Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Maurice (Tzvi) de Hirsch (1831-1896) was a German financier and philanthropist who is perhaps best known as the originator of the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) and the first Jewish benefactor to plan and finance the large-scale resettlement of Jews and to address the sorry plight of oppressed European Jewry.

Antique photo of Hirsch

Hirsch was the grandson of Baron Jacob von Hirsch, founder of the family fortune and the first Jewish landowner in Bavaria. Jacob’s father served as banker to the Bavarian king, who made him a nobleman, and the family occupied a prominent position in the German Jewish community for generations. Maurice’s family maintained a small synagogue in their home, and his mother made certain that he received high-level instruction in Hebrew and Judaism.


At age 13, Maurice was sent to Munich and then to Brussels to pursue his education and established his own business four years later. After joining the banking firm of Bischoffsheim & Goldschmidt (1851) – one of Europe’s most prominent banking enterprises with branches in London and Paris – and marrying the daughter of the head of the firm (1855), he established his own banking firm and accumulated a large fortune, primarily through sugar and copper speculating and purchasing and working railway concessions in Austria, Turkey, and the Balkans.

Hirsch’s most famous and visionary project was the Oriental Railway, a scheme to link Constantinople to Europe. He shrewdly obtained a contract for construction from the Turkish government, skillfully negotiated its terms, and financed the venture by floating Turkish Lottery Bonds on Europe’s financial markets. Hirsch completed much of the work by 1874, but the final link was delayed due to financial setbacks sustained by Turkish government.

Through close personal supervision, however, and skillful engineering in the face of widespread skepticism – some characterized it as sheer lunacy – the railroad was finally completed nine years later and became the first route from Europe to the East. The venture, which became a huge financial success, made Hirsch a very wealthy man.

The railway project and pioneer enterprises in the sugar and copper industries brought his fortune to over $100 million by 1890 – consider how much money that was at the time! – and gained him an international reputation as an outstanding industrialist and financier. Nonetheless, he was sometimes the victim of anti-Semitism; for example, he was turned down for membership by the French Jockey Club because he was a Jew.

Some of Hirsch’s notable gifts include £500,000 for the establishment of primary and technical schools in Galicia and Bukovina, a donation made in honor of the 40th anniversary of Emperor Francis Joseph’s accession to the Austrian throne; field hospitals for both sides during the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878); and a £1000 donation to The Chelsea and Westminster Hospital (1891). But it was his philanthropy on behalf of Jewish organizations and causes that were particularly generous and noteworthy as, among other things, he sponsored the first organized mass migrations in history.

Hirsch began his philanthropic activities by aiding Oriental Jews, whose poverty struck him while on a visit to Turkey; he gave the Alliance Israelite Universelle – a political organization founded in France in 1860 to assist Jews – $200,000 for the creation of Jewish schools and other funds for the creation of Jewish trade schools in Turkey and the Balkans. When the Alliance experienced regular annual shortfalls, Hirsch made up the difference for several years and, in 1889, set up an endowment fund that gave it an annual income of 400,000 francs.

Hirsch also established the Baron de Hirsch Foundation for educational work in Galicia and Bukovina (1888) and the New York Baron de Hirsch Fund (1891) to assist and help settle immigrants to the United States (and later Canada). The Fund also purchased 5,000 acres in Cape May County, NJ, to establish an agricultural colony (1891) and, a few years later, he established the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural College there, the first American secondary school dedicated exclusively to the study of the agricultural sciences.

But his greatest charitable undertaking was undoubtedly with respect to his tireless and persistent efforts to alleviate the suffering of Jews in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, which included parts of Russia and much of Poland and Lithuania. He began with a gift of £10,000 to repatriate Jewish refugees (1882), but he quickly realized that donation, though large, constituted a mere drop in the bucket in addressing the incredible breadth of Jewish hardship and need.

When the reviled Czar Alexander III issued his “May Decrees” severely limiting Jewish access to secondary education (1897), Hirsch offered the czarist government $10 million to endow a separate system of schools, workshops, and farms for Jewish youth in the Pale. (Orthodox rabbinic leaders strongly opposed Hirsch’s proposed plan to provide secular education to Jewish children.)

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Although the government was willing to accept the money, it refused to permit Hirsch or any other foreigner to exercise control in the administration and distribution of the funds. As such, Hirsch – astutely understanding that, absent control, his largesse would end up enriching the czar and his thousands of civil servant minions, who were vastly experienced in pocketing charitable donations intended for distribution to others – withdrew his offer and decided to use the money to fund an emigration and colonization program pursuant to which persecuted Jews would be afforded the opportunity to establish themselves in agricultural colonies outside Russia.

Toward that end, Hirsch founded the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), which he personally endowed with £2,000,000, followed by a £7,000,000 donation, making it the greatest charitable trust in the world. The JCA was managed by delegates of various Jewish societies, principally the Anglo-Jewish Association of London and the Alliance Israelite Universelle of Paris. A central committee was formed in St. Petersburg to organize the emigration of Russian Jews (1892), and a governing body was established in Argentina to direct work in the colonies.

The JCA, which owned large agricultural colonies in Argentina, Canada, and Eretz Yisrael, also managed a complex system for dealing with Jewish persecution, which included emigration bureaus, distributing agencies, technical schools, co-operative factories, savings and loan banks, and model lodgings. It also assisted many societies all over the world whose work related to the relief and rehabilitation of Jewish refugees, including a benevolent trust in the United States, which he endowed with £493,000, and engaged in philanthropic efforts on behalf of Jews throughout Eastern Europe. (Today, the accumulated JCA funds are largely directed to agricultural projects in Israel.)

When Herzl began to seek supporters for his bold Zionist dream, one of the first people he thought of was Hirsch. Seeking a meeting with him, Herzl wrote, “You are richer than the French, the entire French nation in 1871” and, “[Y]ou are the great Jew of money, I am the Jew of the spirit.” The two met on June 2, 1895 at Hirsch’s palatial Paris mansion, an unsuccessful meeting which a disappointed Herzl later described in his diary.

Herzl began the meeting by criticizing Hirsch’s resettlement program – probably not the best strategy to employ when seeking support from a benefactor – before suggesting that they jointly ask the German Kaiser to participate in the establishment of a one billion-mark Jewish National Fund Loan. Hirsch responded that the “Jewish problem” had its origins in Jews’ overly cerebral tendencies – “we have too many intellectuals” – and all but called Herzl delusional; as Herzl later wrote in his diary, “ironically and sadly, he regarded the creation of a Jewish homeland as a fantasy and refused assistance.”

Herzl followed up with several letters seeking a second audience with Hirsch, arguing that a powerful idea could be more influential than money. Although Hirsch indicated a willingness to host a second meeting, he unambiguously advised Herzl that he would not change his position, and no further meeting took place.

Few people know that it was Hirsch’s rejection that prompted Herzl to write Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896), considered the seminal screed of modern Zionism. However, despite Hirsch’s negative attitude toward the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael, he remained firmly convinced that “the Jews had not lost the agricultural qualities of their forefathers” and that the Jewish future was, once again, as an agricultural people who could best become self-sufficient through farming.

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Some commentators argue that, in truth, Hirsch and Herzl were both avid Zionists and that the only substantive difference between them was Herzl’s embrace of territorialism, binding himself to Eretz Yisrael as the place of Jewish settlement, while Hirsch remained open to any number of other possibilities. (Some suggest that Hirsch was against a Jewish homeland being established in an Arab-populated land where Jews would be a permanent minority, rendering them unable to maintain their Jewish agricultural settlements and become self-governing.)

This theory seems to ignore Herzl’s advocacy for the controversial Uganda Program, pursuant to which Britain offered a portion of British East Africa to the Jews as a homeland, which Herzl supported at the 6th Zionist Congress (August 1903). Others note, however – correctly, in my opinion – that Herzl’s embrace of the Uganda Program was only as an interim solution to anti-Semitism and that he never abandoned the ultimate dream of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael.

At the end of the day, Hirsch’s project to settle thousands of long-suffering Russian Jews onto the vast Argentine pampas – his most significant relocation effort – met with very limited success. Although he successfully negotiated with the Russian government to allow Jews to leave Russia, which was then forbidden under law – a remarkable achievement – only about 10,000 Jews ever went to Argentina, and most of those remained in Buenos Aires. (Most Jews who left Russia were wholly uninterested in farming and went to the United States.) Nonetheless, Hirsch’s philanthropic enterprises and his lifelong personal efforts played an important role in changing the immigration policies of several nations to be more favorable to Jews.

In an article on his charitable work, Hirsch explained that his philanthropic impetus had its roots in Judaism:

In relieving human suffering, I never ask whether the cry of necessity comes from a being who belongs to my faith or not, 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?

At the time of his death in 1896, Hirsch left a $45 million bequest to the JCA. He was among the five richest people in all of Europe and perhaps the single greatest benefactor of his age, having donated an estimated $100,000,000 to charitable causes. Herzl eulogized him by saying “among the rich Jews, he was the only one ready to do something big for the poor,” and eulogists and obituaries across the world viewed his passing as the end of a golden age of philanthropy.

His wife, Clara, had also been involved with great charitable works even before meeting her husband, including supporting almshouses and soup kitchens and distributing clothes for children, and she played a major role alongside Maurice in his charitable activities, including donating some $40 million of her own money. After Hirsch’s death, she dedicated her efforts to continuing their charitable work.

Pursuant to Clara’s will – she died three years after her husband – most of her estate went to the JCA which, for many decades, was the world’s wealthiest charitable trust, and a special bequest went to the Pasteur Institute in Paris for the construction of its biochemistry building. Even today, the Hirsch Fund continues to support the Jewish Agricultural Society.

There are several “Baron Hirsch” synagogues, perhaps the most famous one situated in Memphis, which is the largest Orthodox congregation in North America. (For trivia enthusiasts, the largest synagogue in the world is the Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, whose main sanctuary seats 10,000 people.)


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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].