After the United States and Great Britain, the destination that attracted the most Jewish immigrants between the late 19th and early 20th centuries was, on the face of it, a counterintuitive choice. It was not Palestine, but rather Argentina.
Cementing his fortune through the railroads he built for the Ottoman Empire — now known as the Orient Express — Baron Maurice de Hirsch then turned to a similarly ambitious philanthropic project: rescuing Jews from antisemitism. To that end, in the 1890s, the baron and his Jewish Colonization Association (then the biggest charitable organization on the planet) brought thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe to Argentina.
In the pampas, the newcomers toiled in agricultural colonies meant to transform refugees into farmworkers. Hampered by numerous obstacles, including disputes between the colonists and the JCA, the project did not fulfill the baron’s sweeping vision.
Yet it made an impact: Jewish immigration to Argentina continued long after Hirsch’s death in 1896, paving the way for one of the most significant Jewish communities in Latin America.
Hirsch gets a reappraisal in a new biography, “The Baron: Maurice de Hirsch and the Jewish Nineteenth Century,” by Matthias B. Lehmann, a professor of history and chair of Jewish studies at the University of California, Irvine.
“Baron Hirsch, in some ways, really put Argentina on the map for Jewish migrants,” said Lehmann, whose research included touring one of the colonies, the evocatively-named Moisés Ville, now a heritage site with a museum and former Yiddish theater.
Years ago, as an undergraduate, Lehmann made an impactful visit to Argentina that stimulated his curiosity about the South American country’s Jewish heritage. Educated in his native Germany along with Israel and Spain, he became a scholar of Sephardic history while hoping that he could somehow incorporate his German background into his research as well.
In the Munich-born Baron Hirsch, Lehmann marveled, “Here was this unusual life story that brought it all together.”
He approached the project with a transnational perspective befitting its subject. The author challenges the conventional wisdom of chronicling Jewish history through the lens of a specific country. Instead, he kept the focus on one individual — Hirsch — as the baron journeyed from one country to another over his life.
We see him attend to business and philanthropy in European capitals, even traveling to Istanbul to meet with Ottoman representatives as the railroad project founders. After relinquishing responsibility in a mediated settlement, he lingers in the city to pose for a photo in Ottoman garb.
In their spare time, he and his wife Clara de Hirsch — née Clara Bischoffsheim, the daughter of another prominent European Jewish family — hosted hunts on a massive scale at St. Johann, one of their Central European estates. At the Hôtel Paris on the French Riviera, Hirsch serendipitously encountered the Habsburg emperor and many more notables, such as another railroad tycoon — Cornelius Vanderbilt of the US — and a fellow baron from a well-known Jewish philanthropic family — Alfred de Rothschild.
Hirsch’s transnational philanthropy, much of it geared toward his coreligionists, was considerable, both as a major donor to a charity such as the Alliance Israélite Universelle and through his own initiatives in such far-flung places as Habsburg Galicia, Argentina, the US and Canada.
Yet to address the era’s “Jewish question” — how to save Jews from antisemitism — the baron controversially recommended intermarriage and assimilation. He expressed these views in a seminal 1889 interview with one of the leading American newspapers of its day, the New York Herald, titled “The Jews Must Disappear: A Hebrew Millionnaire [sic] Spends Enormous Sums to Assimilate Them with Christians.”
“In some ways, he represents sort of the paradox in the modern Jewish experience,” Lehmann said. “He really, as you see in the book, advocates assimilation. He himself assimilated into European aristocracy… At the same time, he spends so much energy and most of his free time in Jewish causes, trying to help other Jews.”
Even as Hirsch proposed fusion between Jewish and Christian populations, some in wider society wanted no part of him. He was the subject of numerous conspiracy theories, including through lines of mocking verse in an Austrian periodical upon his death. The poem implicated the late baron in the suicide of an Austro-Hungarian diplomat years earlier, along with a further charge of swindling investors in the Ottoman railroads.
“A lot of antisemitic accusations against Hirsch placed him at the center, at the heart, of a big conspiracy,” Lehmann said. “Antisemites saw Hirsch, in some way, as the personification of everything they thought was wrong with the current state of things.”
The antisemitism against Hirsch was similar to that faced by the contemporaneous Rothschilds, and resembles the current obsession with George Soros, according to the author.
“In the 1880s and 1890s, he was one of the favorite targets,” Lehmann said. “Everybody knew who he was.”
Born Moritz von Hirsch in Bavaria, the future baron embodied cosmopolitanism from an early age. He was educated in Brussels before embarking on a business career in Paris and pursuing philanthropy across the globe.
There was plenty of correspondence for the author to review, including increasingly exasperated exchanges between the baron and his subordinates on Argentine colonization.
“He must have been a really difficult person to work with,” Lehmann said. “He tried to micromanage everything, from the railroad business to philanthropic enterprises. It’s amazing how much paperwork he produced.”
For a more personal perspective, Lehmann drew upon the letters of the Hirschs’ only child, their son Lucien de Hirsch. Lucien lived a brief but colorful life, including a spicy affair with an unhappily married British Catholic named Lady Jessica Sykes.
“Reading his letters is great fun,” Lehmann said, adding that while there are “hardly ever” references to Lucien’s Jewishness, “at the same time Jessie Sykes, for instance, and others clearly see him as a Jewish individual.” (Jessie’s son, Sir Mark Sykes, was the British diplomat who notoriously corresponded with French counterpart Georges Picot during WWI over how to divide the postwar Middle East, including Palestine, in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.) Another revealing letter was one that Lucien wrote to his mother Clara, in which he ruled out the prospect of intermarriage, at least for himself: “Marrying a non-Jewish woman seemed to be out of the question.”
Lucien fathered a daughter, Lucienne, with a Croatian actress, Irène Premelić. They were not married, and the baron only learned about his granddaughter after Lucien’s death from an illness in 1887. Lucienne was raised as a Christian by Clara Hirsch’s sister Hortense and brother-in-law Georges Montefiore-Levi, a member of another famed Jewish philanthropic family, the Montefiores.
As for Lucienne’s father, “it’s just so sad, he dies very young,” Lehmann said. “It would have been so wonderful to see what comes of this life. Clearly, in his early 30s, he still hadn’t quite found his place.”
The author ruminates on another historical what-if. In 1895, months before his death the following year, the baron hosted a fellow advocate of Jewish colonization — Theodor Herzl. The founder of Zionism pitched his proposal of a Jewish state in Palestine to the baron, and got an ambivalent response.
“Hirsch said, I’m sure we’ll meet again,” Lehmann reflected. “What would have happened if Hirsch had been around a few more years? I wonder if they would have met more than just this one time. Nobody knows.”
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