An 820-page book on the history of one of the most interesting German-Jewish families of bankers, the Warburgs, has just been printed. Published by Random House and authored by Ron Chernow, it is of very special interest to all who still have clear memory of the powerful position in banking, as well as in Jewish community affairs, which the Warburgs occupied for over a century.
The book jacket has this to say about the Warburgs:
"A glamorously seductive clan, the Warburgs entered spheres of business, politics and society previously closed to Jews in Europe and America. Financial advisers to the Kaiser, titans of German business, they led a Shangri-la-type existence on their estate outside Hamburg. Brilliantly flamboyant, the Warburgs spawned many famous figures: a confidant of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, the architect of the Federal Reserve system in the U.S.A., an adviser to President Roosevelt, a pioneering art historian, a gifted cellist, a knighted adviser to Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Great Britain, and America's leading philanthropist."
The book swarms with dozens and dozens of names of the various branches of the family, whose ancestry is traced back some 400 years, but the author shows ignorance of some of the profound contributions to Jewish life in Germany made by certain members of the family over a period of more than 100 years.
No doubt many of the Warburgs are worthy of being the subjects of biographies, but I have decided to be very selective as to which personality among them I should highlight. Fortunately, I have rare personal memories and documents to draw on which were not available to Mr. Chernow. Therefore I will mainly comment on the following Warburgs: Mrs. Sara Warburg (1805-1884), Max Warburg (1867-1946), and Eric Warburg (1900-1990).
Sara Warburg, the matriarch of the dynasty which meant so much in Germany and America, is pictured in the book as a strong-willed, extremely capable woman, who kept her grandsons in disciplined regime and led them on the road to becoming enormously successful. She was a driving force in the lives of Abby S., the art historian; Max, the Hamburg banker; Paul and Felix, who became bankers in New York; and Fritz, who spent part of his life in Sweden.
What the book does not mention is that Sara Warburg was the founder and head of a wonderful mitzvah-institution which cared for the postnatal needs of poor Wöchnerinnen (kimpetuerinen in Yiddish).
She founded the society in 1829, after witnessing the sufferings which Jews lived through during and after the war with Napoleon in 1814. Although the Jews experienced great benefits while Napoleon was in charge, since he introduced liberty and emancipation for Jews wherever he ruled, when his control was fought off there remained an aftermath of pogroms and other sufferings which ravaged and impoverished the Hamburg community.
Sara Warburg's Foundation was therefore a godsend for the many poor Jewish women of Hamburg. She based her Foundation on very well worked out organizational lines. It had a Directorate, consisting of a number of prominent Jewish ladies from Hamburg, some of them listed as medical doctors, with a male accountant and with Sara Warburg herself as the Chairlady. She set down the rules for the Foundation in a beautifully penned Constitution, written in German with Hebrew letters, its parchment pages handsomely bound into a book, which today is in my possession.
Paragraph after paragraph sets down exactly which supplies—in terms of blankets, towels, soap and other necessities—the recipient was entitled to. To my knowledge, this is one of the earliest formal Constitutions for a mitzvah-enterprise of this type.
It is no wonder that the woman who performed this important mitzvah with such conscientiousness and meticulous care was also successful in business.
As for her most prominent grandson, Max, I have had the privilege of observing him in person. During the years when our family lived in Hamburg, our pew in the magnificent Bornplatz Synagogue was across the aisle from the Warburgs'. Because of this connection I can testify that author Chernow is totally off the truthful track in several of his claims: He writes that Max Warburg "was only marginally religious and attended synagogue on High Holidays, but with a book secreted in his lap to pass the time"; describes the magnificent Bornplatz Synagogue as "a large, ugly brick building," and the service there as taking place in "a weird room full of men in shawls and skullcaps, swaying and mumbling indistinctly"; and says that the Chief Rabbi stood before "a buzzing and writhing congregation."
I can bear witness that all this is pure nonsense and fantasy, totally contrary to the truth. I observed Max Warburg quite often in his seat near our family. His presence was always noticeable because his arrival created quite a stir in the synagogue—after all, at the time I remember him, around 1931-1933, Max Warburg was internationally known as the "King of Hamburg," and his contributions to benefit the Jewish community were legend.
The Bornplatz Synagogue was a beautiful building, with palatial architecture of white and black marble. Most of the congregants wore top hats to every Saturday morning service. These hats were stored in special containers in the coat-room from week to week. The decorum was absolutely superb—certainly no "swaying, mumbling, buzzing or writhing"!
Max Warburg was not very fond of the sermons of the Hungarian-born Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Salomon Spitzer, and I remember one occasion when just as the Rabbi mounted the stairs to reach the podium to deliver his sermon, Max Warburg and a companion, possibly his son Eric, demonstratively ripped off their Taleisim, pushed them into the box in front of their pew, and stalked out of the synagogue. He wanted to demonstrate his dislike for the rabbi's Hungarian accent. He preferred everything to be spoken in pure German.
While the book acknowledges the fact that Sara Warburg's son Moritz and his five sons had built and endowed the exemplary Jewish day school, the Talmud Torah Realschule, in 1908, Chernow fails to tell us that Max Warburg remained closely associated with every aspect of that school until its very end in the Nazi period. I recently wrote about the fabulous innovations in Jewish education which the Talmud Torah, through the direction of Rabbi Josef Carlebach, pioneered. His ingenious plan for integrated religious and secular studies—inspired by the example of Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer's teachings a century before—ultimately influenced the entire day school system in the United States.
Max Warburg, who aside from being a leading German banker with thousands of clients and renowned as an intimate of Kaiser Wilhelm II, spent a good part of his time in caring for the Talmud Torah. He served as Chairman for its Board. I know, because my late father was a good friend of Max Warburg, and often exchanged letters with him in matters relating to the school.
In later years of crisis Max Warburg also had close consultations with Dr. Arthur Spier, the school's last principal. He was also in very frequent contact with Rabbi Josef Carlebach, practically the last Orthodox rabbi in Germany. Without Max Warburg's support, Rabbi Carlebach could not have carried out his tragic task of caring for Hamburg's last few thousand Jews before they were sent off for extermination near Riga.
All these historic activities are left out of Chernow's biography, and I consider it my duty to make the necessary corrections and amendments to his book.
Max Warburg had reached such a high degree of influence in Germany's financial world that even Hitler could not do without him. As a friend of Hitler's Director of the Central Bank, the shadowy and opportunistic Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, Max Warburg continued his activities as a banker. He did well until 1938, when Schacht was fired and could no longer protect Warburg.
By that time two of Max's brothers, Paul and Felix, had long migrated to the United States and founded the highly successful and influential Kuhn Loeb and Co., in association with Felix's in-laws, the Schiffs. His brother Fritz had been imprisoned by the Nazis, but ultimately he was released through high-level intervention, whereupon he promptly left for Sweden.
Max alone, an ardent German patriot, refused to leave Germany. Max became now a heroic figure, although largely unknown to the surviving world. Single-handedly, he used his powerful position during the Hitler years to negotiate with the Nazis for all kinds of schemes to allow Jewish emigration. It was he who negotiated the "Haavarah Scheme," under which German Jews could deposit German currency and, after an interval, get a small portion thereof paid out overseas in foreign exchange.
Max had several other schemes which he thought the Germans would approve and which would have saved tens of thousands of German Jews. But as all these plans would have benefited the German economy, nobody outside of Germany was interested in them, least of all American and British Jews who, quite contrarily, pursued a strict boycott of everything German.
In the beginning of the Hitler days, aside from urging Jews to remain in Germany and continue acting as good citizens, Max Warburg also helped establish cultural organizations and associations for the representation of German Jews to the authorities. In discussing this, Chernow again leaves out an important chapter: the centrally important role played by Chaim Arlosoroff, the representative of Zionism in Germany, in the Haavarah and other schemes.
The Nazi press stepped up its hate-propaganda against the Warburg bank, and against Max in particular. Yet he ignored all the danger signs, and continued to work for the good of the German Jews. He could not conceive of these persecutions continuing. He foresaw that Hitlerism would end, and with it the German state-sponsored anti-Semitism.
Max's brothers in New York endlessly sent him pleadings to quit Germany forthwith. Finally, the Warburg bank was dissolved on orders from the Nazi Government, and Max handed over its management to trusted non-Jewish employees. It was quite by chance that Max was abroad when the Kristallnacht took place. Had he stayed he would without doubt have been arrested and sent to a concentration camp. to be held as a hostage by the Nazis.
He remained abroad, emigrating to New York, never to set foot on German soil again. Although he started banking activities in New York, he was a broken man. He realized, too late, that his trust in Germany was totally misguided.
At the age of 79, on December 26, 1946, Max Warburg died in New York. Without doubt he had been a true Jewish hero of the Holocaust—fearless and idealistic, and totally devoted to help his fellow Jews. He took risks which no one else could take. He used every avenue available to him within the Nazi regime to find ways to alleviate the cruel fate of Germany's last surviving Jews.
Many years later, in 1986, I met his son Eric on a business trip to Hamburg. Eric was the only Warburg who, after a brilliant military career in the U.S. Army, decided to return to Germany and start life there anew.
He was said to have been alienated from Jews, but to my surprise, he welcomed me in Hamburg warmly and volunteered to take me to the surviving cemeteries in Hamburg and Altona.
My visit to the Portuguese cemetery in Altona was a most memorable experience: I observed the same style of tombstones, Portuguese inscriptions, and even names, as I had seen in Portuguese Jewish cemeteries in the Caribbean Islands. It again accented the very important and close religious and cultural bonds which Sephardic Jews established throughout the world with one of the world's leading trade centers in Hamburg-Altona, so soon after escaping from the Christian hell in Spain and Portugal.
My encounters with Eric Warburg—later I also visited him on business matters in his New York office—convinced me that he, too, despite his apparent assimilation, was deeply proud of the Jewish heritage personified by the Warburg dynasty in Hamburg.
Many comparisons can be made between the Rothschilds and the Warburgs: In both families, the first generation consisted of five brothers who branched out into the banking world. But the Rothschilds never made meaningful inroads into the United States, concentrating instead on London and Paris. The Warburgs made Germany and the United States their prime fields of successful activities.
Both families, however, made historic contributions to Jewish charities in Israel and in the Diaspora. These contributions, along with the Warburgs' accomplishments in so many fields of Jewish life over more than 100 years, give us ample reasons to be proud of these illustrious Jewish financiers.
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