The Jewish art collectors in Breslau

The popularization and updating of knowledge about Jewish art collectors in pre-war Breslau, today’s Wrocław, has been achieved through the collaboration of UMF with Dr. Magdalena Palica as part of the MultiMemo project funded by the European Union. We present to you a database that continues the efforts initiated over 10 years ago by a group of researchers, including Dr. Palica, as part of the ‘Silesian Collections’ initiative.

The aim of our project is to provide information about Jewish collectors from Breslau and their collections, to highlight the uniqueness and global significance of the discussed pre-war art collections, and to raise questions about the devaluation and sale processes of works from individual collections during the Nazi era. This includes their confiscation, theft, and current strategies for restitution of Jewish movable property in Poland and other EU countries



“Closets and walls (in apartments) of art collectors are filled with the most beautiful works of German and French artists. The wealth of valuable pieces of both antique and contemporary graphics is impressive. Here one can admire works rarely found even in the wealthiest art galleries.”


With these words, the prominent art critic Karl Scheffler concluded an article published in the influential magazine “Kunst und Künstler,” the result of his visit to Breslau in 1923. During this expedition, he visited several newly established art collections in the city. The critic assessed that these collections, although amassed in just a few years, were assembled with great sensitivity and expertise. The quality of the collections was evidenced not only by famous names (Géricault, Corot, Daumier, Delacroix, or Courbet) but also by the high level of individual canvases. Scheffler added that it would be worthwhile to expand them with works by French Impressionists, as only Renoir was adequately represented (six paintings), and the works of other leading artists of this movement were not too numerous (one painting each by Manet, Monet, and Degas). Scheffler was most struck by the absence of Cézanne’s works in the Breslau collections (at that time, collectors only had one early composition by the painter) and Van Gogh. Nevertheless, he emphasized that the collections he visited were what had long been lacking in Breslau, a city aspiring to be an important center of European culture.


The creators of these impressive collections were three wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs: Carl Sachs, Max Silberberg, and Leo Lewin. Later, the lawyer Ismar Littmann, also Jewish, whose interests focused on expressionist art, joined them. When Scheffler wrote the article about collectors from Breslau, he did not mention their Jewish origin; in 1923, it did not yet have political significance. Ten years later, when the Nazis came to power, this issue proved crucial, determining the tragic fate of both the collectors themselves and the art works they had gathered. Those who did not make a quick decision to emigrate perished, and their accumulated art collections were plundered. The extermination of Breslau’s Jews and the post-war change of borders meant that the collectors disappeared from the pages of the city’s history for many years. Although we walk every day on the streets they once traversed and visit the same places, we are unaware of who created them, gave them meaning, and adorned them. Breslau art collectors often visited the Silesian Museum of Fine Arts on Museumsplatz (nowadays Muzealny Square) and the library located there at the time. The building of this museum was demolished, but thanks to the preserved library collections, we can at least partially reconstruct galleries of outstanding works of art created by Jewish collectors in Breslau.


The topic of collections gathered by Jews in Breslau was addressed more broadly only in the last decade of the 20th century when the heirs of collectors, based on the Washington Declaration of 1998, began to claim their lost property. Researchers assisting families in finding works of art, often relying on previously unknown documentation provided by them, presented their discoveries in numerous articles. Publications by Anja Heuss, Hans-Joachim Hinze, and Monika Tatzkow allowed an assessment of the scale and level of the phenomenon of collecting outstanding works of art by Breslau Jews. The results of the research were surprising to many people interested in the city’s history: it turned out that in the twenties, Breslau could admire numerous canvases by well-known painters.


Research conducted over the past 25 years has brought to light many collections and their creators. Important for the reconstruction of collections were auction catalogs and inventories, which in several cases allowed a satisfying reconstruction of the collection, especially if it contained well-known works of art. For example, Max Silberberg’s collection, from which works were returned as one of the first under the Washington Convention, is well-researched. Other collections are known only fragmentarily, such as the gallery of paintings by Gustava and Alois Landerer. Nevertheless, we have chosen to present it to you due to the unique portrait of the collector. We have also selected the collection of Hugo Kolker, which is still insufficiently developed, to remind art connoisseurs of it.


Disparities in the illustrated objects reflect the different degrees of exploration of individual collections. The selection of presented objects was also dictated by the desire to present the diversity of Breslau collections and phenomena important for modern art, as well as topics related to the collector’s market, the confiscation of collections by National Socialists, and the restitution of works of art.


Before the Second World War, the Jewish community in Breslau was the third largest in Germany (after Berlin and Frankfurt). It included many collectors who were erased from the memory of descendants by Nazi persecutions, war, and post-war border changes. The above stories are just a fragment of the cultural landscape of the former Wrocław, in which a large group of Jewish intellectuals and entrepreneurs was present in the city’s public life. Many figures are still waiting to save their collections from oblivion and reconstruct them with their effort.

Edgar Degas, “Ballerinas”, the collection of Max Silberberg

Rembrandt van Rijn, “Scene from the Old Testament”, Collection of Leo Lewin

Vincent van Gogh, “Garden in Auvers”, the collection of Leo Lewin

The data base “Jewish art collectors” is part of the project “MultiMemo: Multidirectional Memory: Remembering for Social Justice”, which the UMF is implementing together with eight European partners thanks to funding from the European Union (CERV program).