The Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection
From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection

The Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection

The Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library is composed of two divisions: the Autograph Collection and the Portrait Collection. Alongside examples of signatures and original handwriting, the Portrait Collection, contains tens of thousands of profiles of more than 3,000 Jewish figures. Essentially, this is the biggest, and only, collection of its kind in the world of Jewish portraits. It is a sort of "National Gallery" of great figures from Jewish history. Abraham Schwadron, the man who founded this unique collection, wrote about his motivations for collecting the portraits:

"Just as every person, to whom feelings of admiration are not foreign, will be happy to know that the picture and handwriting or those dear and close to him are being preserved and will continue to exist, so certainly, it is important and pleasant […] to know the faces- the most intimate and personal remnant of these great people- to know, that they are being preserved and will continue to exist for a long time and for coming generations."

For more than 50 years, Abraham Schwadron worked diligently, collecting and registering hundreds of portraits, often by directly petitioning the figure from whom he requested the profile. After Schwadron's sudden death in 1957, the management of the National Library decided to continue to develop the collection. In the years that have passed since then, many hundreds of portraits have been added to the collection, and the National Library is continuing to collect and register them, to this day, while still preserving the original character of the collection.

Despite the desire to create a national collection, where there would be a place for Jewish figures from all eras, all over the world, in execution, the project encountered more than a few difficulties. The Biblical prohibition against the making of statues and images [of God] resulted in the fact that for many generations Jews avoided creating portraits, and starting from the middle of the 19th century, there were those who also avoided being photographed. Despite this, the collection includes many portraits of rabbis and Jewish figures starting from the 17th century onward. These prints are printed on a wide range of printing techniques, characteristic of the place and era in which they were created: engravings, woodcuts and sculptures, etc. In addition to these, the collection also includes a few drawings and oil paintings. Naturally, most of the portraits in the collection are photographs, and also in this case, a large number of photographic techniques are represented, for the most part black and white.

For more than 70 years the Schwadron Portrait Collection has been a source of inspiration for writers of biographies, lexicons, and encyclopedias all over the world. As this rich and unique collection is being uploaded to the internet, it can be expected that it will serve a growing audience of readers and browsers, who will be able to use it in the name of enriching human knowledge, for their own enjoyment and for the sake of future generations.

Abraham Schwadron (Sharon)

Abraham Schwadron

Abraham Schwadron

The personality of Avraham Schwadron is an enigma: how could so many contrasts coexist in one person? Chemist, poet, zealous ideologue and sensitive composer, emphatic and retiring – all these were facets of this talented individual, making him one of the most colorful characters to inhabit Jerusalem during the British Mandate period. And from this remarkable blend of traits emerged a singular direction, one even harder to explain. What was it that made this young Jew from a wealthy family devote his entire life to obsessive collecting of portraits and autographs, donate the collections to the National Library, uncompensated, and continue his unrestrained and far-reaching collecting until he reached the end of his life, alone and destitute?

One question Schwadron was often called upon to answer was why he became a collector. A composite of his various answers depicts a young boy born in eastern Galicia in 1878 to a rich industrialist family that was descended from a dynasty of rabbis and scholars. At the age of sixteen, Schwadron would say, he read a book by the historian Moshe (Moritz) Güdemann in which he encountered a historical document interpreted in a manner that seemed inaccurate to him. The young Schwadron was so bold as to send the noted Jewish scholar a letter containing an alternative interpretation. To his great surprise, the boy received a letter in response, thanking him in appreciation for his astute interpretation. The great pride he felt upon receipt of this letter encouraged the young Schwadron to continue sending letters to other known Jewish scholars and writers. The responses he received from them accumulated into a veritable collection, and spurred him to seek out letters, manuscripts and autographs of other personalities, for which he paid in full.

Schwadron's autograph collection led him to begin developing another collection – portraits of the same famous individuals. When he discovered that the large museums and libraries of Europe held national collections of manuscripts and portraits, it occurred to him – he would assert years later – that it was his responsibility to establish such a collection for the Jewish people. He set about fulfilling this self-imposed mission with an abiding seriousness, though his words may seem filled with pathos to us today.

World War I, in which Schwadron fought in the ranks of the Austrian army, reinforced his nationalist Zionist leanings. The founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the National Library contributed to his decision to leave home and move to Palestine in order to fulfill his dream of a becoming the national collector in Jerusalem. In 1927 Schwadron moved to Palestine, bringing with him his collections of portraits and autographs, which already numbered in the thousands and were extremely valuable. He donated the collections, uncompensated, to the National Library, and subsisted on a modest stipend sent to him from Poland. In the period leading up to World War II, Schwadron worked tirelessly to acquire and collect valuable portraits and manuscripts and bring them to Palestine from Europe. This activity saved many of the items from perishing. The extensive network of relations he developed with collectors, merchants and people of note all over the world helped realize the dream of a boy from a small village in Galicia. The Schwadron Autograph and Portrait Collection became the largest Jewish collection of its kind in the world. Rabbis, authors, statesmen, artists, scientists – all are represented in this diverse and rich collection of some 40,000 items. Joseph Karo and Karl Marx, Moses Mendelsohn and Naphtali Hertz Imber, Herzl and Freud, Rachel the Poetess and Franz Kafka – all are part of the fascinating mosaic of Jewish characters whose writing and portraits are preserved in the Schwadron Collection.