Baron Maurice de Hirsch was born in Germany in 1831. His mother Karoline Wertheimer ensured that he received the best instruction in Hebrew and religion. Descended from a distinguished family of Jewish court bankers, he moved among European nobility. He was counted among the intimates of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, and of the Austrian archduke Rudolph.
In 1851 Hirsch joined the banking firm of Bischoffsheim & Goldschmidt in Brussels and four years later married Clara, daughter of Senator Jonathan Bischoffsheim, head of the firm.
Even before she met Baron de Hirsch, Clara had been involved with philanthropic activities. Under her father's guidance, she had worked to relieve the misery of individuals and supported alms-houses and soup kitchens, distributed clothes for children, and financed loan banks for traveling hawkers. She was a major force in guiding her husband in his philanthropic enterprises. As well as assisting him in founding colonies and developing schools and farms, between 1892 and 1895 she donated over 200 million francs (about $40 million) of her own money to philanthropic causes.
Baron de Hirsch did not rely on his wife or father-in-law for his fortune. Instead, he initiated an audacious financial scheme, setting up the funding to build the Oriental Railway, which linked Constantinople to Europe.
Hirsch was granted control of the railway concession by the Turkish government. By personal supervision and skillful engineering, he ensured the success of the venture. The railway project and his pioneer enterprises in the sugar and copper industries brought Hirsch's fortune to an estimated $100 million by 1890, and gained for him a reputation as an outstanding industrialist and financier.
During this period Hirsch became acquainted with the plight of Middle Eastern Jewry and gave the Alliance Israelite Universelle one million francs ($200,000) for the creation of schools. He provided additional sums for the establishment of trade schools. He eventually consolidated his donations to the Alliance in a foundation yielding an annual income of 400,000 francs ($80,000).
Thereafter, he established his own organization, the Baron de Hirsch Foundation, for educational work in Galicia. In 1891, he established a New York Baron de Hirsch Fund to assist and help settle immigrants to the United States and later Canada. Later that same year, he created the Jewish Colonization Association to facilitate mass emigration of Jews from Russia to agricultural colonies particularly in Argentina and Brazil.
Within a few years the Jewish Colonization Association had a budget of about 180 million francs ($36,000,000). Its objective was defined as the purchase of large tracts of land for "... establishing colonies in various parts of North and South America and other countries for agricultural, commercial and other purposes."
A central committee was formed in St. Petersburg in 1892 to organize the emigration of Russian Jews (with the agreement of the Russian government), and a governing body was set up in the Argentine to direct work in the colonies. Most of the settlers later drifted to the towns. The accumulated funds of the Jewish Colonization Association are now largely directed to agricultural projects in Israel.
It is impossible to assess accurately the amount of money Hirsch devoted to benevolent purposes. He donated large sums to London hospitals and a Canadian fund for helping immigrants. He gave all his horse racing winnings to philanthropic causes, saying that his horses ran for charity.
On the death of his only son Lucien in 1887, he replied to a message of sympathy with the words "My son I have lost, but not my heir; humanity is my heir."
His agricultural projects led the Chovevei Zion and later Herzl to request Hirsch's support for the Zionist movement, but Hirsch regarded the creation of a Jewish state as a fantasy and refused any assistance.
When Baron de Hirsch died in 1896, his wife Clara took over his philanthropic activities. She continued her husband's work, turning her home in Paris into her administrative office. During the three remaining years of her life she donated $15,000,000 to charitable works in New York, Galicia, Vienna, Budapest, and Paris. In her will she left a further $10,000,000 to endow philanthropic foundations.
Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage