The chess master portraits that escaped the Holocaust

“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

By Miriam Friedman Morris

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on “The Librarians”, the official online publication of the National Library of Israel. Check it out for more stories on Jewish, Israeli, and Middle Eastern history, heritage and culture. It is reprinted with permission of the author.

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.

My father was born in Mährisch Ostrau in 1893, then Austria-Hungary, today Ostrava in the Czech Republic. At the age of 17, 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.

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.

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. 

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.

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 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).

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.

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.

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.

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!”

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! 

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.

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’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.

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.