How the Jews of the Caucasus Used an Epidemic to Trick the Nazis

During the Nazi occupation, Muslims aided efforts to hide the origins of the local Jews, preventing the extinction of a community

German soldiers conquering the Caucasus. Photography: The German Federal Archive

In July of 1942, the German Wehrmacht began occupying territories in the northern Caucasus. Although this occupation lasted only a few months, the Jewish communities of the area were severely impacted. In villages such as Bogdanovka and Menzhinsky, where there were collective kolkhozes of Caucasus Jews (or “Mountain Jews”) and Ashkenazi Jews, large scale massacres were carried out by firing squads.

At first, the Nazis didn’t treat the local Jewish population any differently. They thought that their fate should be similar to that of the European Jews. The term “Mountain Jews”, commonly used by the Russians, disclosed the community’s origins. However, when German forces conquered the city of Nalchik, there were those who tried to challenge the community’s Jewish identity, in a desperate attempt to save it.

At the time, there were thousands of Jews in the city. With heavy bombardment underway, the Nazis ordered the Jews to register with the SS unit that accompanied the German military. The esteemed Efraimov and Shaulov families were the first to be executed. A group of local Jewish leaders, headed by Markel Shaulov, tried to save the community from the threat of annihilation by attempting to convince the Nazis that the Mountain Jews weren’t actually part of the Jewish race. They instead claimed to belong to the Tat people, one of the various ethnic groups living in the Caucasus.

As part of this effort at benevolent deception, the Jewish leaders made use of their excellent relationship with the local Muslim community. The head of the Kabardino-Balkarian National Council appealed to the Nazi command and requested that they treat the Mountain Jews as one of the ethnic communities of the Caucasus.

The German army, which, for political and military reasons, adopted a cautious approach toward the local Muslim population, delayed execution of the order instructing the annihilation of the city’s Jews for a period of two months. During that time, German research institutes, headed by the Reich Genealogical Office, studied the issue. Questions were raised regarding common origins with European Jews, while religious symbols, literature, traditional clothing, customs, and spoken language were also examined. The entire Jewish community tried to cover up any indications of its true identity. Many Jews hid and buried books and sacred objects in the courtyards of their houses.

Rabbi Nachmiel Amirov

During this period, a famous event transpired, which is mentioned in several autobiographical accounts of the period. These accounts concern an attempt to secretly remove Torah scrolls from the local synagogue. A group of men, led by the city’s chief rabbi, Nachmiel Amirov, staged a funeral in order to conceal the Torah scrolls and bury them in the ground, while wrapped in funeral shrouds. The fictitious funeral procession advanced toward a cemetery which was located near German headquarters. In order to keep the Nazi SS officers away, the funeral organizers convinced them that the deaths were the result of a typhoid epidemic, which had indeed become widespread during World War II. These rumors of disease caused the SS soldiers to keep their distance, and the Torah scrolls were successfully buried.

The efforts to delay the resolution of the question of the community’s Jewishness finally saved most of the city’s Jews. It wasn’t long before the German army had to withdraw its forces from the Caucasus, following its defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad. However, during this brief period of occupation, the Nazis were able to loot property, harass Jews, and send many to forced labor.


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.

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.

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.