The Rothschild Magic Lives On
No Jewish name in the last century has had the magic of the Rothschilds. The miracle of a Jewish family with roots in the darkest ghetto lane in Frankfurt climbing within one generation in the loftiest heights of European royalty, finance and culture, has puzzled Jewish historians for generations.
Although there were several other Jewish banking firms in Europe in the 19th century, it was the success of the Rothschilds that gained them the prime adoration and pride of Jews everywhere. Why? No doubt because the Rothschilds, despite their dazzling successes, never severed their ties with Jews and Judaism, and so, in a way, every Jew could identify with any Rothschild from the long dynasty and could feel that he was "one of us."
This pride came out again last week, when the Rothschild Exhibition was opened in Frankfurt/Main in connection with the 250th birthday of the founder of the banking house, Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812). The opening of the Exhibition was taken as an occasion for the city of Frankfurt/Main to stage a special celebration in the famous old Kaisersaal of the "Roemer," Frankfurt's most historic building.
A distinguished audience, headed by Germany's President Dr. Roman Herzog; Frankfurt's May Andreas von Schoeler; the head of the current generation of Rothschilds, Lord Rothschild; and members of the French branch of the Rothschilds, attended this historic event. Speaker after speaker stressed how the Rothschilds had contributed to making Frankfurt a world financial center, but also stressed the contribution of the family to the arts, music and civic harmony of Frankfurt.
Interestingly, the role played by the Rothschild women has not before been stressed enough. Nevertheless the funds for hospitals, orphanages, art collections and city parks in Frankfurt were often donated by wives of the bankers. Many of them were themselves Rothschild cousins, having married each other for generations, thereby creating a fabulous "cross-fertilization," which brought the accomplishments and skills of one branch of the family to the other, thus producing ever increasing excellence.
I was privileged to be invited by the city of Frankfurt to be its guest at the historic celebration of the 250th Rothschild anniversary. Also, Lord Rothschild, head of the British branch, honored me with an invitation to meet him in Frankfurt for the celebration.
I have for many years collected original documents and letters of various generations of Rothschilds and have cooperated with the Rothschild Archives in exchanging information and documentation. Also my studies of the family have produced various articles that have appeared in the Algemeiner Journal in past years. No wonder then that I was looking forward with maximum interest and anticipation to the Frankfurt celebration, as it would give me new opportunities to research the history and accomplishments of this exalted family.
The first discovery I made was when Lord Rothschild proudly showed me the huge "Memorbuch" or "Yizkor-book" of Frankfurt holding over 7,000 names of distinguished members of its Jewish community. The largest entry refers to "Ha-Aluf veha'Qatsin ha'Torani ve'ha'Rabbani R. Mosheh Meier ben ha'Manoach R. Amschel Rothschild, z"l." ("The leader, the guide, the Torah scholar, the rabbinical personality, R. Mosheh Meir son of the late R. Amschel Rothschild, of blessed memory, who died two days before Sukkot 1812.")
Firstly, the exceptional communal and rabbinical titles given here confirm that the elder Rothschild had amassed great Talmudic knowledge when he attended the famous yeshiva in Fuerth as a young man. Secondly, the text showed me that the second given name always refers to the father. Therefore the name "Meyer Amschel" is really a misnomer. His name was Meyer son of Amschel. The same practice was also followed by his famous five sons, who always included their father's name in theirs.
These are the five sons whom the father sent out to open branches of his financial affairs in the leading European finance centers; Salomon Meyer to Vienna; Nathan Meyer to London; Carl Meyer to Naples; James (Jacob) Meyer to Paris; and Amschel Meyer, who stayed in Frankfurt. They took on as a business logo the famous sign of five arrows held together -- still shown in every Rothschild bank around the world. Their sons, in turn, also often included their fathers' names in their own, as we see from the example of Carl Meyer's sons, Meyer Carl and Wilhelm Carl, both of whom took over the Frankfurt branch when their uncle Amschel left no sons.
I also found that the name Carl was consistently rendered as "Kalonimus" in Hebrew. This intrigued me, as my own grandfather, Carl Lehmann, also bore the Hebrew name Kalonimus. In our family it was thought that this name is the Hebraized version of Carolus Magnus, Charles the Great, who because he was benign to Jews, was thus honored and commemorated by Jewish families for centuries.
That the Naples Rothschilds moved to Frankfurt had a most fortuitous influence on the history of the Jewish community of that town. For it was Wilhelm Carl (1828-1901) who, meanwhile -- as most of the members of the Rothschild family -- had been knighted and was now a baron. He was exceptional in that he walked in his grandfather's footsteps and was steeped in Jewish learning and piety. He spent a few hours every day studying the Talmud and is reported to have had a mikva in his palatial home.
One of his most influential teachers was the famed R. Zvi Hirsh Lehren of Amsterdam, who headed the committee that was in charge of channeling donations to Jewish settlements in the Holy Land. In an original handwritten note, which I published two years ago, the Baron called himself Rabbi Lehren's "servant and student."
But he had also found another great rabbi with whom he allied himself. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888), who had just arrived in Frankfurt to head a tiny group of Orthodox Jews aiming at legally separating themselves from the general Reform congregation so that authentic Judaism could be practiced and perpetuated in Frankfurt. The Baron was of exactly the same opinion as Rabbi Hirsch, and so they formed a powerful alliance that assured the survival of authentic Judaism, not only in Frankfurt, but in Germany and the world in general. This was the age when the cancer of Reform was eating away at Judaism in Europe. The elimination of the traditional features of Judaism, especially the purging of any reference to the return to Zion, to the coming of Messiah, to the rebuilding of the Temple and even to the use of the Hebrew texts in prayers, had resulted in mass assimilation, mixed marriages and conversion -- still the effect of Reform today.
In the face of this threatening catastrophe, Rabbi Hirsch staunchly took his small group of faithful and formed an independent congregation with its own synagogue, school, etc. Providentially, the Baron was there to fund him lavishly. Modern Orthodoxy, as it was called from the beginning, was thus fortified and has been a blessing for the survival of authentic Judaism the world over ever since.
Although the current exhibition is housed in the newly established Jewish Museum, which is located in the Baron's former palatial residence, the exhibit did not present much evidence of this enormous contribution to Orthodox Judaism. But since the slogan of the Exhibition was "Rothschilds -- a European Family," rather than "a Jewish Family," the intention was evidently not to stress the Jewish aspects of the family history too much. After all, the memory of the Hitler period -- when all the contributions of the Rothschilds to Frankfurt were wiped out and dishonored -- is still alive in Germany.
Any visit to Germany, of course, involves looking back at the Holocaust period. I remember when I was in Frankfurt in 1938 seeing in many places signs reading, "Juden Hier Unerwuenscht" ("Jews Are Not Desired Here"). In 1947 I visited Frankfurt again and saw the Allied occupation authorities put up signs here and there reading, "Deutschen Eintritt Verboten" ("Entry by Germans Forbidden.) It was a way to assert the subjugation of vanquished Germany. This time, I was shown a multitude of city blocks once occupied by Americans, now empty ... The roles have completely switched around again.
I also remember seeing in 1948 the huge synagogue at Fretherr von Stein Strasse, totally burned out from the inside during the Kristallnacht, but left standing because the enormous cement blocks of the huge edifice evidently could not be broken down. During my visit last week, I attended services in the evening and in the morning at the same synagogue, which has been totally and beautifully restored! "Lo alman Israel" -- "Israel is never left as a widower," as the saying goes. The Jewish people are always rejuvenated, even if it takes a long time!
When I visited the largest book store in Frankfurt, I noticed some four floors stocked with books of every sort. Finally, I found one single, small shelf with books on the Holocaust! That is how much the Germans want to burden their conscience with their heavy guilt.
As I wrote in my article last year, the Rothschild women had an enormous, if sadly often neglected, influence on their husbands and on society through their own excellence in cultural and Jewish activities. The program of the 250th anniversary was therefore appropriately designed to honor the artistic skill of some outstanding Rothschild wives.
The program started with the playing of a ballad composed by Frederic Chopin and dedicated to Baroness Charlotte, wife of Nathaniel de Rothschild. Songs composed by Baroness Mathilde (Hebrew name Hannah), wife of Baron Wilhelm Carl von Rothschild, were sung in a charming and accomplished soprano voice by Ms. Charlotte de Rothschild of the Paris branch. One of these songs, in a haunting melody, described the modesty of Meyer Amschel Rothschild, the patriarch of the family. Also, a piano Mazurka composed by Baroness Mathilde (1832-1924)) was played.
Baroness Mathilde was also a great tzadekes, who brought up her daughter, Adelheide, in the true spirit of Judaism and Jewish charity. When Adelheide married her cousin, Edmund of Paris, she influenced him to become the "Nadiv ha Yadua" -- the Famous Benefactor of Zionism and early colonization in Palestine.
I was privileged to pay a visit to one of the most important Jewish cemeteries in the world, that of Frankfurt. Although the city had Jews living there since the early Middle Ages -- the first documented presence is from 1150 -- the largest surviving cemetery is from the beginning of the 19th century. The purpose of my visit was to pay homage to the graves of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch and the Baron. The separatist community of Rav Hirsch had its own section of graves, separated from the rest by a high brick wall.
This wall is the subject of an intriguing story; As I approached the wall, I noticed that about half of it had been leveled to the ground. The caretaker told me that it had been destroyed by Allied fliers during World War II. But the near-miraculous part of that event is that the bomb, as if by precision bombing, only hit the wall itself without hurting a single one of the tombstones immediately adjacent to it! Could there be a message in this miracle -- time to remove separation among the Jewish people!
Beyond the rest of the wall, rows upon rows of simple tombstones were lined up, as if in the march position of a huge army. And heading the first row of tombstones -- right in the middle of it -- was the tombstone of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch. (Again I found that his name included that of his father. His own name was Shamshon ben Rafael Hirsch. This intrigued me since my own middle name, Rafael, was given by my father in homage to his great idol -- Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch.)
I must confess that I was gripped by trembling standing in front of the grave of such a great tzaddik and teacher for all generations. His long Hebrew tomb inscription describes him as "Sar Ha-Torah Ateret Roschenu, Tiferet Yisrael, Meir Eyney Ha-Golah, Gibbor ba bi-Gevuroth" ("The Prince of the Torah, the Crown of Our Head, The Pride of Israel, He Opened the Eye of the Diaspora, a Hero Full of Heroism." The appellation "Gevuroth" could also be a hint that he had reached the age of 80.) The text then referred to his many writings, his struggle against the Reform, his emphasis on the purity of Judaism and his influence the world over.
After reading a chapter of Tehillim (Psalms) before this "Pride of the Torah," I searched out the group of monumental Rothschild graves, headed by that of the Baron. The Hebrew dedication on his tombstone stresses his modesty, his search for the truth of the Torah, his righteous ways, and his devotion to his wife and ends, "The wings of his charities covered all human beings." Added is the verse: "The beginning of all wisdom is the fear of G-d, this is good intelligence, its practitioners will be praised forever" (Psalms 111:10).
Reading a chapter of Tehillim in the presence of his grave was a rare privilege. The monumental tombstones for his wife and many family members are creations of art, none of which were damaged during the Hitler period.
The cemetery also holds the graves of Bertha Papenheim, who was Siegmund Freud's first guinea pig for his theory of psychoanalysis; Paul Ehrlich, famous Nobel Prize winner; Rav Nehemia A. Nobel, famous Orthodox German rabbi; and Rabbi Israel of Stolin, the Stoliner Rebbe, who died near Frankfurt in 1921 after taking medical treatments there -- in all 30,000 tombstones in a special area, including urns holding the ashes of Jews killed by the Nazis in death camps ...
Visiting this historic cemetery is a profound experience of Jewish history and piety. It is a must for every visitor to Frankfurt.
Thus, although the aim of my visit was to participate in the 250th anniversary celebration of Meyer Amschel Rothschild and his countless descendants, I am grateful that it afforded me the opportunity to honor the graves of the great Jewish personalities who provided the background to the spectacular success of this dynasty of men of finance. Although they were always subject to anti-Semitism -- predictably arising out of jealousy -- they have survived the Holocaust intact and are today again a powerful factor throughout the world. They are today, as they have always been, a tremendous source of pride and inspiration for the Jewish people. We must be grateful to old Meyer son of Amschel Rothschild, who, through his erudition in the Talmud and his religious piety, instilled lasting values in his sons and descendants. May his memory be blessed!
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