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  • The Reaction of the Polish Press to Baron Maurice de Hirsch's Foundation for Jewish Education in Galicia
  • Agnieszka Friedrich (bio)

Baron Maurice de Hirsch (1831–96) was one of the most important Jewish philanthropists of the late nineteenth century. One of the regions where he systematically engaged in charity was Galicia, whose Jewish population lived in particularly dire conditions. From the early 1880s he donated considerable sums to cover the needs of the people of Galicia (including, though not exclusively, its Jewish inhabitants),1 and at the end of 1888 (the year after his son died, and Hirsch devoted himself almost entirely to charity work) he established a foundation whose aim was to develop a Jewish school system in Galicia.2 Hirsch stressed that the schools he planned, although intended predominantly for Jewish students, were to be secular and he insisted that his foundation would not support 'exclusionary or purely religious tendencies'.3 At the same time, he appealed to the Polish inhabitants of Galicia: 'Remove all the barriers, allow your Jewish brothers to enjoy all the rights and privileges of social life that you are enjoying, for only then you can achieve the unification that you openly state you would like to achieve. Proofs of that can be found in France and England.'4 Despite Hirsch's statements, his generous donation, amounting to 12 million francs, provoked significant opposition. For entirely different reasons both Polish conservative circles and Orthodox Jewish groups protested against the establishment of the foundation. Operating in the difficult conditions of statelessness, Poles were afraid that the foundation, with the enormous amounts of money at its disposal, would engage in a large-scale process of buying land belonging to Poles which, in their view, constituted a guarantee of Polish national existence. Orthodox Jews, for their part, were wary [End Page 95] of the advancement of secular Jewish education, which they saw as endangering traditional religious teaching.5

Hirsch tried to appease both groups, publishing a statement in early 1889 in which he explained that the goal of the foundation was to 'diminish the [Jews'] social exclusion, so that they can enjoy equality in matters of education, use the language of their fellow citizens, devote themselves to useful and productive endeavours, work in crafts and on the land, feel and think like citizens'.6 Despite these assurances, Hirsch's foundation sparked a heated debate in the Polish press, both in Galicia itself and in the Kingdom of Poland. Particularly interesting was the reaction of Bolesław Prus, the leading commentator on social life in Warsaw. To understand Prus's critical reception of Hirsch's initiative requires an analysis of his attitude to the issue of vocational education for Jews in the years preceding the establishment of Hirsch's foundation.

Small-scale artisan activity was a common, low-income occupation among Jews. The work of tailors, umbrella-makers, and clockmakers was somewhat seasonal and such individuals frequently supplemented their income with other activities, often as hawkers. Few Jews had their own workshops. One of the most important reasons for this was the unwritten regulation that Jews could not be accepted into the guilds. Prus was aware of this state of affairs and saw it as discriminatory; however, he did not call for a radical solution to the problem, but merely advised Jews to be patient about a matter that he believed would be resolved satisfactorily sooner or later, writing in his article, 'Jews and the Question of the Guilds': 'It seems, then, that the question of accepting Jewish craftsmen into the guilds is merely a matter of time and it will happen sooner rather than later … After all, today, the biggest obstacle is not some kind of religious aversion, but the apathy of the guilds themselves.'7 At the same time, Prus noted, with obvious satisfaction, all the positive changes in this area, including the organization of Jewish education in artisan trades.8 Following the views of the English social theorist, Herbert Spencer,9 whom he much admired, he saw it as very important to educate future craftsmen in special schools, where they would receive a more modern, all-round education than that acquired...


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