A memorable encounter with the Geneva Rothschilds

For a son of Polish Jewish immigrants, the name Rothschild has a special significance.

Baron Edmond de Rothschild (right) and Levi Eshkol, Israel’s finance minister, sign a 49- year contract for an Eilat-Haifa pipeline, witnessed by prime minister David Ben-Gurion on July 17, 1959. (photo credit: ARON MIRLIN/GPO)
Baron Edmond de Rothschild (right) and Levi Eshkol, Israel’s finance minister, sign a 49- year contract for an Eilat-Haifa pipeline, witnessed by prime minister David Ben-Gurion on July 17, 1959.
(photo credit: ARON MIRLIN/GPO)
What can I say after reading the cover story-interview with me in this magazine two issues back? I am not the “Aw shucks, ma’am, it weren’t nothin’” type, with a cowboy hat held by the brim, downcast eyes and a shuffle of feet. Of course I was flattered. But when you have many memories, then one incident, stored in the mind’s memory bank, triggers another.
This one was 80 years ago. I was lying on the floor in our front room, as we called the salon or living room in Canada, reading my history textbook.
I clearly see it, the cover carefully wrapped in brown paper, the page about the size of a paperback page. In the middle of the right-hand page, was an illustration of the Black Prince, and in the corner, a close-up of his coat-of-arms, with the motto inscribed across it: Ich Dien.
I did not like the Black Prince, whose real name was Edward. I don’t remember why. (He was called the Black Prince either because he wore black armor or was brutal in his wars in France). The point is that this Prince of Wales had a German motto, as I learned a few years later.
In both German and Yiddish, “dienen” means to serve. In Yiddish, you would say Ikh Diyn, and in German Ich Dien. Not – not ever – Itch D.N., as I pronounced it phonetically to myself in our front room at 60 Major Street in Toronto.
All this by way of saying that for the editor to call me a civil servant was pleasing to the extreme.
No, I am not lacking in ego and pride and the other human flaws we all share. But I do see myself as a servant to an idea, a people and a way of life.
That was my “itch” and I am grateful that I had the opportunities to serve.
Edmond de Rothschild
For a son of Polish Jewish immigrants, the name Rothschild has a special significance. It conjures up the sense of pride that this family was able to create an empire of merchant banking which did have great impact on the powers of the world and on history. This is a theme that antisemites played up; but I see no reason to apologize. If Jews are successful and others, read antisemites, don’t like it, why should we care?
It piqued my curiosity to meet some of the Rothschilds, each under different circumstances. The most “Zionist” meeting took place on the sands of Caesarea in the late 1950s. About 70 years earlier, Baron James de Rothschild had bought up large tracts of land near Zichron Ya’acov, a village, today a town, taken under the wings of the Baron, and in fact named it after him – Ya’acov is Jacob, the Hebrew name for James.
Now in the late 1950s, I was with his grandson, Edmond de Rothschild, and Edmond’s colleague and relative, Francois Pereire. They traversed the barren sands of Caesarea to determine where they would build a modern hotel and golf club complex. And as we walked through the sand in our normal city shoes, one of them, map in hand, would shout “C’est ici” and a few paces further, “Non! C’est ici!” (It’s here, no it’s here), until they finally decided where to build.
I was then the deputy director of the Israel Bonds office in Jerusalem, earned about 150 dollars a month, and lived in a house in a new neighborhood in Jerusalem that was 50 square meters all told with no central heating. And here were the scions of the great Rothschild and Pereire banking empires walking around deciding where to spend millions of dollars. Frankly, I loved every moment of it.
Edmond was a wonderfully warm person with a great love of Israel. A few years later, when I was in the Prime Minister’s Office, I would be invited to the opening cocktail function of the Hebrew University Board of Governors. My mother was visiting with us, and I asked her to come with me to the reception. I saw Edmond from across the room and walked towards him with my mother. We shook hands warmly, and I said to him: “Edmond, I would like to introduce my mother to you. Mom, this is Baron Edmond de Rothschild.”
Edmond played his role to the hilt. He took my mother’s hand, bowed down and kissed it, and looked up at me with a glint in eyes, as if to say: I gave your mother the “full” Rothschild treatment. On the way home in the car I said to my mother, “When you were a little girl in Poland, did you ever dream that a Rothschild would kiss your hand?” My mother said: “Okay, so I won’t wash my hand for three weeks.”
Edmond was a brilliant banker, and led his banks and projects across the world with great ability. In addition, he was a major investor in many other projects in Israel. He was based in Geneva, not Paris. On one occasion, he invited the then-minister of finance, Pinchas Sapir, and a few ministry officials to his palatial home.
According to an eye-witness report, each course of the meal had its own wine, and you may be sure that they were the finest the Rothschild wineries possessed. Famously, to everyone’s horror, Sapir poured some Perrier water into the best red wine available to make himself a “spritz.”
Edmond also believed that every Jew in the world should be given an Israeli passport, which is a quixotic idea. I also have it on good authority that he came to Israel during the Six Day War and on the day it ended was seen running through the lobby of the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, shouting in French: “Nous avons gagné! Nous avons gagné!” (We have won. We have won!)
Over drinks at the Accadia hotel one evening I asked Edmond whether he knew all the Rothschild jokes.
“I think I do, let’s see if you do,” Edmond said. “Have you heard this one? Two poor Polish Jewish brothers arrive in Paris. They have no trade, and can’t get any work. Like everyone else, they go to see Baron de Rothschild and throw themselves on his kindness. He agrees to give them a stipend every Friday. Now they can survive and even celebrate Shabbat.
“Every Friday, regularly, they came to the bank, presented themselves to the cashier and received their stipend. The years passed; and then one brother died. On the Friday after the shiva, the second brother duly presented himself to the cashier. The cashier counted out some money. The brother did not leave the wicket.
“The cashier asked: ‘What are you waiting for?’
‘My brother’s stipend.’
‘But your brother died!’
‘What?! Rothschild wants to inherit from my brother?’”
That was another memory triggered by the cover story. As I was writing it for my own memoirs, I read the news that Edmond’s son, Baron Benjamin de Rothschild had died in Geneva at the age of 57. Two sadnesses as I write. One for Edmond, who was so full of life, and for his son, whom I never met but assume from his looks that he had vivacity and humor.
Both Edmond and Benjamin bore the name of the original Baron Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild, known as “the Father of the Yishuv,” whose body is interred in Zichron Ya’acov on a cliff with a magnificent view. Caesarea’s greenery and houses now cover the sandy turf we traipsed more than six decades ago, when I touched history.■
The writer worked in the offices of prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, and as world chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal..You can  email him at 2avrahams@gmail.com