-Prussian War by Woldemar Friedrich, from the 1873 book Der französische Krieg von 1870 und 1871; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

The author’s thoughts then become even harder to follow, and it is probable that he had no real scientific knowledge of the topics about which he wrote:

“It is known that in a place where a big electrical force is concentrated, rain, thunder and lightning are created. That is how the wind, which appears during battles, develops. And when the evaporated water which is in the air is being cooled down and turns back into water, it takes up a larger volume, seventeen hundred times more than in its evaporated form. Therefore, when rain falls, it pushes aside the air. But the air returns and takes up its previous place from where the rain has dispelled it and it carries the clouds along with it. A quick movement is created in the air which we call “wind”. According to all of this we can name the battlefield ‘the machine which drags in the air’.”

Generally speaking, Kol Mevaser was a respectable newspaper, and while the thoughts expressed in this particular article appear naïve to the modern reader, they do in fact constitute an early awareness of the effects small man can have on the massive planet on which he lives.

Moreover, the article deals with two scourges that 21st century humanity continues to face – war and man’s role in global climate change.

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.

Additional reading on this topic in Hebrew can be found in the book Scientific God: Popular Science in Hebrew in Eastern Europe in the Second Half of the 19th Century – Between Knowledge and a New Image of the Universe, by Yaacov Shavit and Jehuda Reinhartz.