On April 21, 1896, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, one of the 19th century’s wealthiest men and one of the great Jewish philanthropists of all time, died at the age of 64. During his lifetime and that of his widow, they distributed an estimated $100 million to educational causes and to the establishment of agricultural colonies, principally in Argentina, intended to improve the lot of impoverished Eastern European Jews.
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He was born Moritz von Hirsch auf Gereuth on December 9, 1831, in Munich, Bavaria. His grandfather had been the first Jew in Bavaria to own land and was invested heavily in various international trading businesses; his father was a banker, and his mother, too, came from a distinguished banking family. Maurice had a traditional Jewish education and a secular one as well, and although he was recognized as clever and quick, he was not especially taken with his studies.
Hirsch once told Theodor Herzl that he thought the Jews’ problem derived from their overly cerebral tendencies: “We have too many intellectuals, my aim is to discourage this tendency to push among Jews,” he said.
In 1851, Hirsch began working in the banking firm of Bischoffsheim & Goldschmidt, in Brussels; four years later, he married Clara Bischoffsheim, the daughter of the bank’s principal owner. Even before that, at the age of 17, Hirsch had begun investing in a variety of business ventures, including speculation in the copper and sugar trades. Later, he received the concession to build a railway through the Balkans to Constantinople, a major project that he executed in the face of widespread skepticism, thus making a name for himself as a visionary and daring businessman. He was able to finance his interest in the Oriental Railway with the combined wealth brought from Clara’s dowry and from his inheritance from his own family.
It was his work on the railway project that brought Hirsch into direct contact with the condition of Jews in the Ottoman Empire, who suffered from a lack of practical education and an ability to support themselves. Through the existing Alliance Israelite Universelle, he began funding trade schools in European Turkey. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, he funded field hospitals for both sides, and a decade later he gave Austrian emperor Franz Joseph a gift of 500,000 pounds for the creation of primary and trade schools in Galicia and Bukowina.
It was the state of the Jews of the Russian empire, however, that posed the greatest philanthropic challenge to Hirsch. Initially, he offered the Czarist government 2 million pounds for the establishment of a system of secular education for the empire’s Jews, who were at the time still restricted to the Pale of Settlement, and had very limited means of supporting themselves. The Russians were willing to accept the gift, but would not allow a foreigner to be involved in controlling its use, a condition that was not acceptable to Hirsch.
Eventually, he concluded that emigration was the only real solution for Russia’s Jews. To this end, he established, in 1891, the Jewish Colonization Association, whose goal, as Hirsch himself described it, was “to assist and promote the emigration of Jews from any part of Europe or Asia – and principally from countries in which they may for the time being be subjected to any special taxes or political or other disabilities … and to form and establish colonies in various parts of North and South America and other countries, for agricultural, commercial and other purposes."
The most significant effort was expended on the purchase of land and establishment of colonies in Argentina. At the time of Clara’s death, in 1899, three years after that of her husband, the capitalization of the fund was 11 million pounds sterling, which may have made it the world’s largest philanthropic foundation at the time.
Baron de Hirsch was convinced that farming and other practical pursuits would provide the answer to the challenge of Jewish survival – he was convinced, as he put it, that the Jews had not “lost the agricultural qualities that their forefathers possessed” – and he oversaw his enterprise in a way intended to distribute the emigres in a number of different places, so as not to make their presence a burden to their adoptive countries. Besides Argentina, he also set up colonies in Canada, the United States, Brazil and Palestine, although he rejected requests from Herzl to become involved in political Zionism, which he saw as delusional.
Baron de Hirsch loved the good life, and owned residences in Paris, London, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. He also was part owner, together with the Prince of Wales, of a stable of racehorses, and devoted his significant earnings from that to his charitable activities too.
Hirsch died at his estate, in Pressburg, Hungary (modern-day Bratislava), of a stroke.