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
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?
Online searching is available for Baron Hirsch related genealogical records available through the Center for Jewish History in New York. See the video at this Facebook link below for instructions. Some complete records are online, and when only a reference to a record is online you can request the full document from the Center.
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.