A historical anecdote has been passed down: one day Baron Horace Ginzburg (1833-1909) was riding in a carriage with Emperor Nicholas II. A passing muzhik, unable to contain his amazement, exclaims, “Well, how do you like that? A yid is riding with the tsar!” The peasant was grabbed and about to be dragged off to prison for insulting the baron when Ginzburg requested that the simple fellow not be punished and even gives him some gold. For what? For not letting him forget that he is a Jew. This imposing gentleman, who spoke better French than Russian and was tall and well-built, with an aristocratic bearing and a captivating smile that made him difficult to dislike, really appreciated being reminded of his origins. He was deeply religious and convinced that Judaism is the precursor of all culture. Whatever the subject of discussion might be, the baron invariably wound up commenting that the solution to any problem related to the wellbeing of mankind can be found in the writings of Judaism. One of his favorite phrases was, “In the Talmud it is said that….” This conviction was expressed in every conversation he had.
His thorough grounding in the Talmud and ancient Hebrew was acquired in childhood, when he studied under the renowned Hebrew scholar, Mordecai Suchostaver, first in Zvenigorodka in Kiev Province, where he was born and spent his early years, and later in St. Petersburg and Paris, between which the Ginzburg family later divided its time. Like Evzel’s other children, Horace was given an excellent education at home, this matter having been put in the hands of the best pedagogues and experts. For Horace, his father’s authority was beyond question. His guiding principle was “This is how my father did things or felt he needed to do things.” This is not surprising, since from an early age he served as his father’s right-hand man. At the age of 20 he married his cousin, Anna Rozenberg (1838-1878), also with his father in mind. Horace’s chosen helpmate enjoyed tremendous respect within the Ginzburg family and exerted a great deal of influence on her father-in-law.
It can be unequivocally stated that the rights won by Russian Jews during the 1850s-1870s were a product not only of Evzel Ginzburg’s efforts, but also of Horace’s energy and skill. The son, who was always by his father’s side, also made major contributions to his father’s successes in banking and finance. Indeed, Horace Ginzburg was fated to surpass his father in many ways and earn himself not just a European reputation, but an international one – and not first and foremost in the sphere of business (although here he not only consolidated but advanced his father’s work, becoming the founder of new corporations, large gold-mining partnerships, the owner of sugar factories, and a sponsor of the construction of Russian railroads, to name just some of his achievements). However, it was his activities in the area of philanthropy and human rights that earned him the greatest renown.
Even during Evzel’s lifetime, Horace became a prominent philanthropist and patron of the arts in his own right. His exceptional position in Russia was attested to by the fact that in 1868 he was appointed consul general for Hesse-Darmstadt in St. Petersburg, becoming the first non-Christianized Jewish diplomat to the court in St. Petersburg. In 1871, when the Grand Duchy of Hesse became part of a united Germany, Horace (and just three years later his father Evzel) was granted hereditary Hessian nobility, not to mention the title of baron.
The scope of Horace Ginzburg's philanthropy was seemingly limitless. There was an impression that there no major undertaking in St. Petersburg was deprived of his generous financial contributions and efforts, whether or not they directly benefited his coreligionists. One could point, for example, to the model technical college named in honor of Tsarevich Nicholas, or the special surgical infirmary he set up as part of the Stock Exchange Hospital, where countless people in need were given urgent care by the finest doctors. He was directly involved in the establishment of the St. Petersburg Archeological Institute, which was granted the designation “Imperial,” and the “Bestuzhev Courses,” which subsisted on private funds and was one of the few institutions of higher learning for women in Russia. He donated appropriations for the Institute of Experimental Medicine that was founded by Prince Alexander Petrovich of Oldenburg (modeled on France’s renowned Pasteur Institute), organized a Society for Low-Cost Apartments in St. Petersburg, participated in the work of the Society to Improve the Living Conditions of Poor Children, and served as a trustee of the Nicholas II School of Commerce. The causes to which he made significant charitable contributions are too numerous to enumerate. What is important to note is that a strict condition of his participation in these projects was that they equally benefit people without regard to ethnicity or religion. “He did not differentiate between people,” one of his contemporaries would comment, “Since the teachers of the law to which he was ever-faithful did not distinguish between Hellene and Jew.”
Horace Ginzburg was at the very center of the intellectual life of his time. As his father had done in Paris, Horace opened the doors of his St. Petersburg home to the finest exemplars of the progressive Russian intelligentsia. Close ties of friendship existed between Ginzburg and Mikhail Stasyulevich, a former history professor and founder of the liberal magazine, Vestnik Evropy [Herald of Europe], as well as with the men of letters who contributed to this publication: Konstantin Arseniev, chairman of the St. Petersburg Bar; Vladimir Spasovich, outstanding criminologist and professor of criminal law; Alexander Pypin, literary historian; Konstantin Kavelin, professor at the Military Law Academy; and Vladimir Stasov, the outstanding art historian and patron of the arts (who later became an ardent admirer of Jewish talents). The Ginzburg household was also frequented by the writers Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, Mikhail Saltykov Shchedrin, and Pyotr Boborykin; the illustrious jurist Anatoly Koni; one of the founders of modern Russian medicine, Sergei Botkin; and the remarkable philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. Solovyov was a particularly close and trusted friend. It would appear possible that it was specifically Ginzburg who influenced Solovyov to study Judaism through primary sources and develop a profound knowledge of the Talmud. The philosopher’s biographers attest that the last words he pronounced on his deathbed was the Shema Yisrael. Unfortunately, Ginzburg’s correspondence with Solovyov, as well as with other prominent cultural figures, which was kept in the Baron’s archive and are of paramount scholarly importance, were destroyed in a fire, which goes to show that manuscripts do, after all, burn.
Horace Ginzburg also developed a rapport with the artist Ivan Kramskoy, who painted a portrait of the Ginzburg family, as well as with the court painter Mihály von Zichy, who produced masterly hunting scenes that were celebrated for their refinement. Horace collected contemporary Russian paintings and his St. Petersburg home held a collection of nineteenth century portraits. It was he who saw to it that an unknown tailor’s apprentice from Vilnius by the name of Mark Antokolsky received an academy education and acquired world renown as a sculptor. The baron did not forsake Antokolsky when he became terminally ill, arranging for the sculptor to spend his last months amidst the wonders of Switzerland. Ginzburg created a special Academy of Arts fund to endow a prize to recognize Jewish artists.
Not surprisingly, the world of music was another realm in which Ginzburg had close friends of prominence, including the first director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, the famous cellist Karl Davydov, and the Hungarian violinist and renowned teacher Leopold Auer. Among the young musicians who received financial support from Ginzburg in the form of stipends were Auer’s students Jascha Heifetz and Misha Elman.
But Horace Ginzburg’s most productive philanthropic and educational work was through the Society to Promote Education among the Jews of Russia, which he took over as chairman after his father’s death. For example, in 1880 he established a foundation to help Jewish women achieve a higher education <<to help female Jewish university students >>. The society also left an impressive publishing legacy, including Russian-Jewish Archive (Vols. 1-2, edited by Sergei Bershadsky, [St. Petersburg, 1882]) and A History of the Jews by Henrich Graetz (St. Petersburg, 1883). A special Jewish Historical Ethnographic Commission was set up to research the history of Jews in Russia (it later became the Jewish Historical Ethnographic Society). It was this commission that published the classic three-volume reference Lists and Inscriptions (often cited by its Russian name, Regesty i Nadpisi [St. Petersburg, 1899-1913]), an invaluable resource for every student of Jewish history. An ethnographic expedition was organized that resulted in a unique collection of objects of Jewish material culture. This collection later formed the basis around which a Jewish museum was built (later shut down by the Soviets).
The Society also made a major contribution in the area of Jewish elementary education. A Compilation For Jewish Elementary Schools was published in 1896 and a Reference Book on Issues of Jewish Education followed it in 1901. Subsidies were given both to Jewish schoolchildren attending general education schools and to Jewish elementary schools. The society also supported efforts to open new schools, with the stipulation that religious subjects and Hebrew be taught. With the opening of offices in Moscow (1894), Riga (1898), and Kiev (1903), the society’s reach was greatly expanded. Toward the end of the baron’s life it had 30 offices and 7000 member and had funded a total of nine libraries. In 1907, with the society’s patronage, a two-year teacher college was established in Grodno to expand the ranks of qualified Jewish educators.
Whenever misfortune struck the Jewish community, Horace Ginzburg was there to lend a helping hand. In 1878, Ginzburg reacted with lightning speed as soon as news arrived from the Transcaucasian city of Kutaisi that a group of Mountain Jews had been falsely accused of the ritual murder of a Christian boy. The baron not only hired the best lawyer to defend them, but managed to inspire a professor of St. Petersburg University’s School of Eastern Studies, the outstanding orientalist and semitologist Daniel Chwolson, to write a scholarly work on the history of blood libel and discredit such accusations. The professor’s book, Do Jews Use Christian Blood?, was published at Ginzburg’s expense, the first investigation of this question in Russia, and was translated into several European languages and had a broad impact. As a result, the Kutaisi Jews were acquitted. Indeed the very idea that Jews engaged in ritual killings was discredited.
The ascendance of Alexander III, who steered a radically different course when it came to Jews, dashed all hope of position changes. Historians have written about the pathological anti-Semitism of this Russian emperor, characterizing his attitude toward Jews as “the apotheosis of malice, ignorance, and narrow-minded, un-Christian vindictiveness.”
The acrimony this monarch felt toward the Jewish tribe can be traced back to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. During this conflict the Russian army, under the command of (then Tsarevich) Alexander, suffered devastating defeat. The cause, in his eyes, was the administrative inefficiency of Jewish suppliers. His lack of personal exposure to Jews combined with his feelings of resentment to lead him to extend his animosity to all Jews. Oil was only added to the flame when the 1878 Congress of Berlin, which handed Russia a humiliating settlement, guaranteed the Jews of Balkan states equal rights, something that had been lobbied for by French and English Jewish leaders (the Alliance Israélite). This brought with it a temporary liberalization in attitudes towards Jews in Russia as well. One of the forces behind this liberalization, Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov, whom Alexander II had put in charge of spearheading reforms, even pursued the possibility of abolishing the Pale of Settlement. The future Alexander III did not like any of this and saw signs of a powerful and united Jewish cabal all around him. Furthermore, once he became emperor, his Jewish (or rather anti-Jewish) legislation was guided not by any rational state interests, but by emotions, prejudice, and preconceptions. It is illustrative that when he was presented with a petition complaining about flagrant discrimination against Russian Jews, he wrote in the margins, “They forget the terrible words of their ancestors. ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’”! This explains why they have been ruined and cursed by the Heavens!” In other words, for him, in essence, any legal questions about the rights of citizens were trumped by the notion of a legendary sin and the collective responsibility of the Jewish people before Christianity. It would appear that among all Russian monarchs the one closest to him in views was Peter the Great’s militantly Judophobic daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who famously proclaimed, “I have no desire for profit from the enemies of Jesus Christ!”
The tsar’s inclinations were shared by the new Interior Minister, Nikolai Ignatiev, who, in May 1882, issued the so-called “Temporary Regulations” – draconian laws that, alas, remained in effect right up to 1917. They were based on the perverse idea that Jews themselves were to blame for the new restrictions, since they were guilty of corrupting the Russian people with drink, mercilessly exploiting the peasantry, and were escaping the Pale of Settlement in order to join in revolutionary sedition. The government took it upon itself to defend the Russian people, the peasantry first and foremost, from Jewish “bloodsuckers” (the very same government that had impoverished the peasantry through its ruinous economic policies). Under the May Laws (as they later came to be called) Jews were to be expelled from villages and forced to settle in cities and shtetls, they were to lose the right to hold wine franchises, and their access to higher education was to be sharply limited. One cannot help but think of Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman, who was forced to sell his house and cow and leave the village where he grew up. He was just the sort of hard worker that Ignatiev’s law hit the hardest. It pulled the rug out from under hundreds of thousands of families who had made a living out of the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. Finally, it certainly revolutionized those who wanted to attend university but found themselves hostages to the quota system. What was an educated, Russophone Jew to do? Many who had already received a top notch gymnasium education were shut out of institutions of higher learning. In the Pale of Settlement economic conditions were already bad enough: more than a million people were destitute, lacking even the means to celebrate Passover. Ignatiev’s laws condemned the Jewish population to poverty and emigration. One and a quarter million left for Argentina, Palestine, and the United States.
Gone were the auspicious days of the Tsar-Liberator, Alexander II, a time when Horace, together with his father, won rights for their long-suffering people one step at a time. Jewish pogroms, something unheard of under Alexander II, swept the country, perpetrated by urban rabble with the tacit approval of the authorities. Now that the reactionaries were in power there could be no talk of emancipating the Jews. Every effort had to be directed toward preserving what had already been achieved and preventing newly gained rights from slipping away. And what was Horace Ginzburg’s role in all this? Later, the jurist Maxim Vinaver wrote very aptly on this subject.
He alone did not stray from the path he had chosen and continued the fight. The fight…this word seems so incompatible with his kind, soft…face, with his massive but childishly gentle, kind figure. What could he fight with? His sword was his kind, heartfelt smile, and the only armor he had against cruel blows was an endlessly loving heart that was incontrovertibly devoted to his people. He asked and cajoled, walked out, but then returned. More than once critical words from the mouths of his contemporaries condemning his seemingly futile efforts reached his ears. But those who judged him did not understand that it is easier to put up a clamorous fight and even to be heroically struck down in open combat than – day in, day out – to knock on doors, walk away, and come back again and again…. To persist all your life, to persist with dignity, with head held high, is something that can only be done by a soul that feels compassion even for the haughty and unfeeling against whose heart of stone all his pleas have been smashed. This is the sort of man he was: he sincerely forgave his enemies, even the enemies of his people.
Every request, petition, and memorandum submitted to the government concerning the rights of Jews always had to get past Horace’s strict censorship. An innate sense of tact gave the baron a keen ear for the most appropriate phrasing. He relentlessly crossed out such words as “highly,” “extremely,” “unquestionably.” As a result, any document that benefitted from his pen took on a calm, businesslike, and balanced character and thereby gained in effectiveness. His unique style was respectful, but insistent.
Baron Ginzburg paid close attention to the everyday lives of ordinary Jews and always came to their defense, standing up for their interests in the Governing Senate. In so doing he relied heavily on the support of a man who was known by his contemporaries as the “righteous judge” – the head of the Senate’s First Department, Viktor Artsimovich. A testament to the memory of this highly placed friend to the Jews has been preserved for posterity in a bust by Antokolsky that stood in the baron’s study.
In 1882 Horace actively participated in the work of the High Commission to Review Laws Pertaining to Jews, which had been convened by the tsar and was chaired by the former minister of justice, Count Konstantin Pahlen. Pahlen had a reputation as a man who was fair and incorruptible. His Commission took a serious look at the lives of Russian Jews. A number of reports were drafted and published, including on the economic situation of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, the history of laws pertaining to Jews, and the demographics of Russian Jews. The baron saw to it that the facts the Commission was working with were accurate and provided evidence disputing the common belief that Jews evade military conscription. Ginzburg demonstrated that the official figures suggesting that Jews are not proportionally represented in the army could be explained by the fact that they were not being properly registered when enlisted, as well as by the special rules that had been put in place relating to their recruitment. In fact, in percentage terms, the number of Jewish recruits even exceeded that of other nationalities. His efforts were not in vain: the majority of High Commission members had the courage to recognize that the limitations currently in place would do nothing to resolve the Jewish question and that continuing to follow the current course was unjust, unnecessary, and would only cause harm (including economic harm) not only to Jews, but to the greater population. The Commission proposed gradually expanding the rights of Jews. In short, Pahlen and his staff did not “ the trust” that the openly chauvinistic and anti-Semitic Alexander III had placed in them.
Unfortunately, in 1887 the Commission was unexpectedly abolished. The fate of Russia’s Jews was then handed over to a Council put together by the Interior Minister and chaired by the inveterate reactionary Vyacheslav von Plehve, who at the time was Assistant Minister. A brutish anti-Semite and careerist who was eager to please his Judophobic tsar, Plehve set out not only to keep the draconian May Laws, but to make them even tougher, taking them to extremes of cruelty and misanthropy. This nineteenth century Haman sought to expel from the Russian countryside even those Jews who were living there legally, and felt that any Jew who traveled where he was not allowed should be deprived of the right to return to his home village. Jewish artisans, who had been earlier given the right to live outside the Pale of Settlement, were to immediately return there. A prohibition was placed on the rental of real estate outside of cities. Any violation of these “rules” were to be punished with a prison term.
These “legislative proposals” had to be submitted to the Government Council for approval. Given the circumstances, one might have thought that any struggle for the rights of Jews would have been paralyzed. Baron Ginzburg, however, redoubled his effort. He went into battle calmly and patiently, attempting to expose to the government just how injurious the Plehve initiatives would be. He convinced Finance Minister Ivan Vyshnegradsky just how monstrous and barbarous this medieval intolerance toward Jews was. In a report Vyshnegradsky submitted to the tsar he convincingly argued the benefit Jews brought to the economic life of the country. The minister also pointed out to the autocrat the harmful impact that Plehve’s projects would have on imperial finances. In the end, the baron’s efforts were successful: Plehve’s proposals were not put before the Government Council and sunk into oblivion. Ginzburg thus managed to avert terrible misfortune. Even if this was the only service he performed for his people, it would be enough to earn him their eternal gratitude and an important place in Russian history.
The interests of the Jewish people were Baron Ginzburg’s primary concern, and Jews throughout Russia turned to him for help and felt unflagging respect and gratitude toward him. “Show me a single shtetl,” the Rabbi Vladimir Temkin once said, “That, in a moment of tribulation, has not turned to the baron for help, for protection. Can you find a single Jew who, in a moment of desperation, in a minute of bitter suffering, did not call out to the baron?”
Ginzburg’s role as the organizer and head of the St. Petersburg Jewish community is inestimable. He was behind construction of the capital’s synagogue on Ofitserskaya Street, which was opened in 1892 and is still functioning. This great work of architecture, built along the Neva River in the Moorish style, is one of the cities most stunning historical buildings. The baron became chairman of the synagogue’s board of directors, and under his leadership a public assistance office was opened to aid the poor. Earlier Horace’s wife Anna had founded a Jewish orphanage on St. Petersburg’s Vasilievsky Island.
It is impossible to enumerate all the causes for which the baron petitioned the government, all the Jewish undertakings that he financed. Ginzburg came to the generous assistance of victims of fires, famines, pogroms, and other misfortunes. But he was also an unflagging Russian patriot, something even his enemies recognized. He loved Russia just as it was, but held high hopes for its future. His patriotism came coupled with a profound loyalty to tsar and government. The regime’s failings were perfectly clear to him, but he never opposed the existing order and followed the Talmudic precept that the laws of the state must be rigorously obeyed. It pained him deeply to see so many Jews join the revolutionary movement.
The Russian government recognized Ginzburg’s services and in 1889 he was elevated to the rank of Actual State Councilor, the civilian equivalent of the rank of general, and decorated with the highest orders. Most importantly, the baron was seen by the government as the leader of all of Russian Jewry.
Horace Giznburg believed that Jews could thrive in Russia and did not approve of Zionism or immigration to Palestine, Argentina, and the United States, which was in full swing in his day. But he respected the personal choice of his coreligionists and understood that without his participation (including material assistance), it would be impossible for Russian Jews to resettle, so in 1893 he took over leadership of the central committee of the Jewish Colonization Association. Soon there were 507 emigration committees working under his patronage. Later, an agricultural colony in Argentina came to bear his name.
Baron Horace Ginzburg departed this world in 1909 at the age of 76. Speaking at his funeral, Henrik Sliozberg gave him a heartfelt tribute:
Horace Osipovich was the beauty of Israel. It was not his wealth or nobility that made him so, nor was it the fact that he was influential and that his influence was always used to benefit others, nor was it that he always generously shared with those dear to him the riches that fate bestowed upon him…. There was no human suffering that he did not feel and that he did not strive to alleviate, regardless of who was suffering – his own people or “others,” and for him there really were no “others.” But it was not just this that made him the beauty of the Jews. And it was not the fact that, loving beauty, he encouraged art in all its manifestations, and that being enlightened, he enlightened others and sowed enlightenment with his generous hand right and left, and not just in a narrow furrow, confident that however the seeds fell on the grateful soil of the Jewry it would bear rich fruit. He was the beauty of the Jews in that he was the living exemplar of the Jew, imbued with the spirit of Judaism, with the Jewish ideal, and everything that he did and everything that he was manifested his Judaism. Everything he did he did not, as some would say, “despite being a Jew,” but specifically “because he was a Jew.” The precepts of the Jewish creed and Jewish morality were always his guide and never for a minute did he forget that, in the words of our teachers, “three things make the world strong: truth, justice, and benevolence.”
Horace Ginzburg bequeathed that he be buried in Paris, by his father’s side. His body departed St. Petersburg for Paris amidst great ceremony. Delegations came from many cities for the occasion. The body was accompanied on its journey by specially appointed envoys.
But before long the name Horace Ginzburg began to be forgotten. This is understandable. He was too traditional a Jewish leader, faithfully petitioning the powers that be on behalf of his people. The tsarist government had no desire to alleviate the situation of Jews, seeing in this “alien” nation a scapegoat and a force behind the revolutionary movement. “Let the Union of the Russian People be my tower of strength, serving in every way and every deed an example of legality and order!” was the rallying cry of the emperor of the Black Hundreds, Nicholas II, who had no intention of protecting Jews from pogroms and persecution. Under such circumstances asking was not enough; it was necessary to demand, to cry out, and even to resort to arms. Later came the October Revolution, with its slogans of internationalism and proletarian solidarity, which left no place for Jewish ethnic identity. It is not surprising, therefore, that the name of a renowned Jewish shtadlan entered official obscurity: not a single edition of the Soviet encyclopedia or biographical dictionary mentioned his name.
Today, however, this remarkable defender of human rights lives on in the memories of grateful Jews throughout the world – in Israel, Russia, and Argentina. In the United States a special Baron Ginzburg Foundation has been established that awards the best works of Jewish history and literature.
Horace Osipovich Ginzburg was a typical Jew – a benefactor and philanthropist about whom even Nicholas II, not known for his love of Jews, said, “Here is a man about whom nobody has a mean word to say.”
His is an example worthy of imitation.
Translated by Nora Favorov.
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Lev Berdnikov. Born in 1956 in Moscow, Berdnikov is a graduate of the philological faculty of the Moscow Regional Pedagogical Institute and the Higher Library courses. He worked at the Museum of Books of the Russian State Library, where from 1987-1990 he led a research team on Russian incunabula. In 1985 he defended his thesis "The Formation of the Sonnet in Eighteenth-Century Russian Poetry." Since 1990 he has been living in Los Angeles. He is author of the books: Happy Phoenix: Essays on Russian Sonnet and Book Culture of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century (St. Petersburg, 1997; 2 ed. -2013), Dandies and Rakes: Heroes of the Russian Gallant Century (Moscow, 2008), Jews in Livery: Literary Portraits (Moscow, 2009), Jesters and Wits: Heroes of Yore (Moscow, 2009), The Jews of the Russian State, Fifteenth - Early Twentieth Century (Moscow, 2011 – in English as: Jews in Service to the Tsar, Montpelier, VT, 2011), Russian Gallant Century in faces and scenes. Vol.1-2 (Montreal, 2013) and several hundred shorter publications in Russia, the U.S., Canada, England, Israel, Germany, Denmark, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. His works have been translated into Hebrew, Ukrainian, Danish and English. He is member of the Russian PEN Center, the Moscow Writers' Union, the Union of Writers of the Twenty-First Century and the Union of Russian Writers of Israel. He is also member of the editorial board of the journals "New Beach" (Denmark) and "Seven Arts" (Germany). In 2010 he won the Gorky Literary Award in the category "Across Russia: Historical Journalism, " and is recipient of an honorary diploma from the All-American Cultural Fund in the name of Bulat Okudzhava.