Baron Maurice de Hirsch always did things his own way. After completing his first major business coup of building the Europe- Constantinople railway line through the Balkan Mountains, a project more sober businessmen had warned was sheer lunacy, the German born magnate became regarded as a visionary. Early in his career, Hirsch decided to devote a large part of his fortune to helping the less fortunate of his people.
As he put it, “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?”
FISHHOOKS FOR THE POOR
Traveling through the near East during his railroad project, he had been shocked at the Jews’ deplorable poverty and determined to solve the problem his own way.
“During my repeated and extended visits to Turkey,” he wrote, “ I have been painfully impressed by the misery and ignorance in which the Jewish masses live in that Empire… progress had bypassed them, their poverty stems from lack of education, and only the education and training of the young generation can remedy this dismal situation.”
He reasoned that that it is better to give a poor man fishhooks to earn a living than supply him with fish the rest of his life. As he put it, “I consider it the greatest problem in Philanthropy to make human beings who are capable of work out of individuals who otherwise must become paupers, and in this way to create useful members of society.”
Unfortunately, he never considered the Torah side of the issue. In accordance with his material leanings, he began donating huge sums to organizations like the infamous Alliance Israelite Universelle, the giant educational system that endowed children with secular education and Western values at the cost of losing their souls. In 5633/1873 he handed the Alliance a million francs and in later years he picked up the Alliance’s unpaid bills at the end of each year to the tune of hundreds-of-thousands of francs.
Then he turned his attention to Russia where Jews were suffering more than anywhere else after 5642/1882 when Czar Alexander III sanctioned the infamous “May Laws” that, by restricting Jews from rural areas and restricting education and job opportunities were intended to make Jewish life unbearable. The laws did their job. By 5657/1897 fifty percent of Jews in many cities were without jobs, and about half the Jews of major cities like Odessa, Vilna, Minsk and Kovno couldn’t get through Pesach without tzeddaka.
The May Decrees and hundreds of pogroms in South Russia the previous year sparked off a great Jewish emigration to the West, which, ironically never solved Russia’s “Jewish problem,” because although two million Jews had fled from Russia by World War I, thanks to natural increase the Jewish population remained almost identical to what it was in 5641/1881.
Hirsch initially thought of improving the Jews’ life in Russia and offered the government about £2,000,000 to establish schools, workshops and farms for Russian Jews. However, when Russian officials insisted that the funds be handed directly to them to be used as they saw fit, Hirsch refused to give a penny and expended the funds setting up Jewish schools in Galicia against the heavy opposition of Torah Jews who regarded his style of education as a Trojan horse of heresy and assimilation.
Then the baron hit on another plan after hearing of 820 Russian Jews who arrived in Argentina in 5649/1889 and established successful agricultural colonies.
“These same families,” he enthused, “which a few years ago, bending under heavy burdens, appeared to be only wandering trades-people in Russia, have now become thrifty farmers, who with plough and hoe know how to farm as well as if they had never done anything else… The knowledge of this guides me in my work, and I am now setting out with all my strength to accomplish it.”
Why did Baron Hirsch prefer Argentina over the United States?
As he explained later, “In considering this plan, I naturally thought of the United States, where the liberal constitution is a guarantee of happy development for followers of all religious faiths.
“Yet, I was obliged to confess that to increase to any great extent the already enormous number of Jews in the United States would be of advantage neither to the country itself nor to the exiled Jews; for it is my firm conviction that this new settlement should be scattered through different lands and spread over a large space, so that there shall be no opportunity for social or religious rupture.”
In preparation for his plan, Hirsch sent Arnold White, an English Member of Parliament, to Russia to explore whether the Jews and Russians were interested in the proposition. The leading Russian official, Pobyedonostzev, tried hard to persuade White that Jews could never survive as farmers.
“The Jew is a parasite,” he assured him. “Remove him from the living organism in which and on which he exists and put this parasite on a rock and he will die.”
However, after an extended tour of the Russian Pale and Jewish agricultural colonies in Southern Russia, White became convinced that the Russian paranoia against Jews “was evolved from the inner consciousness of certain orthodox statesmen, and has no existence in fact.”
“In short,” he reported to Hirsch later, “if courage – moral courage, hope, patience, temperance are fine qualities, then the Jews are a fine people. Such a people, under wise direction, is destined to make a success of any well-organized plan, of colonization, whether in Argentina, Siberia, or South Africa.”
Russian officials agreed to go along with the scheme on condition that Hirsch get rid of most of Russia’s three million Jews within twelve years.
In 5641/1891, Hirsch founded the “Jewish Colonization Association” (JCA) with a capital of 50 million francs and delineated its goal: “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.”
White traveled back to Russia with joyous tidings for its anti-Semitic leaders. In 5642/1892, Hirsch’s society would move 25,000 Jews to Argentina; the number would increase in following years, and within 25 years Russia would be rid of every one of its 3,250,000 Jews. The Russians agreed to expedite the process by issuing free exit permits and exempting emigrants from military service. After all even if Hirsch’s scheme failed, at least it would move some Jews out the country.
Hirsch then bought up huge tracts of land around Buenos Aires, Sante Fé, and Entre-Rios, developed infrastructure, and waited for the immigrants to stream in.
They never arrived; Hirsch’s grandiose dream came to nothing.
Only 6,000 Jews immigrated to Argentina within the first three years and of these, half stayed put in Buenos Aires. Within a decade, the association transplanted to Argentina a grand total of 10,000 Jews.
The reason for the failure was that Jews simply preferred going to the Goldene Medina rather than struggling in Argentine dust and mud. During the previous decade, the United States population of 250,000 Jews had doubled, and another 165,000 Jews streamed to the US shores during the first three years of the Argentina debacle. Hirsch did better with his Baron de Hirsch Fund for United States immigrants, to which he endowed $2.4 million. This fund provided loans, education and training to new immigrants, and established Woodbine, New Jersey, the first Jewish town of the United States.
By the end of his life in 5656/1896, Hirsch had expended an estimated $100 million chasing his dreams, and his Jewish Colonial Association with funds of about £10,000,000, had bought up land in South America, the United States, Canada and Asia Minor and was probably the greatest charitable trust in the world.
The only project that left Hirsch unmoved was the fledgling Zionist movement that generated such enthusiasm among other Jews. When the Chovevei Zion movement and Theodore Herzl approached him for funding he refused to give them a cent, regarding their aspirations as nothing more than a ridiculous dream. Were the baron’s efforts a failure?
“In the history books they say that most of his attempts of solving the Jewish problem turned out to be failures, and that hundreds of millions of dollars was wasted,” wrote A. D. Goldhaft, a past student at the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School in Woodbine. “But I wonder if such things can ever be measured. Perhaps some of the settlements that he set up failed to have a spectacular success, and most of them failed in time, but my life was helped by his work, as I suppose were many others.”
This sentiment was echoed by grateful parents who endowed their offspring with the cumbersome names of Baron de Hirsch or Baron Maurice de Hirsch. These poor individuals had to bear this testimony to the baron’s generosity for the rest of their lives.