History and Historiography

The Russian Rothschilds

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

by Joshua Meyers

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.


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