© Gunzburg Family/Halban Publishers
© Gunzburg Family/Halban Publishers
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The Russian Rothschilds

A new biography of the Gunzburgs reminds us that not all Russian Jews were persecuted revolutionaries

Joshua Meyers
May 13, 2020
© Gunzburg Family/Halban Publishers
© Gunzburg Family/Halban Publishers

In history our eye is often drawn to the “normal,” the experience of the many whose importance requires no justification. Yet there is value to the exceptions, those cases that force us to reconsider our assumptions. Most Jews in Russia were poor and marginalized, yet some were wealthy beyond measure and deeply connected to elites that constituted the center of the Russian Empire. Most Jews found deliverance during the Russian Civil War at the hands of the Red Army, which—though guilty for a number of pogroms of its own—saw anti-Semitic violence as wrong, as an evil to be defeated. Yet there were some who found their cause in the arms of their enemies, a cause worth dying for where most Jews saw a cause worth dying to defeat. John Stuart Mill once wrote that, in history, the danger is not in mistaking fact for fiction, but mistaking part of the truth for all of it. As Lorraine de Meaux reminds us in her book The Gunzburgs: A Family Biography, Russian Jewry was large; though it had its poverty and desperation, it had wealth and elegance as well.

A historian of Russia who has worked on Russian cultural and intellectual history, de Meaux brings us the story of a Russian Jewish family exceptional in nearly every way. Rich, acculturated, and politically connected, it defied stereotypes over the course of its time in Russia, embodying one of the most remarkable—and unusual—experiences of Russian Jewry. When we first find the family in the Bavarian town of Günzburg (from which the family took their name), it had already established itself as one of wealth and acumen, well represented among both the rabbinate and parnasim (wealthy) who dominated Jewish life in the medieval and early modern eras. As the family moved through Swabia to Poland, Vilna, and Vitebsk, they established themselves as part of the Jewish elite in the Pale of Settlement.

It was in Kamenets-Podolsk, a city in western Ukraine, that the family’s ascent truly began. There in 1849, the family patriarch Joseph Efzel purchased a concession from the state monopoly to produce and sell alcoholic beverages in southern Ukraine and Crimea. In normal times this was a lucrative business, and Joseph Efzel was good at it. Choosing to produce beer and mead over vodka (which sold for a higher price, but was also more expensive to produce), he brought in record profits, overcoming the low margins with massive market share.

Joseph Efzel’s investments made him extremely rich; they also brought him political influence. The Russian state depended on alcohol taxes to remain solvent—it is estimated that 40% of state revenues came from alcohol sales in 1860. As a good earner, Joseph Efzel became a key partner for the Russian Empire, an essential cog in the machinery of state. In 1849 Joseph Efzel was declared an “honorary citizen” as opposed to an imperial subject out of gratitude for his success.

When the Crimean War broke out Joseph Efzel’s wealth and stature rose even further, as the Russian Army considered alcohol as much a necessity for its soldiers as ammunition. The Gunzburgs’ service to the empire netted them some 900,000 rubles and the czar’s gratitude for “unfailing zeal in regularly supplying alcoholic beverage rations to the regiments, building up major stocks at designated depots and in general being able to satisfy all the regiments’ demands at their various billeting sites.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, the steady supply of alcohol provided by the Gunzburgs to imperial troops, Russia lost the war. The resulting financial hardship emboldened the reformist agenda of Czar Alexander II, who had inherited the throne during the war. So began the era of Russia’s Great Reforms, a period roughly spanning the 1860s and ’70s that saw the emancipation of the serfs, the limited opening of society to the Jews, and controlled liberalization. Notably for the Gunzburgs, Russia also decided to allow private banking for the first time in its history. With a large fortune, connections to the imperial elite, and a network of agents and associates developed by their alcohol distribution, the Gunzburgs were uniquely prepared to take advantage of this opportunity.

The step into banking allowed the Gunzburgs to enter two new worlds. On one hand, Joseph Efzel gained permission to settle in St. Petersburg, outside the Pale of Settlement—roughly encompassing contemporary Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and parts of Lithuania and Latvia—to which Jews were legally confined. There, along with other members of the Russian Jewish elite, they built the first Jewish community in that city, including the building of the Grand Choral Synagogue. The family also expanded to Paris, where they built a mansion (which still stands today) on the fashionable Rue de Tilsitt. This arrangement, with one foot in the capital of the Russian Empire, and the other in the capital of Western Europe, allowed the Gunzburgs to act as a bridge between the Russian Empire and the West. At a time when foreign investment in Russia was growing, the Gunzburg banking empire was uniquely positioned to serve as a conduit for that investment; by doing so, it established itself as one of the largest Jewish banking families in the world, on par with the better known Rothschilds.

The move to Paris and St. Petersburg opened up new cultural frontiers for the family. Russian and French replaced Yiddish, and artists and intellectuals entered the family’s orbit. Ivan Turgenev was a family friend. The family remained devoted to traditional Jewish religious practice, but with their own particular twist: Sabbath dinners were major affairs and the family prayed three times daily, but this did not stop the family from eagerly participating in the culture of balls and parties of Paris and St. Petersburg. On days when Hallel was recited, they hired a hazan who sang the prayer to the tune of Italian opera. A painting of Joseph Efzel’s daughter-in-law Anna by famed portrait artist Edouard Dubufe, portrayed her in modern, fashionable dress, but with a black lace draped over her hair and shoulders, gesturing toward the hair coverings Jewish women wore after marriage.

As much as the Gunzburgs embraced France and the West—during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, their mansion was even used as a military hospital—it was to Russia and Judaism the family most fiercely dedicated themselves. They used the fortune they gained to buy land and serfs—effectively, to become aristocrats—a move nearly unheard of for Jews. Joseph Efzel insisted that his grandchildren serve in the Russian Army, a stark contrast to the majority of Russian Jews who would take any steps necessary to avoid military service. When Joseph Efzel died in 1876, he included in his will explicit instructions that his heirs maintain their attachment to “the religion of our fathers and attachment to the Emperor and to the homeland.” If any heir failed to fulfill this demand, they were to be disinherited.

These two pillars of the family’s loyalties created a benevolent paternalism between the Gunzburgs and their coreligionists in the Pale of Settlement. Deeply committed to both Russia and its Jews, the family found itself taking—in a modern form—the role of shtadlan, of intercessor, between Russian Jewry and the czar. The family’s leaders—Joseph Efzel and his son Horace—looked to improve the living conditions of Russian Jewry. Though Palestinophiles—Horace’s son David emphatically declared that “a Jew naturally loves Palestine, even if he is not thinking of living there”—they had little practical interest in Zionism. Instead, the Gunzburgs supported the Jewish Colonization Association’s efforts to build agricultural colonies in Argentina, New Jersey, and elsewhere.

Yet ultimately, it was to Russia that the Gunzburgs placed the greatest share of their aspirations, hoping that the Russian Empire might yet blossom into the land of opportunity for its Jewish citizens. Horace Gunzburg dedicated himself to the establishment of the Craft Industry Fund, which would later become the Association for the Promotion of Skilled Trades, or, as it was known through its Russian abbreviation, ORT (Obchestvo Remeslenogo [pronounced: remeslenava] Truda.) Believing Jewish poverty to be, at least in part, the result of insufficient education, ORT dedicated itself to the vocational training of Jewish youth. Moreover, the family’s Palestinophilism contained a great respect for agriculture, inspiring the family to build Jewish agricultural colonies across southern Ukraine and Crimea that would later inspire generations of kibbutzniks.

In the 1890s, the fortunes of the family, which had soared over the last half century, began to turn to the worse. A famine in the lower Volga region in 1891-1892 wracked the Russian economy, while an ill-advised decision by Horace’s brother Salomon to make a large investment in Argentine railroad bonds made a bad situation worse. Though the bank retained sufficient assets to cover the debts, the institution was forced into bankruptcy, eventually closing entirely. Further tragedies would follow in the coming decades. Horace’s son Sasha, living in Kyiv, was wounded in the pogroms of 1905, while his home was ransacked. In 1912, workers at the Lena Gold Mines on the banks of the Lena River in Siberia went on strike when the company store, at which they were forced to shop, attempted to sell them rotten meat. Troops were dispatched to confront the striking workers. Though the workers remained peaceful, the troops opened fire, murdering 150 and wounding many more.

In 1912, the Gunzburgs were no longer the exclusive owners of the mines. Following the bankruptcy, their share had dropped to 30%. Yet it was with them that blame fell; anti-Semitic tropes abounded. The conservative Russian newspaper Novoye Vremya (The New Times) explicitly attacked “The Jews who run the Lena Company” as “greedy for Russian gold” but caring “little about the value of Russian blood.” Elsewhere, the Russian revolutionary movement, which had been in decline after the suppression of the Revolution of 1905, was revitalized by the sight of striking workers shot down to satisfy a capitalist lust for gold. It was in response to the massacre that Vladimir Lenin founded the newspaper Pravda (Truth), promising all proceeds from its sales to the families of those killed in the strike.

The Lena Massacre was not the Grunzbergs’ fault. They were not the majority owners of the mine. What’s more is that, as de Meaux finds, the family sought to negotiate with the workers, seeing no need to confront a peaceful protest. The Russian government, however, felt otherwise. And so, a family devoted to liberalism and religious tolerance found itself at the center of an event that catalyzed the development of Russia’s two extremes, a ruthless and anti-Semitic right wing, and a violent revolutionary left, on the eve of WWI—a war that would in turn transform the world.

ORT poster, Mikhail Dlugatch (1893-1989), Moscow, 1930s
ORT poster, Mikhail Dlugatch (1893-1989), Moscow, 1930sCollection of Yeshiva University Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig Jesselson

WWI represented an unprecedented tragedy for Russian Jewry, as the Eastern Front surged back and forth across the Pale of Settlement and neighboring Galicia. Before the war Vladimir Gunzburg, Horace’s son, had taken an interest in the 1911 ethnographic expedition organized by the writer, cultural activist, and revolutionary S. An-Sky (the pseudonym of Shloyme Zanvl Rapaport). In fact, the first expedition’s formal title was the Baron Horace de Gunzburg Expedition, named for Vladimir’s father who had died two years before its launch. The family had also long been associated with ORT and the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE), which now joined with the Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jewish Population (OZE) to form EKOPO (Evreiskii Komitet Pomoshchii Zhertvam Voiny—Jewish Committee for the Aid of War Victims), the largest rescue effort in Jewish history.

Problems with the rescue effort emerged—Vladimir’s brother Sasha was the first chair of EKOPO’s Central Committee but resigned in protest of its embrace of Yiddish instead of Russian or Hebrew, and its allowance of secularism in the schools it built for refugees. And yet, EKOPO worked, successfully caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees amidst what was—at the time—the bloodiest war in human history. In the years that followed, even those politically opposed to the Gunzburgs—Bundists, Zionists, and such—would take pride in their affiliation with EKOPO.

But if the war drew Russian Jewry together, it destroyed the Russian Empire. The Gunzburgs embraced the February Revolution—though monarchist, they were hardly attached to Czar Nicholas II, and it seemed the revolution might deliver the promise of liberalism to Russia. Yet the October Revolution, which brought to power the Bolsheviks, shattered the family’s hopes. As wealthy aristocrats deeply connected to the Old Regime, they had every reason to fear for their safety. An effort was made to arrange protection from Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Cheka—the predecessor to the KGB—in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been renamed during the war). Yet Uritsky was assassinated by rival leftists in 1918. Without his protection, the family saw no choice but to flee.

Many Jews fled Russia during the Civil War. Few did so with the aid of Semyon Petliura, the head of the Ukrainian Directorate, a government aspiring to create and independent state. Usually, Petliura is mentioned in relation to the pogroms committed by his forces, which resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of Jews, and the rape, injury, traumatization, and impoverishment of tens of thousands more. In all fairness, Petliura spoke out powerfully against pogroms while also promoting the myths that Jews were agents of Communism. (Christopher Gilley has done some superb work on the subject.) And yet, when the family arrived in Kyiv from Petrograd in late 1918, Petliura responded by providing them an armed escort out of the war zone.

Exceptional to the end, the Gunzburgs lost two sons—Horace’s son Berza and David’s son Gino—in the service of the anti-revolutionary White Army, which, like Petliura’s Ukrainian nationalists, is today best remembered for the murder of tens of thousands of Jews. Today, they are remembered as an epitome of lethal anti-Semitism, displaced only by the Nazis two decades later. And yet, this memory—though not inaccurate—depends on the privilege of hindsight. When the Civil War first began, a surprising number of Russian Jews were sympathetic to the White Army. Most Jews were not revolutionaries—even the Bund, the largest Jewish radical party, polled only around 15%-20% in the Jewish community in 1917. Indeed, following the 1905 Revolution, when disorder and pogroms seemed to go hand in hand, many Jews saw even the bad government of the monarchy as preferable to the anarchy of revolution. The Whites were, at least formally, committed to liberalism and in the beginning of the Civil War, many saw in them the prospect for the restoration of law and order. Both Gunzburgs joined the White cause in 1918; it was not until 1919 that the Whites would be involved in pogroms in any large-scale way. For Berza and Gino Gunzburg, raised in a home fiercely devoted to the ideas of Russia and liberalism, the White Army may well have seemed the lesser evil.

Berza Gunzberg disappeared in the Caucasus before the pogroms began. Had he lived, his brother Gino might have told us how he thought about his service and the atrocities committed by his comrades upon the Jewish community, to which his family had been for so long devoted. But Gino died of typhus in 1921, following the White Army’s evacuation from Crimea, leaving us to speculate. Yet even against these unknowns, it serves as a reminder that we would do well to question our assumptions about Jewish attitudes during the revolution, that not only was Jewish support for the Communists not to be taken for granted, but that for some, especially the wealthy and conservative sectors of Russian Jewry—the Whites may have, for a moment, seemed like the possible saviors of Russia’s Jews.

As de Meaux rightfully notes, the history of the family did not end in emigration. The family had a long presence in Paris, and there the family regathered around its remaining assets. Initially stateless, they gained citizenship and remained there through WWII. Under German occupation, some were able to emigrate; others remained in France, hiding through false documents. Yet many fought back, in the Free French Forces in exile, or the resistance in France, where the majority of the family remains today.

Joshua Meyers is a historian of modern Jewish politics, specializing in Russia and Eastern Europe.