In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Baron Maurice de Hirsch, the builder of the Vienna-Constantinople Railroad, and his friends, sponsored the settlement of Eastern European Jews in many lands. They spent the equivalent of $2 billion in today’s dollars, working primarily in North and South America. See what sparked their efforts here
We present written works and visuals depicting the original immigrants and we relate the achievements of the descendants of these immigrants. And there are many achievements. Our forebears were courageous and ingenious people as are their grand and great-grandchildren.
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MORE ON BARON HIRSCH
For the whole story, read the official history of Baron Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association, An Outstretched Arm.
For information on Baron Hirsch’s work in the United States through the Jewish Agricultural Society see this post by Professor Emeritus of North Carolina State University, Gary Moore.
Here you can find over 50 different books on the life and work of Baron Hirsch.
Also, check out this short summary of Baron Hirsch’s work with Jewish farmers.
Here is a short summary of Baron Hirsch’s life, “A Prince Among Men” written in 1931 upon the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Here is a 1910 report from the U.S. Government on “Hebrews in Agriculture”. including many of Baron Hirsch’s projects.
Click here for a list of the archives worldwide of Baron Hirsch-related documents, including correspondence with individual immigrants.
On a foggy December afternoon in 2021, I accidentally stumbled on a fascinating website, The Baron Hirsch Jewish Farmers Community. The golden field, on the home page, illuminated by the sun seemed to shine a ray of light into my gloomy living room. As I clicked through the different pages: Argentina, Brazil, USA, I was intrigued to discover that these countries had Jewish farming colonies and that they had received funding from Baron Maurice de Hirsch, one of 19th century’s wealthiest men and the most significant Jewish philanthropist of his time who wanted Jews to become farmers, then seen as the most honourable of occupations, and which, he believed, would be the answer to eliminating anti-Semitism.
Engrossed by the stories — the Catskills’ Grossinger’s resort had its start as a Jewish farm located on rocky soil that just could not make a go of it as a farm? Who knew? — I noticed conspicuously missing was a page on the Canadian Jewish farming experience. Since most Jewish farms in Canada received at least some financial assistance from the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), the philanthropic organization Hirsch established, I thought a Canadian chapter was warranted.
I found an email address and wrote away asking if I can contribute a story on Jewish farming in Canada, specifically about a Jewish farming colony in eastern Alberta that was once home to a synagogue — the 1916 Montefiore Institute — which had received $300 towards its construction from JCA.
How the Lost Montefiore Institute Synagogue Was Found and
Came to Calgary’s Heritage Park Historical Village
By Irena Karshenbaum, Founder & President, The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project Society
Jews Arrive in Alberta
The first Jews to settle permanently in the vast area that in 1905 would become the Province of Alberta tended to gravitate to the larger centres. In 1889, Calgary, already a bustling town in what was then the Northwest Territories, was in the midst of real estate speculation when the first of these settlers, Jacob Diamond, a Lithuanian immigrant, planted his roots there with his wife, Rachel (born Maria Stoodley).
Even though there were independent Jewish farmers working the land in various settlements across the young province, in places like Alliance, Acadia Valley, Cochrane, Rockyford, Okotoks, three Jewish bloc settlements emerged. All three were clustered in eastern Alberta. The independent Jewish farmers and the three bloc settlements — Trochu (1905), Rumsey (1907) and most importantly for our story, the Montefiore Colony (1910) — received assistance from the Jewish Colonization Association, with funds from Baron Hirsch’s bequest.
The clustering of the settlements occurred because Canada at the time espoused a bloc settlement policy. Sir Clifford Sifton championed this policy during his time as Minister of the Interior. The bloc policy allowed immigrants from the same ethnic group to settle near each other so they could create communities of support. Many ethnic groups formed bloc settlements — German, Mennonite, African American, Ukrainian and many others — Jewish included.
The Montefiore Colony
In 1910, Bill Manolson and Louis Schacter filed for homesteads northwest of the village of Sibbald, located 5 kilometres east of the Saskatchewan border, establishing the Montefiore Colony. Twenty Jewish farmers soon followed.
By 1914, the Colony had 53 residents. In 1916, the farmers decided that the colony was large enough that they needed a synagogue. To build the synagogue, they applied for and received a loan of $300 from the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA). They raised the remaining $1,200 from community members. Even though partial funding came from Baron Hirsch’s JCA, the colonists named their synagogue the Montefiore Institute, in memory of Sir Moses Montefiore. Sir Moses was an Italian-born, British Jewish philanthropist who had passed away thirty years earlier, in 1886, at the age of 100.
Please do click on the links in the text. They lead to so much fascinating information.
This post on Jewish farmers on the Canadian prairies was inspired by Land of Hope, the memoirs of Clara Hoffer. In 1907Clara’s husband, Israel, co-founded the Sonnenfeld Colony in Saskatchewan. Clara had lived previously a little further north with her parents in the Lipton Colony, which was founded by Baron Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) in 1901.Land of Hopewas sent to me by Mark Gardner whose grandfather Aaron and great-uncle Harry also settled in Sonnenfeld. I am very grateful.
Between 1884 and 1912 thirty-one Jewish farming settlements were formed on the Canadian prairies spread out among three western provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. 1 That is quite a hefty figure. Especially, when we remember that farming was not at all a typical Jewish profession where these settlers came from, Eastern Europe and Russia.
But somehow in Canada, things were different. As the Western Canada Director of Baron Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association,Louis Rosenberg noted, among all the peoples who settled in Canada, the percentage of those who farmed in Canada is lower than the percentage who farmed in their country of origin. Except for the Jews. By coming to Canada the Jews actually increased the percentage of farmers in their community. 2
And in Saskatchewan where most of the Jewish farming colonies were located, Jewish homesteaders were some of the first in the province. They arrived before the Doukhobors, Russians, Germans, Hungarians, and Ukrainians. “Only the “Mennonites and immigrants from Britain and Iceland,” preceded the Jews.3 In fact, the earliest marked grave in all of the Canadian prairies can be found in the Hirsch Colony cemetery. It belongs to Judah Blank and is dated December 18, 1894. 4
Baron Hirsch Helps Them Out
Baron Hirsch’s generosity helped many of these farmers. ( For a thorough discussion of how Baron Hirsch funds came to Canada see Chiel, Arthur (1961) “Agricultural Attempts, “The Jews of Manitoba, ” University of Toronto Press, 1961. ) Hirsch’s Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) only established two of the colonies, Hirsch and Lipton. But there was not one farming community “in the whole of Canada that [did] not benefit … from the assistance of [the JCA].” 5 The JCA helped build synagogues, offered the original capital for cooperatives, paid for teachers and rabbis, and gave out loans at half the usual bank rates, over 2000 loans between 1900 and 1923. 6
In fact, when the Regina, Saskatchewan Leader-Post published a story in July 1980 on the Jewish Farming Communities, they chose as their lead photo a portrait of the Baron.
This post is just an outline of this Canadian prairie story and doesn’t cover all of the settlements. There is so much more to tell and so many wonderful sources. So click on all the links in the text and footnotes and enjoy the richness of this history. Note that in footnote nr. 7 you can find a list of major works on this agricultural adventure.7
And if you are looking for information on a particular Jewish Canadian prairie farmer go to the website of the Canadian Jewish Heritage Network and put his or her name into the search bar. You could be amazed by what you find.
The year was 1882 and Sir Alexander Galt, Canada’s High Commissioner (Ambassador) in London was looking to help the Canadian government populate the Canadian West. The West had just become part of Canada a dozen years before. A transcontinental railroad, the Canadian Pacific, was being built, and treaties with the indigenous peoples had made the land available for settlers. Interestingly, the Canadians not only sought to build out their nation. They also wanted to settle the West quickly because they feared that pioneers in the United States would seek to extend the border further north. In addition, Galt had plans to build railroads to hook up with the transcontinental to transfer the coal from his newly purchased mines.
Rosenberg, Louis, (1939) ” “Jews in Agriculture,” in Canada’s Jews: A social and economic study of Jews in Canada in the 1930s, p 218. , Text available at archive.net To use archive.net you need to establish a free account. [↩]
Belkin, Simon (1926), “Jewish Colonization in Canada,” in Arthur Daniel Hart, ed., The Jew in Canada (Toronto and Montreal), pp. 483-488 (pp. 503-508 in the digital version),
Wolff, Martin. “THE JEWS OF CANADA.” The American Jewish Year Book 27 (1925): 154–229. ( see especially Agricultural Colonies pp. 192-198)
Rosenberg, Louis (1939), Jews in Agriculture,Canada’s Jews, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp. 217-225. (This is on archive.net. To use archive.net you need to establish a free account.) [↩]
And Lehmann also provides us an eyewitness view of so much of Baron Hirsch’s life, based on Lehmann’s extensive archival research in Austria, Belgium, England, France, Israel, Turkey, and the United States.
Readers will enjoy this very readable and delightfully detailed text that describes human beings, not just historical figures. We are able to see the building of transcontinental railroads and the formation of huge refugee projects from the details of the daily activities that led to these achievements, as exemplified by the book’s first paragraph ” At seven o’clock one summer morning in August 1895, Maurice de Hirsch, accompanied by his twenty-nine-year-old son Lucien, set out from Boitsfort, on the outskirts of Brussels, to catch the express train to the Belgian seaside resort of Ostend. The reason for that morning’s journey was a summons by King Leopold II, who was eager to convince the prominent Jewish banker and businessman to invest in the construction of a new railroad in the Belgian Congo.” 2
This post contains a short history of the first Brazilian Jewish farming communities supported by Baron Hirsch’s legacy and some references. You can read about eyewitness descriptions of these communities here.
Baron Hirsch established the Jewish Colonization Agency (JCA) in 1891 “to assist and promote the emigration of Jews from any part of Europe or Asia… and to form and establish colonies in various parts of North and South America ….”. And during the Baron’s lifetime, the Agency supported farming communities for Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Argentina, the United States, and Canada.
But after the Baron died in 1896, bequeathing seven million pounds sterling (equivalent to $US 1.12 billion in today’s dollars) to the JCA,1 a newly elected board of trustees voted to use some of this windfall to expand JCA’s colonization activities to southern Brazil,2where the JCA purchased land in 1902.3
For those willing to emigrate to these colonies the JCA offered to ” cover travel expenses and provide each settler with 25-30 hectares [60-75 acres] of land, a house, agricultural implements, two teams of oxen, two cows, one horse and an allowance that varied in accordance with the size of the family, payable once it had become self-sufficient.” 4
Homesteaders first reached the JCA’s first Brazilian colony, Philippson, or Filipson in Portuguese, in 1904. Philippson was located near the city of Santa Maria in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The JCA had not yet built the houses they had promised, so the thirty-seven families were housed in barracks. It took months for the settlers to be assigned land and, once assigned, they discovered it was very hard to farm.
Dreams of turning Jewish tradesmen into farmers date back to the mid-eighteenth century and feature some strange bedfellows. Besides Baron Hirsch, these utopian efforts involved Polish patriots, Russian Czars, German Mennonites, and of course, the Zionists. Like Thomas Jefferson, these Europeans and many other eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century thinkers believed that “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens . . , the most vigorous. . . [and] the most virtuous.”1
The idea of turning Jews into farmers to make them vigorous and virtuous was first proposed In Eastern Europe in the mid-eighteenth century when Austria, Germany, and Russia were trying to gobble up Poland. To ward off this national decapitation the Polish government sought to strengthen Polish society. One concern was the large number of non-assimilated Jews who had settled in Poland since the 12th Century because of the relatively liberal environment that allowed them to prosper and practice their religion. Many of the Jews worked for the nobles, managing estates and selling crops.
By the late 18th century, half of the world’s Jews, about 1.5 million, lived in Poland. The Polish bourgeoisie considered this large community of Jews to be unwelcome competitors and the general populous put the Jews in the same basket as the nobles, resenting both. Polish leaders saw these conflicts as one more cause for the weakness of the country. They thought that if Jews would become farmers they would be like everyone else and the conflicts would cease. Plans were drawn up but were never implemented. And Austria, Germany, and Russia did gobble up Poland.
The majority of the Polish Jews, approximately 1 million, lived in the areas of Eastern Poland that were annexed by Russia between 1772 and 1795. (Listen to a discussion on how this annexation affected these Polish Jews.)
So when Czar Alexander I rose to the throne in 1801 he faced a dual dilemma. First, how could he populate New Russia and Crimea in southern Russia, lands recently conquered from the Ottomans following the Russo-Turkish Wars? In addition, how could the Czar integrate the one million Jews who had recently come under Russian rule through these partitions of Poland?
Where did early 20th Century Jewish shopkeepers earn so much that they wintered in Paris’ most elegant hotel? In Fleischmanns, a summer home for wealthy German-American Jews, founded in the Western Catskills, in 1883 by Charles Fleischmann of the yeast company fame.
These wealthy summer residents drew lots of Jewish entrepreneurs, many of Hungarian origin, who set up stores, hotels, and camps to service this affluent community. Beginning in the second decade of the 20th Century Eastern European Jewish farmers, storekeepers, and summer visitors also added to the area’s population.
How did Fleischmanns become a Jewish village? It all started with Joseph Seligmann, a Jew from Bavaria. He arrived in the US in 1837 at the age of 18. By the late 1870s, he was a multi-millionaire, his family having made a fortune clothing the Union army. Years later they even helped finance the Panama Canal.
In the summer of 1877, Seligmann took his family to Saratoga, NY a very fashionable resort, to stay at the Grand Union Hotel where they had stayed before. But this time he and his family were turned away because they were “Hebrews”. As we shall see, it could be said that this act of anti-Semitism was what caused Fleischmann’s founding.
The Seligmann affair became a major scandal widely reported, including in the NY Times. 1. There was even a song written about it which can be seen in the illustration above. It had a mighty chorus:
“The Hebrews they need not apply; the reason we do not know why; But still they do say, it’s a free country; where the Hebrews they need not apply!“
This story was kindly shared by Joyce Zelnick Weiss. Another story of Growing up on a Chicken Farmin Toms River, by Joyce’s husband Ben Weiss can be found by clicking here.
How did a little girl from the big city end up on a chicken farm in the middle of New Jersey?
I will try to tell you my story of living on a farm in the middle of nowhere. In the 1940s Toms River was much further from Brooklyn than it is now. Transportation was not readily available. We would ride on a bus for a few hours while passengers came and went at various stops in New Jersey. For those lucky enough to have a car it was a shorter trip.
BROOKLYN – TOMS RIVER
I was 9 years old when my father, Max, and mother, Bess, decided to move to Toms River. My father was a pharmacist who owned his own store in Brooklyn, N.Y. We lived on the top floor of a two-family house, and Bess’s parents lived downstairs. My parents were immigrants from Ukraine, and it was common to live close to the relatives and friends that one knew from the old country. So my comfort circle of people that I saw all the time were mostly all related to us.
We used to visit my Uncle Philip and Aunt Bertha in Toms River, New Jersey, on their chicken farm which they bought after selling their grocery business in Newark, N.J. Uncle Philip was one of my father’s older brothers, and he was married to Aunt Bertha.
I don’t know how my relatives ended up in TomsRiver, and I never did find out but, for reasons unknown to me, my parents decided that getting out of the city and moving to the country was a good decision for them and for their children. I don’t recall how long it took for us to pack up and move, but before I knew what was happening, we had moved.
For searching family members in the United States and Canada note:
Online searching is available for Baron Hirsch related genealogical records available through the Center for Jewish History in New York. See this video for instructions. Some complete records are online, and when only a reference to a record is on online you can request the full document from the Center via email at email@example.com
In addition, the genealogical and historical archives described below (alphabetized by city) contain reports and correspondence relating to Baron Hirsch-funded Jewish farming projects and individual immigrants who received aid from the Baron Hirsch charitable organizations. These archives are scattered around the world. Some of the holdings have been uploaded digitally – see the links below – but most are only available on-site.
For texts in French, Spanish and Portuguese I suggest copy-pasting into google translate. It really works.
In 1913, Selig and Malke Grossinger, aided by the Baron Hirsch Fund’s Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS), bought a farm in the Catskills Mountains in Ferndale, New York, 100 miles north of Manhattan. They began to take in paying guests who were fleeing New York City’s heat and humidity each summer. 1
The Grossingers were among the close to two thousand other Jewish immigrant families who bought farms in the foothills of the Catskills mountains in the 1890s or during the first decades of the twentieth century, many with JAS assistance. Like these other farmers, the Grossingers found that the rocky Catskills soil, which had allowed them to buy the land cheaply, did not respond well to crop raising.
But summer guests seeking cool air and kosher food were indeed profitable. The Grossingers’ enterprise became extremely profitable, with 150,000 guests each year, served in a property of over 1200 acres that boasted its own airfield and performers as famous as Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis. Grossingers was also the first resort in the country to use artificial snow on its ski slopes. And Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher were married at Grossingers.
Lavender, Abraham, and Steinberg, Clarence, Jewish farmers of the Catskills, In the Catskills, A Century of the Jewish Experience in The Mountains. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. p. 33. [↩]