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de Hirsch, Maurice

Maurice de Hirsch

Baron Maurice de Hirsch (1831–1896), a wealthy German financier, founded the Jewish Colonization Association in 1891. The nonprofit venture sponsored the first organized mass migrations in history. His project to settle thousands of beleaguered Russian Jews onto the vast Argentine pampas had only limited success, but through this and other philanthropic ventures, the Baron helped change the immigration policies of several nations.

From Bavaria

De Hirsch was born in Munich, Germany, on December 9, 1831, into an affluent and well-connected Jewish family who served as bankers to the Bavarian king. His grandfather had been the first Jewish landowner in Bavaria and was granted a title of nobility, "auf Gereuth," in 1818, which meant the family could add the prefix "von" to its surname. The "baron" that de Hirsch later used was another title, bestowed on his banker father Joseph in 1869 for services to the king. Care was taken by his mother, Caroline Wertheimer von de Hirsch, to see that her son learned Hebrew and was familiar with the religion of his birth; there was even a small synagogue inside their home.

De Hirsch first attended school in Munich and went on to study in Brussels at age 14, where he proved a somewhat indifferent student. At age 17, he took an entry-level position with the Brussels firm of Bischoffsheim & Goldschmidt, a powerful banking enterprise with branches in London and Paris. He rose quickly through its ranks, but his keen business mind was believed too prone to risk-taking by the firm's senior management; thus though he did well in the job, he was never made partner. He did, however, win the hand of Clara Bischoffsheim, the earnest daughter of the firm's chief, and the pair wed in 1855. He eventually left Bischoffsheim & Goldschmidt to set up his own private banking firm.

Made Railroad Investments

With a store of capital that came in part from his wife's fortune as well as via money inherited when his father died, de Hirsch began making investments in sugar plantations and copper mining. He moved into the lucrative world of railroads when he learned that a Brussels financier had landed a contract with the Turkish government to construct a rail route from Europe into the country via the Balkans. But de Hirsch's rival had since engaged in risky speculative ventures, and his businesses collapsed; de Hirsch managed to obtain the contract himself and then negotiated with the Turkish government to start the project. He financed the venture by floating Turkish government bonds on Europe's financial markets, and the construction firm he had established to carry out the work had part of the line completed by 1874. The last link was delayed when the Turkish government suffered financial setbacks, but the Vienna-Constantinople railroad was finally completed in 1883, making it the historic first route from Europe to the East.

The railroad enriched de Hirsch's personal fortunes immensely, and he became one of the Continent's leading financiers and social figures. He was on friendly terms with the Prince of Wales, later England's King Edward VII, but as he entered middle age his interests turned elsewhere. Though he was sometimes the victim of anti-Semitism—he was turned down for membership by the French Jockey Club, for instance—his experiences in Turkey awakened him to the plight of Jews outside of Western Europe. Many lived in dire poverty, and in some places government laws severely restricted their employment opportunities. His father-in-law had been active in the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Paris organization founded in 1860 to aid Jews living under such severe restrictions. In 1873, de Hirsch donated the sum of one million French francs ($200,000) to the Alliance so that they could establish trade schools in Turkey and the Balkans for Jews there.

De Hirsch became increasingly involved with the Alliance. After 1880, the charity experienced regular annual shortfalls, and de Hirsch paid these for a number of years. In 1889, he set up an endowment fund that gave it an annual income of 400,000 francs, and he was by then also donating heavily to a relief fund to aid refugees fleeing religious persecution in Imperial Russia. The plight of Russia's five million Jews roused de Hirsch's philanthropic sympathies, and he came to believe more dedicated measures were necessary.

Millions Lived in Dire Poverty

At the time, Russia also included much of Poland as well as Lithuania; this area, along with parts of the Ukraine Byelorussia, was called the Pale of Settlement, and Jews in Russia were restricted to it. Even within the bounds of the Pale, they suffered tremendous discrimination: Jews paid double taxes, were forbidden to own land, and could not live in some larger towns without a difficult-to-obtain residency permit. At times, waves of pogroms swept the countryside, in which mobs attacked and destroyed Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues. Often, local police or military authorities witnessed the violence but did little to stop it. After a new tsar, Alexander III, began a renewal of official anti-Semitic policies in 1881 and even added new restrictions, thousands began to flee. They arrived in the Ukrainian city of Brody, on the border of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which had far more liberal policies toward its Jewish population, and pleaded to be granted entry. Many of them arrived in Brody destitute, and the Alliance provided aid for them, helped in part by the Baron's generous underwriting.

An 1887 imperial edict in Russia limited Jews' access to secondary education within the Pale: they were to make up just ten percent of a given school's student body, though they constituted about one-half to three-quarters of the population. In response, de Hirsch devised a plan in which he would provide Russia with 50 million francs ($10,000,000) to establish a separate school system for Jewish youth in the Pale. The government rejected the offer, however, because of the stipulations that de Hirsch insisted upon in order to prevent the fund from vanishing into the pockets of the Imperial Russia civil servants who ran it. He even met with K. P. Pobedonostsev, the lay head of Russian Orthodox Church and influential adviser to Tsar Alexander, and reportedly gave him one million francs for his help in the negotiations, but the plan fell through.

Precursor to the Kibbutz

Emigration, de Hirsch then came to believe, was the only way to solve the plight of Russia's Jews, and he stepped up his philanthropic efforts accordingly. In 1891, he incorporated the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) in England to help re-settle Russian Jews on the vastly under populated Argentine pampas. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, de Hirsch claimed that his goal in establishing the JCA 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—to any parts of the world, and to form and establish colonies in various parts of North and South America and other countries, for agricultural, commercial, and other purposes."

De Hirsch sent emissaries to acquire large swaths of land in Argentina for his project, and others to parts of the globe that he thought might be receptive to the idea of a Jewish colony as well, such as Canada. He also had to negotiate with the Russian government so that it would grant the Jews permission to emigrate, which was forbidden at the time. He secured a deal that would allow 20,000 of them to leave annually in the first years of the project. Local JCA offices were established in the cities of the Pale; there, candidates were interviewed and, if approved, granted the necessary passport, which de Hirsch's organization issued. The JCA also paid their travel costs, including passage to South America. The Argentina experiment was not entirely successful, but de Hirsch was convinced that Jews were ideally suited to till the soil, believing that they had been among the world's first successful pastoral civilizations. He once said in an interview that in the end he hoped "my efforts shall show that the Jews have not lost the agricultural qualities that their forefathers possessed," the Jewish Encyclopedia. quoted him as saying. "I shall try to make for them a new home in different lands, where, as free farmers, on their own soil, they can make themselves useful to the country."

Founded New Jersey Colony

The plight of Jews in other parts of Europe was also of concern to de Hirsch. He set up the Galician Foundation in 1888 on the occasion of Emperor Francis Joseph's fortieth year on the throne of Austria and through it donated large sums to establish schools in Austro-Hungary's heavily Jewish areas of southeastern Poland and the western Ukraine, which were known as Galicia at the time; this largesse was also earmarked to aid Jews in Bukovina, later subsumed into the Ukraine and Romania. The Foundation set up primary schools there and also provided money for teachers' salaries as well as books, food, and clothing for the students. The Baron's philanthropic efforts also extended to welfare offices to help Jews in Krakow, Budapest, and other Eastern European cities.

The Baron took an active role in helping Russian Jews settle in the United States as well. In 1891 the Baron de Hirsch Fund was incorporated in New York State. It set up trade and English-language schools, offered relief aid to newly arrived immigrants, and also helped resettlement efforts to places that were less crowded than the epicenter of Jewish life in New York City, the Lower East Side. In 1891, the Fund set up an agricultural colony with the purchase of some 5,000 acres in Cape May County, New Jersey. A few years later, the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural College was established there as well, the first secondary school in the United States exclusively for the study of the agricultural sciences. The colony later evolved into the town of Woodbine, New Jersey.

Fund Received Millions

De Hirsch owned thoroughbreds and was an ardent horseracing fan. He often claimed that his horses ran for charity, for he donated all his winnings to London hospital charities. He and his wife had two children, but their daughter died in infancy, and 31-year-old Lucien died of pneumonia in 1887. They had homes in Paris and outside Versailles and an estate in Hungary called Schloss St. Johann. When the Baron died there on April 21, 1896, he left a bequest of $45 million in his will to the Jewish Colonization Association. Over the course of his life, he likely donated a personal fortune of some $100 million in all. His wife was also devoted philanthropist and worked alongside him for most of their marriage. Generous in spirit as well, she even provided in her will for two children her husband had fathered with a mistress. The JCA received the bulk of her estate after her 1899 death, and for decades was thought to be the world's richest charitable trust.

More than a hundred years after his death, the Baron de Hirsch Fund was still helping Jewish immigrants from Russia and Romania via the United Hebrew Charities of New York. "In relieving human suffering I never ask whether the cry of necessity comes from a being who belongs to my faith or not," he once said, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, "but what is more natural than that I should find my highest purpose in bringing to the followers of Judaism, who have been oppressed for a thousand years, who are starving in misery, the possibilities of a physical and moral regeneration?"


Norman, Theodore, An Outstretched Arm: A History of the Jewish Colonization Association, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.


New York Times, May 23, 1897.

Times (London, England), November 6, 1891.


"Baron de Hirsch Fund,", (January 8, 2004).

"Baron Maurice de Hirsch,", (January 8, 2004).

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Hirsch, Maurice, baron de

Maurice Hirsch, baron de (mōrēs´ bärôN´ də hĬrsh), 1831–96, German Jewish financier and philanthropist. The benefactor of numerous organizations and causes, his most ambitious project was the Jewish Colonization Association (1891), an organization designed to facilitate the emigration of Jews from Russia to colonies in North and South America. He formulated this colonization plan after the Russian government had refused his offer of $10 million for the establishment of proper educational conditions for Jews in that country. His other philanthropic contributions included immense sums donated to the Alliance Israélite Universelle (the first international Jewish organization), to Galician schools, and to various London hospitals.

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"Hirsch, Maurice, baron de." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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