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Bersohn, Mathias

(1824–1908), banker, art collector, and patron. Mathias Bersohn (Berson) managed a sugar refinery set up by his father, Me’ir Bersohn (1801–1873), and founded a private bank. As a young man, Bersohn began to invest in Polish art and Judaica, ultimately amassing one of the most important private collections of such objects. From the mid-1860s, he also began to collect Polish Jewish handicrafts.

Bersohn grew up in an observant family that favored liturgical reform. His teacher, Avraham Me’ir Goldschmidt (1812–1889), was a native of Posen who later became chief rabbi of Leipzig. After attending the University of Berlin, Bersohn returned to Warsaw, where in 1869 and 1871 he was elected to the executive board of the Jewish community. In this capacity and as a member of the board of the Warsaw Charitable Society, he organized and administered shelters for Jewish children. He also maintained soup kitchens and supervised the Jewish children’s hospital that his father had founded.

Bersohn’s art collection was first exhibited to the public in 1875. He also wrote a number of short works on Polish art history and on Polish Jewish history and culture, including the first ethnographic work on wooden synagogues in Poland, Kilka słów o dawnych bóżnicach drzewianych w Polsce (Some Remarks on Ancient Wooden Synagogues in Poland; 1900), as well as Słownik biograficzny uczonych Żydów polskich w XVI, XVII i XVIII w. (Biographical Dictionary of Learned Polish Jews in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries; 1905) and Dyplomataryusz dotyczacy Zydów w dawnej Polsce na zrodlach archiwalnych osnuty, 1388–1782 (Documents Pertaining to the Jews of Old Poland Based on Archival Sources; published posthumously in 1910). Although Bersohn’s historical studies of Jews in Poland in the early modern period fall short of the standards of academic scholarship, they serve as valuable reference materials.

As a member of the generation promoting ties between Polish Jews and non-Jews, Bersohn considered his interests in both cultural histories as complementary. He bequeathed his collection of Polish art to national museums in Warsaw and Kraków and to the Zachęta art collection in Warsaw. Because his children converted to Christianity, Bersohn did not want to leave his Judaica collection to them; it became instead the basis for the Muzeum Starożytnosci Żydowskich im. Mathiasa Bersohna (Mathias Bersohn Museum of Jewish Antiquities), founded in 1904 by the Warsaw Jewish community administration. This “last Jewish monument set up by the Polish assimilationist movement” (Shatzky, 1953; vol. 3, p. 332) nevertheless failed to attract extensive public interest. It was destroyed during the German occupation of Poland in World War II.

Suggested Reading

Zuzanna Rabska, “Bersohn Mathias,” in Polski słownik biograficzny, vol. 1, pp. 469–470 (Kraków, 1935); Jacob Shatzky, Geshikhte fun yidn in Varshe, vol. 2 (New York, 1948), vol. 3 (New York, 1953), pp. 328–332.



Translated from German by Deborah Cohen