Baron Hirsch, An Amazing New Biography

Mathias Lehmann, professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Irvine has just published The Baron: Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century. a biography of Baron Hirsch that fills a major gap, the lack of biographies of the Baron in English. 1

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.

The Embankment, Ostend, Belgium 1890s , the resort to which Baron Hirsch was summoned by King Leopold II, Library of Congress.

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

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Baron Hirsch and the Jewish Take on Empire Building

With these delightful details, Lehmann weaves a story showing us how Jewish philanthropy in the 19th Century, particularly the Baron’s philanthropic work, which centered on enabling Eastern European and Ottoman Jews to build productive and modern lives, was a truly 19th-century phenomenon. The 19th Century was a time of empire building, of civilizing the uncivilized. And as Lehmann demonstrates, it was ” the language of empire [that] provided the vocabulary for Baron Hirsch and other philanthropists as they embarked on their civilizing mission in the…Ottoman and Habsburg Empires…and embraced agricultural colonization overseas….” 3

Firmly placing the Baron’s work in its historical context is crucial to understanding where the idea for Baron Hirsch’s projects came from. Ideas and projects never form in vacuums. They almost always link on to or are inspired by, something already present. Understanding the political and intellectual links and inspirations that surrounded the Baron allows us a clearer vision of what he was doing in the final decades of the 19th century and why he was doing it.

We should be grateful to Prof. Lehmann for providing this context. But we can also be thankful, and I am personally, for the understanding of the Baron’s life and personal philosophy that Lehmann gives us.

Baron Hirsch, the Jewish Aristocrat

Through the correspondence of Baroness Clara de Hirsch and the Baron’s only son, Lucien, Lehmann shows us what life was like for this enormously wealthy family, particularly in the block-long palace, the Hotel Hirsch, off the Champs-Elysées, originally built for Empress Eugenie and almost tripled in size by the Baron. It was a palace that included a ballroom that could hold 2000 guests and as shown in this illustration below from Lehmann’s volume, ” a monumental staircase in white marble… no less than seven meters across at the bottom….” 4.

Lehmann, Mathias (2022). The Baron: Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century, Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 46.
Some of the remaining portions of the Hotel Hirsch, located at 2, rue de l’Elysée, Paris, now housing the Secretariat of African and Malagasy Affairs of the French Presidency. 5

Then through Lucien’s correspondence with his lover, Lady Jessica Sykes, we learn of the Hirsch family’s “acceptance” into British society. After all, Baron Hirsch had a larger fortune than the wealthiest man in England, the Duke of Westminster, 6 and the Baron was a close friend of Bertie, the future King Edward VII.7. Interestingly, not only did Lady Sykes, of an old distinguished family, have a Jew as a lover. She also had a major effect on recent Jewish history. Her son, Mark, was responsible for the 1916 secret Sykes-Picot Agreement that gave the United Kingdom control over many areas of Palestine.

Globalization: Baron Hirsch Builds a Railroad

One contemporaneous source used by Lehmann: A 1888 description of the budding Vienna-Constantinople Railroad that Baron Hirsch was building. 8. The whole article can be read at the link.

Next, through contemporary 19th Century newspaper articles, and books as well as correspondence including letters addressed to the Austrian Ambassador in Paris, Lehmann, in great detail, describes the trials, tribulations, and success of the Baron’s efforts to build a railway connection between Constantinople and Vienna. This project, Lehmann points out, would not only increase trade but perhaps even more importantly in the empire-seeking 19th century, “would allow the empire of Franz Joseph to finally become a major player in a rapidly globalizing world, and even to compete with maritime powers like Britain.” 9

The Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) is Born

By the late 1880s, with the earnings from the railroad, Hirsch is considered by many to be the richest man in the world. What to do with that fortune now that the Baron’s son Lucien passes away from pneumonia in 1887? Well, in 1889 Baron Hirsch hears almost accidentally of a group of stranded Jewish immigrants from Russia and he helps them set up an agricultural colony in Argentina, Moises Ville. Then in 1891, hoping to continue this kind of work, the Baron decides to donate his entire fortune in order “to give a portion of my companions in faith the possibility of finding a new existence, primarily as farmers and also as handicraftsmen, in those lands where the laws and religious tolerance permit them to carry on the struggle for existence.” 10 And in 1891 Hirsch establishes the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) to manage his donation and carry out his philanthropy. But, note Hirsch remains in control, owning 99% of the Association’s shares. 11

The Argentine Colonies

The close to 2 billion in today’s dollars that the Baron donated funded projects in Brazil, Canada, the United States, Galicia, and even in Russia. But Lehmann chooses to end his story with a detailed description of the early years (1889-1896) of the Baron’s first agricultural project in the New World, the colonies in Argentina. Based on an amazing list of contemporaneous sources, principally newspapers, memoirs, and correspondence, it is by far the most thorough presentation of those years that I know of in English.12

First, Lehmann places the Jewish colonies in the overall context of all European immigration to Argentina in the years surrounding the turn of the 20th Century. Between 1880 and 1914 Argentina “attracted … 4. 2 million immigrants – more than any other nation except for the United States.” 13 ( This in a country that only had a population of 2.5 million when this wave of immigration began.)

The Very Difficult First Years

Then Lehmann outlines the great difficulties of those first few years. To begin with, the project was terribly managed, both by the ” local mismanagement and [the] centralized [European] micromanagement.” The local managers “had little practical knowledge, were not embedded in local experience, and had little understanding of the culture of the Russian Jewish immigrants.” 14 and the contracts they signed for goods and services were “little short of criminal,” for example for carts that were only good for paved streets, not country paths and buildings built so shabbily that they would quickly fall down. 15

Then there were attacks of “billions” of locusts, repeated harvest failures due not only to the locusts but also to droughts and “unexpected spells of freezing temperatures,” as well as steep declines in grain prices. 16

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The precipitous drop in wheat prices in 1894, devaluing even successful crops for the Jewish farmers in Argentina

To make matters worse, the colonists didn’t know where they stood. One, they had no idea on what terms they would have to repay the costs of the land, seeds, and implements. The first contracts weren’t signed until the project was 7 years old, in 1896, and those contracts caused real revolts among the settlers.17 Secondly, on the “whim” of local managers, settlers were deemed undesirable and were sent to the United States or back to Europe “so others feared that a similar fate might await them too”.18 (According to family lore, my own step grandfather’s family was among those sent to the U.S. from Argentina.)

And, Baron Hirsch, himself, caused much confusion which must have led to many wrong decisions. First, Hirsch had a habit of “second-guessing his representatives, creating overlapping and competing competencies among them, reserving any ultimate decision-making for himself.” (Ibid., p. 260 )) Then there were all the vacillations so the administrators didn’t know where, or if anywhere, the project was headed. Hirsch was not even sure if the Argentine project was a good idea. For example, in 1893 he “ruminated…about a wholesale liquidation of the colonization enterprise, only to suggest, a mere six weeks later, that he would be amenable to even greater investment….”19

It seems that Hirsch finally decided to hedge his bets. Shortly before his death in April of 1896, Hirsch had his “deed of gift” to the JCA changed so instead of the donation being “principally…[ for] emigration of Russian Jews …and [their] settlement …[in] North and South America…and as far as possible in agricultural colonies,….” the deed was changed to allow the donation to be used for agricultural colonies, and “any other philanthropic purposes… for the benefit of Jewish communities…either in Europe or in America.” 20

Success or Failure?

The twelve Jewish agricultural colonies the JCA established in Argentina with their dates of establishment. Note: Moisesville was actually settled in 1889 but was not formally adopted by the JCA until the JCA was founded in 1891. 21

Lehmann describes the almost disastrous first years of the Argentine colonies. But the colonies which reached twelve in number with the last one Avigdor, being established in 1936 for German refugee Jews, were not disastrous.

Children going to school in the Mauricio Colony, Encyclopedia Judaica 1906

As a French student, Pierre Denis, who later became De Gaulle’s finance minister during World War II, 22commented after his 1910 visit to some of the Argentine JCA colonies,   “In Argentina, the Jewish colonies have multiplied and are very numerous and the Jews form an important element of the agricultural population…. ” 23

It is true that Baron Hirsch and the JCA never fulfilled the Baron’s original dream of bringing over 3 million Russian Jews to Argentina, but their project definitely put Argentina on the map of Jewish immigration. Before the Baron’s first intervention in 1889, there were roughly 1000 Jews in Argentina. By 1963 there were 450,000, 2% of that year’s total Argentine population.24

Buenos Aires, 1907, the city that attracted many of the Jewish immigrants

And although Jewish farmers or their children did leave the land for the cities, in 1960 there were still 9,600 Jews living in the JCA’s Argentine colonies.25

The Post 1896 Era

Lehmann’s less than positive description of the colonies is probably due to his departure from the Argentine story in 1896, just as conditions begin to improve. In that year the JCA ceased reception of new immigrants until 1899 26 allowing for a calmer reorganization. Then, with the death of the Baron, the JCA was free to permit the colonists to raise cattle and to hire outsiders for help during harvests and threshing, two long-time requests the Baron wouldn’t consider. The JCA also began to offer more favorable loan terms and allowed the colonies to form their own governing councils. So even though In 1896 there were just 6,767 Jewish settlers in JCA colonies in Argentina.27, by 1927 there were 33,084, 28 and the acreage cultivated went from 99,000 acres in 1896 to 570,000 in 1925.29

The Jewish farmers in the JCA colonies set up schools, libraries, lecture series, and synagogues. They also established a fire insurance company in 1899.31 Starting in 1900 they also established a chain of cooperatives that bought supplies and marketed products. In fact, the settlers with financial assistance from the JCA established the first cooperative in all of Argentina. By 1939 they had twelve. “One at Moisesville concentrated on the sale of cattle, two others were expert in the manufacture and sale of cheese, still another specialized in the slaughtering of cattle and the sale of meat, etc.” 32 (It’s interesting to note that in the United States JCA supported settlers also led the way in establishing rural cooperative ventures when they set up the first U.S. farmers’ credit unions. These Jewish efforts even resulted in a how-to-do-it manual for the rest of the United States.)

The state of the Argentine colonies in 1960 and their history can be seen in this chart. 33

Baron Hirsch on Assimilation

I found particularly interesting Lehmann’s discussion of the Baron’s views on Jewish assimilation. Even though the Baron and his wife spent their fortunes assisting the Jewish people and neither they nor their son converted to Christianity as many other wealthy European Jews did in the 19th Century, Lehmann tells us that “Hirsch…professed on many occasions that, to him, assimilation and intermarriage were the future of the Jews, and the only way to overcome the so-called Jewish question.” 34

In fact, the Baron and his wife Clara insisted that their son’s natural daughter, Lucienne, be brought up as a Protestant. As Lehmann comments, “when Baron Hirsch was preaching “fusion” between Jews and Christians as the best response to the Jewish question, he meant it.” 35 And as further evidence Lehmann points to Hirsch’s 1889 interview, with The New York Herald in which Hirsch states ” the Jewish question can only be solved by the disappearance of the Jewish race….”36

The belief in complete cultural and physical assimilation held by Jews who also felt a real loyalty to their own Jewish community seems contradictory. But I believe it is not so rare. The omnipresence and what can be seen as the indestructible durability of anti-Semitism could easily lead to this “obvious” conclusion.

The first literary work to depict the Brazilian Jewish community (1940), an autobiographical story by an immigrant to a JCA colony

I think of the protagonist in On a Clear April Morning, a Ukranian immigrant to a JCA farming colony in Brazil who lives his life in a close-knit Jewish community and brings up his children in the same. But after years of being called out for his Jewishness, suffering many physical attacks as well, he concludes that the Jews’ “complete liberation can only be attained when they assimilate with other races, mixing their blood with the blood of other peoples so that from this successive crossbreeding, from this progressive welding, can arise a happier future for poor humanity and generations free from the unjust hatreds and absurd prejudices stemming from the concept of racial aristocracy…. ” 37

Brazilian Railroads / Brazilian Colonies

I was also interested to learn, based on Prof. Lehmann’s finding in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, that Baron Hirsch had invested in railroads in Brazil. 38 I had not previously run across mention of the Baron’s own investments in Brazil. I did know that following the Baron’s death in 1896, board members of the JCA invested in the construction of Brazilian railroads. In fact, their establishment of Jewish farming colonies in Brazil in the first years of the 20th Century was probably at least partially motivated by the Brazilian government’s stipulation that all companies constructing railroads settle immigrants along the lines39, and the government’s payments for doing so. 40 Based on Lehmann’s citation, I will look further into the connections between the Baron’s Brazilian investments and those of his colleagues after his passing. I hope to publish what I find.

Thank you

Again, I can not stress enough the marvelous contribution The Baron: Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century makes to the history of Baron Hirsch’s philanthropy. It supplies details very difficult to find elsewhere in a text that is a joy to read. I can only imagine the hours, no years, Prof Lehmann spent in archives in order to bring us all this information. Thank you.

  1. Other biographies include Grunwald, Kurt, Turkenhirsch: Study of Baron Maurice De Hirsch, 1966; Frischer, DominiqueEl Moises de las Americas: Vida Y Obra Del Baron De Hirsch (trans from French), 2004; Lee, Samuel,  Moses of the New World: The Work of Baron Hirsch (1970); Rozenblum, Serge-Allian Le Baron De Hirsch: Un Financier Au Service De L’humanite2006 []
  2. Lehmann, Mathias (2022). The Baron: Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century, Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 19. []
  3. Ibid. p. 290 []
  4. Ibid. pp. 45 – 46. []
  5. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_Rue_de_l_Elysee_2.jpg. []
  6. Lehmann (2022), p. 302, note 60 []
  7. see Edward VII and HIs Jewish Court (2013) by Anthony Allfrey for more on King Edward VII and his Jewish friends. []
  8. Bent, Theodore, Baron Hirsch’s Railway, The Fortnightly Review, v. 50 1888: July-Dec. pp. 229 – 239 (#239-249) []
  9. Lehmann (2022), p. 92 []
  10. HIRSCH, Maurice (1891). “My Views on Philanthropy,” North American Review 153, no. 416 (July 1891), p. 2 []
  11. Norman, Theodore (1985). An outstretched arm: a history of the Jewish Colonization Association, London: Routledge & K. Paul, p.xii []
  12. for discussion of the full history of the Argentine colonies, 1889 – 1965, see Winsberg, Morton D. “Jewish Agricultural Colonization in Argentina.” Geographical Review 54, no. 4 (1964) p. 497 – 501. For excellent work on the Argentine colonies in Spanish see Avni, Haim, Argentina, Tierra Prometida, ( trans from Hebrew: Florinda F. Goldberg) Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires: Teseo; Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires: Universidad Abierta Interamericana, 2018, and Avni, Haim, and Sibila Seibert, La agricultura judia en la Argentina ?exito o fracaso?, Desarrollo Económico, Vol. 22, No. 88 (Jan. – Mar., 1983) []
  13. Lehmann (2022), p. 223 []
  14. Ibid., p. 272 []
  15. Ibid. p. 274 []
  16. Ibid., p. 274 []
  17. Ibid., p. 253 []
  18. Ibid. p. 258 []
  19. Ibid. p. 264 []
  20. Ibid. p. 278 []
  21. Winsberg, Morton D. “Jewish Agricultural Colonization in Argentina.” Geographical Review 54, no. 4 (1964): p. 489. []
  22. OULMONT, Philippe (2012). Pierre Denis, Français libre et citoyen du monde: entre Monnet et de Gaulle, Paris: Nouveau Monde editions, p. 272 []
  23. DENIS, Pierre (1911).  Brazil London: T.F. Unwin, p. 296 []
  24. Winsberg, 1964, p. 493 []
  25. Ibid., p. 500 []
  26. Lehmann (2022), p. 280 []
  27. Ibid., p. 275 []
  28. Winsberg (1964), p. 491. []
  29. Avni, Haim, and Sibila Seibert, La agricultura judia en la Argentina ?exito o fracaso?, Desarrollo Económico, Vol. 22, No. 88 (Jan. – Mar. 1983), p. 541 []
  30. Forero, Juan, Argentina’s Jewish Villages Keep Traditions Alive, NPR August 14, 2011, 6:33 AM ET []
  31. Norman (1985) p. 71 []
  32. Schwarz, Ernst, and Johan C. Te Velde. “Jewish Agricultural Settlement in Argentina: The ICA Experiment.” The Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 19, no. 2, 1939, p. 199.  []
  33. Winsberg (1964), p. 500 []
  34. Lehmann (2022), p. 68 []
  35. Ibid. pp. 83-84 []
  36. Ibid. p. 11 []
  37. Iolovitch, Marcos, On a Clear April Morning, A Jewish Journey, (trans: Merrie Blocker) Brookline: Academic Studies Press, 2020, p. 28 []
  38. Lehmann (2022) p. 297, note 9 []
  39. ALLEGRE, CH ” Franz Philippson, banquier: 1871-1914,” diss., ULB, History Department, 1997-1998, quoted in HEUFFEL, Evelyne (2012) “Philippson: uma colônia judaica singular?” WebMosaica 4 p. 124 []
  40. US DEPARTMENT OF STATE. ” Brazilian Immigration Regulations, 1907 Presidential Decree No. 6455 of April 19, 1907,  in Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, Washington: GPO., 1910, p 102 []

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