Dr Michael Berolzheimer is a lawyer by profession but his real passions are art and genealogy. He is from an old-established family from Franconia in southern Germany.

The Berolzheimers: entrepreneurs and philanthropists

In the historic city center of Fürth is a magnificent Jugendstil building known as the Berolzheimerianum. The Berolzheimers, a Jewish manufacturing family, founded the building in 1904. It contained a library, a reading room, concert auditoria, and exhibition space. With the building the Berolzheimers wanted to give workers free access to books, entertainment, and education.

Ölgemälde. Porträt eines älteren Herrn mit Oberlippenbart, in braunem Mantel.
Heinrich Berolzheimer (1836−1906) was made an honorary citizen of Fürth and Nuremberg in recognition of his generous donations.

Jüdische Geschichte in Fürth (Bayern), http://www.alemannia-judaica.de/fuerth_synagoge.htm. cc-by-sa-3.0

From Franconia to the USA

The Berolzheimers are pencil manufacturers. Michael Berolzheimer’s father Heinrich had the courage and vision to expand his business from Franconia to the USA as early as 1868. Two of his sons, Emil und Philipp, emigrate to the USA, where they continue to run the company. Michael, who is born in 1866, is not tempted to move that far away. Instead he chooses to settle in Munich, where he studies law.

Lawyer in Munich

Historisches Foto in Schwarzweiß. Herrschaftliches mehrstöckiges Gebäude an einer Straßenkreuzung, im Erdgeschoß ein Café.
While a student in Munich, Michael Berolzheimer lives at a number of addresses including Herzogspitalstraße.

Munich City Archive

In 1891 Michael Berolzheimer completed his law degree. The following year, at the age of 26, he was awarded a doctorate. He established his own legal practice in the center of Munich. In 1913 the honorary title Hofrat was conferred on him by the Prince Regent of Bavaria, later King Ludwig III.

Belated marital bliss

Porträtfoto einer elegant gekleideten Frau mit hochgesteckten Haaren.
Melitta Schweisheimer, around 1900. When she met Michael Berolzheimer, she was still married to Eugen Schweisheimer, a Munich banker.

Family archive


In the 1890s Michael Berolzheimer meets Melitta Schweisheimer, who is a year younger than him. She has three children and so it would not have been an easy decision for her to separate from her first husband, above all because this would mean losing custody of her children. Yet she goes ahead and divorces her husband in 1903.

Melitta and Michael marry the same year in London. They have their wedding abroad because their union had not met with approval. As a divorcee, Melitta is initially not welcome in the Berolzheimer family. However, with time they let go their grudge against her and accept Melitta as a sister-in-law.

Schwarzweißfotografie. Vor einem Hauseingang stehen eine Dame mit Pelzkragen, ein Herr mit Anzug und Hut, zwischen ihnen ein Junge und ein Mädchen gekleidet im Stil der 20er Jahre.
Melitta and Michael Berolzheimer with the grandchildren Elsieliese and Peter, 1928.

Family archive

Melitta and Michael have a happy marriage, travel extensively, and pursue common interests. They do not have any children together, but Michael takes care of Melitta’s children from her first marriage – Waldemar, Nelly and Robert – and the grandchildren.

A retreat in Untergrainau

Rural idyll at the foot of the Alps

In 1908 the Berolzheimers spent their first summer in their country house “Hügel am Weg” (Hill by the Wayside) in Untergrainau, which had just been completed. The house is located on a hill around 100 kilometers south of Munich in the Werdenfelser Land region, between the station and the Eibsee lake.

“We really feel at home here; the fresh air is wonderful, the countryside splendid, and our little house is delightful.”

Michael to his brother Philip and sister-in-law Clara, August 3, 1908

The summer retreat becomes home

At the time, the foothills of the Alps are a magnet not only for daytrippers and tourists, but also for well-to-do city-dwellers, who have vacation homes built here.

Yet for the Berolzheimers, Untergrainau is more than just somewhere to spend a summer vacation. Their family life centers around the country house. They welcome guests there including musicians, painters, writers, and theologians. In 1909 they therefore decide to make Untergrainau their main residence.

Schwarzweißfoto. Ein älterer Herr sitzt an seinem Schreibtisch vor einem Fenster.
Michael Berolzheimer in his study in Untergrainau, around 1935.

Family archive

The reclusive scholar

From this point, Michael Berolzheimer devotes himself to studying the genealogy of Jewish families in Bavaria. He finds important sources through his own archival research and through extensive correspondence with genealogists and scholars. Today his documents are a key resource for research into Franconian-Jewish genealogy.

World War One

World War One leaves its mark on Untergrainau too. These are anxious times: Melitta’s two sons, Robert and Waldemar, serve at the front and are wounded.

Melitta sets up a depot in the family’s country residence for letters and parcels to be sent out to the soldiers and makes rooms available for a field hospital. The Berolzheimers provide people in need with food and clothing. Michael provides legal assistance to Grainau residents, often free of charge.

After the war, Michael Berolzheimer and the village’s Catholic priest provide the impetus for a memorial dedicated to the 20 fallen soldiers from the local community.

Art collector and expert

Carl Hummel: Wasserfall in Waldlandschaft (Kochelfall), Sepiaskizze.
Carl Hummel: Waterfall in the Giant Mountains (Kochelfall). Restituted in 2011. 🔍 Move the mouse over the picture to enlarge it

Photo: Galerie Arnoldi-Livie 🔍 Hover over the image to enlarge

The art collection

Michael Berolzheimer is an avid art collector. He mainly collects drawings, watercolors, and prints. He also owns a number of 19th century paintings and sculptures.

Berolzheimer’s expertise is held in high esteem in the Munich art scene. He works in an honorary capacity for the acquisitions committee at the city’s Alte Pinakothek gallery and for the Graphische Sammlungen (State Collection of Prints and Drawings).

Two Rodins for Untergrainau

In 1912 Michael and Melitta Berolzheimer visit the renowned sculptor Auguste Rodin in France and buy two bronzes. The larger-than-life-size figure Saint Jean-Baptiste (John the Baptist) henceforth graces the garden at their Untergrainau residence. The second bronze, L'homme au nez cassé (The Man with the Broken Nose), is kept on Michael Berolzheimer’s desk.


Schwarzweißfoto. Zwei große Hotelbauten, davor ein Fahnenmast mit einer Fahne mit Hakenkreuz, im Hintergrund steile Berge.
Swastikas also became a dominant feature of Grainau, here on display at a hotel in the neighbouring village of Hammersbach, 1935.

Archiv Peter Schwarz, Grainau

Roter Zettel mit judenfeindlichem Text
Since 1938 this and other similar slogans are included in the brochures and information sent out in response to inquiries from aspiring holidaymakers. In Garmisch-Partenkirchen there is not a single shop without a sign prohibiting entry to Jews.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen market archive, file index 131

The idyll is shattered

When the National Socialists assume power in 1933, life changes in Untergrainau too. Jews are increasingly excluded from public life. Although Berolzheimer is held in high regard on account of his charity work and his commitment to social causes, in 1937 his name is removed from the address book of his home town. Even his efforts to establish the memorial to the fallen soldiers are brought into disrepute as antisemitic sentiment takes hold.

Schwarzweißfoto. Sechs Menschen unterschiedlichen Alters in langen Mänteln.
Melitta’s son Waldemar had already emigrated to the USA in 1936 with his wife and their two children, Elsieliese and Peter. Michael and Melitta Berolzheimer saw them in New York in 1937, a year before their own emigration.

Family archive

Refuge with American relatives

On 25 July 1938 Melitta und Michael Berolzheimer leave Untergrainau just in time and emigrate to the USA. Just two days later the Landratsamt (District Administration) orders the confiscation of their passports, which would have prevented them from leaving the country. The Berolzheimers are able to take their household goods, books, and papers with them, along with part of their art collection. In New York they are received and supported by Michael’s brother Philip and his wife Clare.

Excerpt from Melitta’s letter to Frances Greenhood, dated July 27, 1938 (family archive).

“And so here was where we said farewell...”,

wrote Melitta in Zurich, shortly after the couple’s departure from Germany.

The Berolzheimers’ remaining assets in Germany is liquidated in the meantime as part of the “de-Jewification (Entjudung) of land ownership” and to enforce payment of the “atonement fine” (Sühneleistung) imposed on German Jews following the orchestrated campaign of anti-Jewish violence on November 9, 1938.
Titelseite eines Katalogs
Front cover of the catalogue of the Weinmüller auction house, Munich, March 9–10, 1939.

Heidelberg University Library, https://doi.org/10.11588/diglit.5336#0005


The drawings and prints left behind in Untergrainau after the Berolzheimers’ departure are auctioned off in March 1939 by the Munich auction house Adolf Weinmüller. The state retains the proceeds of the auction and uses them to finance the ‘levy on Jewish assets’ (Judenvermögensabgabe).

Among the bidders are curators from major German and Austrian institutions such as the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Kunsthalle Bremen, the Städel in Frankfurt and the Albertina in Vienna. The listings in the auction catalogue does not give the owner’s name, but a star indicates that the items were originally in Jewish ownership.

Schwarzweißfoto. Älterer Herr mit Brille und Schiebermütze.
Michael Berolzheimer in the USA, around 1939.

Family archive

Final years in the USA

Melitta and Michael Berolzheimer are in their early seventies when they flee Germany. The financial distress the National Socialists had caused them, compulsory levies, and the loss of the property they had left behind all take a heavy toll. They repeatedly hear news of the deportation and murder of relatives and friends.

In addition, they have health issues. Michael, who had suffered from heart problems for some time, dies of heart failure on June 5, 1942. Melitta is too weak to attend the funeral. She passes away just fifteen days after her husband. Her granddaughter Elsieliese thinks it likely that “she died of a broken heart.”


Farbfotografie. Hände in weißen Handschuhen, die linke hält ein Blatt Papier mit einem Stempel, die rechte eine Lupe.
The stamp used by the Nationalgalerie from 1935 for the back of newly acquired works .

SPK/photothek.net/Thomas Köhler

The whereabouts of the drawings in Berlin

In March 1939 Paul Ortwin Rave, director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, buys 30 drawings from the Berolzheimer collection at the Weinmüller auction house. Most of them are by 19th century German artists. A few months later, World War Two breaks out. The drawings in Berlin are put into storage in various locations. The majority of those formerly owned by Berolzheimer are seized by the Soviets in 1945 and it is not until 1958 that they are returned to what was then East Germany.

Bleistiftzeichnung, die eine Gruppe von Menschen mit Pferden zeigt, die sich vor einem Sturm zu schützen versucht.
Johann Hermann Kretzschmer: Karawane in Sandsturm (Caravan in a Sandstorm), 1842. Restituted in 2011.

Photo: Galerie Arnoldi-Livie 🔍 Hover over the image to enlarge

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Eater of Grapes and Melons, c. 1645, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen - Alte Pinakothek Munich
Gottlob Friedrich Thormeyer: Das Schloss in Dessau (Dessau Palace), c. 1799. Restituted in 2011.

Photo: Galerie Arnoldi-Livie 🔍 Hover over the image to enlarge

Bleistiftzeichnung. Eine Gruppe von Menschen in langen Gewändern, dabei zwei Engel. Im Hintergrund eine hohe Stadtmauer mit Stadttor.
Carl Gottlieb Peschel: Der Auszug Lots (The Departure of Lot). Restituted in 2011.

Photo: Galerie Arnoldi-Livie 🔍 Hover over the image to enlarge

Zeichnung. Hügeliges Land mit Bäumen und Sträuchern, im Hintergrund ein See.
Hans Gude: Seeufer bei Regenstimmung (Lakeshore in a rainy mood). Restituted in 2011.

Photo: Galerie Arnoldi-Livie 🔍 Hover over the image to enlarge


After the war Michael Berolzheimer’s art collection is scattered across many locations. His stepsons attempt to obtain initial compensation but the whereabouts of many of the works are unknown. The drawings acquired by the Nationalgalerie are still in the Soviet Union at the time. The compensation case was closed.

It is not until decades later that progress is made. In 2011 the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) returns the drawings from its collections to the family. Many other public collections also returns artworks from the Berolzheimer collection to the heirs.

Pastellzeichnung. Porträt eines Herrn mittleren Alters, der ein kunstvoll geknotetes blaues Halstuch trägt. In seiner rechten Hand eine Schreibfeder.
Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein: Porträt des Schriftstellers Freiherr Alexander von Ungern-Sternberg (Portrait of the Writer Baron Alexander von Ungern-Sternberg), chalk drawing, c. 1840/50.

Kupferstichkabinett - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Foto: Galerie Arnoldi-Livie, München


After their return from Berlin the drawings go to the Arnoldi-Livie Gallery in Munich, which trades them on the art market. This portrait of the writer Alexander von Ungern-Sternberg returns to Berlin for a second time as a “donation from the Arnoldi-Livie Gallery in memory of Michael Berolzheimer” and becomes part of the collection at the Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings).

Film by Bayerischer Rundfunk on Michael Berolzheimer

Aus datenschutzrechtlichen Gründen benötigt Vimeo Ihre Einwilligung um geladen zu werden.