Renata and Michal Hornstein

The philanthropist couple, who escaped the Nazis in Poland, enriched Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts


Renata and Michal Hornstein were near-victims of the Nazi death machine in Poland who became Canadian millionaires, putting their wealth to the public good. Renata Witelson was born in Lodz, Poland, and spent her youth evading death. Her family fled the Nazis to the Warsaw ghetto where the parents were captured and later murdered. Escaping to Krakow and then Budapest, Renata hid in a convent and with a Polish family, until she was able to reach a safe house in Pressburg (now Bratislava).

Michal Hornstein was born in Tarnów and grew up in Krakow. Hornstein was the second child of Moshe Itzhak and Rikel (née Honig) Hornstein. He graduated from Krakow’s business school and was 18 when Germany invaded. He was captured by the German army and deported to Auschwitz. Before the train reached the camp, he leapt from the freight car (more than 700 prisoners escaped in this way) and went into hiding, first in the Czech forests and then in Budapest until 1944 when the Soviet army arrived. He managed to reach the safe house in Bratislava where he met Renata. She recorded her wartime experiences in two self-published volumes of narrative poetry: A Tumultuous Journey: Horror, Hope and Happiness (2008) and From Precipice to Paradise—And Candid Thoughts (2012).

Broadening of horizons After the war, Renata and Michal relocated to Rome where he worked in banking and they lived with Renata’s three aunts and their husbands. Michal and Renata married there in 1946. During their five years in Italy, they began to collect art because, as Renata recalled, their “walls were empty”. In itself, an interest in art signalled a broadening of horizons for Michal. His son, Norbert, remarked: “Orthodox Jews are not inclined to look at pictures. So the whole idea that he should become an art collector constituted a long journey for him emotionally, culturally and intellectually.” The couple became friends of the Canadian ambassador to Italy who encouraged them to emigrate to Canada. In 1951 the couple moved to Montreal where, in 1953, Michal founded Federal Construction, a real estate company that made his fortune in building flats and houses in a city where the population rose from 1.3 million to 3.1 million between 1950 and 1990.

The Hornsteins dedicated much of their wealth to collecting art, mostly Flemish and Dutch Old Masters, with works by Willem van Aelst, Ferdinand Bol, Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Pieter Claesz, Adriaen Isenbrandt, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Steen, David Teniers the Younger, Willem van de Velde the Younger and Philips Wouwermans. Outside of Netherlandish art, they also owned paintings by Claude, Piazzetta, Carriera and Vernet.

Soon after settling in Montreal, the couple also became involved with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts where Michal served on the board of trustees continuously from 1970. Over the years, they donated 30 paintings and 330 drawings, and helped the museum to acquire many others, Michal holding the post of chairman of the acquisitions committee from 1982. They also helped to pay for the restoration of the 1912 pavilion on Sherbrooke Street, which was named after them in 2000. In 2012, they gave 75 Old Masters, including some by the artists mentioned above, estimated to be worth $75m, which the museum said was the largest ever private donation to a Quebec museum. In 1998, with a gift of $125,000 they established the Renata Hornstein Graduate Fellowship in Art History, which enables two new students a year to undertake postgraduate work at Montreal’s Concordia University.

The Hornsteins were also notable for their donations to educational and healthcare bodies, notably the Montreal Heart Institute (where the chair of surgery is named in their honour), the Montreal General Hospital, the Hôpital Notre-Dame and the Jewish General Hospital. The Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal has created a department specialising in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, known as the Renata Hornstein Evaluation Centre.

Good will overcome evil On 19 November, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will open the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, which will house their Old Master collection. The name of the new pavilion expresses the Hornsteins’ optimistic belief that good will ultimately overcome evil—their fundamental life experience. Norbert Hornstein said that their success was born not so much of suffering as from their will to live: “They were not in concentration camps, they weren’t starved to death, they were running and were always one step ahead and succeeded.” In From Precipice to Paradise, Renata expressed their hope and resolve:

Together we went

Through very tough times

Looking out for each other

We managed to survive.


The war’s brutality

Was not easy to forget

It was time to move on

With optimism, no regret.

Michal Hornstein died on 25 April, aged 95, and Renata on 22 July, aged 87. Very shortly before his death, Michal and their daughter, Sari, took a sentimental journey around his adopted city, stopping at the Duc de Lorraine pastry shop on Côte des Neiges, which he had visited as a new immigrant from Europe. There he enjoyed his favourite gâteau de mille-feuilles. E stercore aurum. Pastry succeeds and persecution fails.

• Michal Hornstein, born 17 September 1920, died 25 April 2016

• Renata Hornstein, born 1928/29, died 22 July 2016