Is it even possible to write or talk about the Rothschilds without lapsing into antisemitic conspiracy theories?
Because the Rothschilds rarely tell their own stories, it’s sadly been left primarily to cranks who, at best, declare “we don’t hate Jews, we’re just asking questions” before launching into antisemitic diatribes. Overall, the prevailing conspiracy narrative about the family has told the world that the Rothschilds are so evil and have brought so much misery on the world that even other Jews should detest them. At best, they’re so wealthy that they are untouched by the cares and concerns of the rest of the rabble, other Jews included.
But we also know that’s not how Jews saw the Rothschilds. Other Jews admired their business acumen, their courage in the face of institutionalized antisemitism, and their generosity toward the wider Jewish community. These are many of the same attributes that Gentile writers, particularly in nineteenth and early twentieth century America, extolled as core American virtues. Even now, Americans still revere the self-made individuals who lifted themselves up by their bootstraps and took nothing from the government on the way. What description could more fit Mayer and his boys, who turned a minor patronage into a worldwide empire while surviving waves of oppression and violence?
Go back to Elie Wiesel in 1990 in The New York Times, who believed as a child that the Rothschilds were idols who “seem to have been born under a lucky star, the best money can buy: our worst enemies could do them no harm.” So where are these depictions in the 200-plus-year history of the family? Is the Rothschild myth so pervasive that it’s penetrated even into the cinemas and stages and book stores of people who aren’t antisemitic? It turns out that the high esteem other Jews held for the Rothschilds was shared by some artists, Jewish and Gentile alike. And it would find its way into works by some of the most acclaimed artists in recent history.
The Rothschilds were mentioned or caricatured, sometimes cruelly, sometimes admiringly, in the work of Disraeli, Byron, Heine, Balzac, and Thackeray. These portrayals seized on the wealth, the largesse, the millions lent to other nations without a second thought. And while they were (mostly) free of conspiracy theory, they were heavy on mythmaking.
Beyond these literary giants, there was a vast world of Jewishness that saw the very idea of the Rothschilds as profound. Their steadfast insistence on retaining their Judaism when so many other banking families had converted was a beacon of aspiration at a time when most Jews still live at a subsistence level. Where many Gentiles saw scheming puppet masters in the Rothschilds, their fellow Jews saw a fantasy, a pinnacle of achievement, and a name to be almost whispered in revered awe. They were every mother’s dream for her boys. After all, Mayer and his sons emerged from the squalor of the ghetto to become wealthy beyond measure—and they remained Jews. If they could do it, others could, too.
Just the aura of the name Rothschild was enough to power the imagination of a storyteller. The titular character in Anton Chekhov’s 1894 short story Rothschild’s Violin (also sometimes called Rothschild’s Fiddle) is a universe away from those Rothschilds, merely a “gaunt, red-bearded Jew with a network of red and blue veins on his face, who bore the name of a famous rich man.” He plays the flute in his town’s Jewish orchestra alongside the miserable elderly Christian coffin maker Yakov, who plays the violin to make a few extra kopeks. Rothschild’s playing, even on the merriest of tunes, is so deeply sad that the embittered Yakov “began to conceive a feeling of hatred and contempt for all Jews, and especially for Rothschild.” The two fight constantly, to the point where Yakov is thrown out of the orchestra for his disagreeable behavior.
Eventually, Yakov’s wife Martha dies, and Yakov himself takes ill, only for Rothschild to come by and declare that the orchestra leader wants Yakov to play. A sick Yakov viciously berates Rothschild and sends him running, chased by dogs and shrieking children. But thrashing about that night, Yakov comes to regret his actions toward the Jew, wondering to himself, “Why, oh why, had he frightened and insulted that Jew just now? Why did people in general always interfere with one another? What losses resulted from this! What terrible losses! If it were not for envy and anger they would get great profit from one another.” When Rothschild returns the next day, again seeking to get Yakov to play, the two reconcile, and just before his death, Yakov declares that he wants Rothschild to have his precious violin—which the Jew now plays exclusively.
Chekhov wasn’t particularly interested in anti-Jewish sentiment until he took a trip through Siberia to tour a Jewish prison, though he was also moved by the plight of Alfred Dreyfus. Instead, the story is an ironic and deeply sad meditation on the futility of hatred and the baggage that regret saddles us with—quintessentially Chekhovian attributes at the center of much of his work. It’s not clear why the author picked that name, but it could be as simple as it being a Jewish name that everyone would know. The power of the Rothschild myth was such that, for better or worse (usually worse), the name itself was inseparable from Judaism.
Rothschild’s Violin was a minor footnote in Chekhov’s career, and its one adaptation is even less well known—a forty-minute operetta written in 1940 by young Russian musician Veniamin Fleishman, a student of the great composer Dimitri Shostakovich. It was Shostakovich who suggested the idea of adapting Chekhov’s story, and after the student was killed fighting for the Soviet Union in September 1941, a heartbroken Shostakovich stepped in to finish the piece. Because it revolved around a Jew, it took until 1968 for the finished operetta to finally be staged even once. Further performances were forbidden by a Communist Party official who believed the “Rothschild” in question was part of the evil Zionist banking family and, as such, an enemy of the state.
Where are these depictions in the 200-plus-year history of the family? Is the Rothschild myth so pervasive that it’s penetrated even into the cinemas and stages and book stores of people who aren’t antisemitic?
But a different musical piece, this one actually based on the mystique of those Rothschilds, became one of the most successful musicals in American history. It’s probably playing in a high school gymnasium or community theater somewhere in the world at this moment: Fiddler on the Roof.
Neither the original English version of the 1964 musical nor its 1971 film adaptation specifically mention the family—part of its creators toning down the “Jewishness” of the source material to give the show more universal appeal. But the Tevye the Dairyman stories that Fiddler was adapted from, written by Russian Jewish author Sholom Aleichem, view the Rothschilds much the same as Elie Wiesel did as a child. They were a beacon of hope that one day your hard work would be rewarded with something other than yet more suffering, the people who you hope will someday grace the doorway of your humble home.
In Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman collection, the generic “Rothschild” is the rich Jew our humble hero and those around him mention when needing to reference someone wealthier or luckier than they are, which is almost everyone. But it’s in Tevye’s Daughters, another collection of Tevye stories published after Aleichem’s death, that the author truly explores the aspirational model that the Rothschilds represented to the greater Jewish community.
In the short monologue “If I Were a Rothschild,” Tevye’s vision for what he’d do with unlimited wealth starts small and faintly tragic: he’d buy his and his wife’s good Shabbat clothes back from the pawn shop. But his dreams grow like Mayer’s fortune—a new roof for the synagogue, a new bathhouse, “a real hospital such as they have in big towns,” and various other homes and societies for the poor and unwell. Tevye Rothschild would do what the Rothschilds actually did: help Jews wherever they needed it, while attempting to “do away with war altogether” simply by loaning all the combatants money at a low interest rate, “four or five percent at the most.” Of course, being Tevye, he gets carried away to the point where he’s imagined himself as so wealthy he’s transcended the need for money itself, seeing it as “a delusion, a made-up thing.” But you need money to provide the bread and candles for the Sabbath, so poor Tevye is left back where he started, no wealthier or wiser.
The hugely successful musical would keep that sense of aspiration, with Fiddler scribes Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock tweaking the title “If I Were a Rothschild” to be “If I Were a Rich Man,” to make it easier for Western audiences to relate to, and taking some of the song’s content from a different story in the same collection. But “If I Were a Rothschild” is still the song’s name in the Hebrew translation of the show, and when the first ever Yiddish adaptation of Fidler afn Dakh, as it was called, debuted in New York in 2018, it too stuck to Aleichem’s title.
The gesture may seem simple, but it’s deeply meaningful for Jews. For generations of Jews across the Diaspora, the great family epitomized what it meant to be safe and secure at a time when the danger of the local authorities or an angry mob always loomed, and backbreaking work was a means to survive the endless array of hardships around you. After all, what were Rothschild pastimes like collecting art, making wine, and raising racehorses if not things you’d do if you “didn’t have to work hard”? Who wouldn’t want to do that?
“Why Would Rothschilds Need a John?”
Fiddler was a worldwide smash hit, helping kick off a new interest in Jewish history and culture. But a few years earlier, there was another popular work that combined myth and history to put the Rothschilds on a pedestal— though at times, it was as precarious as that violinist perched on the roof of Tevye’s house.
Frederic Morton’s 1962 biography, The Rothschilds: A Family Portrait, was the first major postwar examination of the Rothschilds, and it was a huge success, becoming a finalist for the National Book Award and hitting #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. As the Vienna-born Morton was much more a novelist than a historian, its tone was less of a scholarly exploration of the Rothschilds and more of a gossipy, soap opera–esque look at the glitz and glamour of the family that by now embodied the oft-snarled phrase “old money.”
Past chapters of this book have explored Morton’s recounting of the Waterloo story, where the author takes an opportunity to serve up new scholarship about this most well-worn Rothschild trope and utterly wastes it perpetuating the myth of Nathan’s “scoop.” The rest of the book, based on extensive interviews Morton did with Rothschild family members and their business associates, along with past Rothschild biographies like the flawed Egon Caesar Corti books and others, is mostly the same. While Morton writes in the introduction that he’s more interested in the “human” side of the family, mostly what he means is what they bought and how much. In just one early example, he gushes over the “white mink and diamond stars” worn by French Rothschild heiress Philippine on the day of her 1961 wedding to a nameless young man singled out by Morton as “very handsome, very talented, [and] very poor.”
The wedding is excessively posh—a seven-foot-tall cake, private rail-road cars, battalions of gendarmes in silk stockings, paragraphs gushing over the floral arrangements. Morton then moves backward to the beginning of the family’s success. And again, it’s paragraph after paragraph of satin-lined rooms on their yacht, gold ballrooms in the mansions, massive chandeliers, Alfred de Rothschild’s “baton of pure white ivory banded with a circlet of diamonds,” which he used to “conduct the symphony orchestra he kept as a private hobby,” “whole galleries of Rembrandts, Watteaus, Ingres, Fragonards, Picassos,” and the like. More is more, and too much is not enough—likely a product of the time Morton spent speaking to family members in their homes and offices.
For generations of Jews across the Diaspora, the great family epitomized what it meant to be safe and secure at a time when the danger of the local authorities or an angry mob always loomed.
Contemporary reviews of the book, though positive, single out Morton’s lack of detail about the business dealings of the family, while spending most of his time on, as one critic noted, “the visible result of all this victory, [where] the tale grows fascinating.” And even though he clearly admires the ability of the Rothschilds to survive whatever is thrown at them, hints of certain tropes can’t help but worm their way into Morton’s writing.
He starts one early chapter by declaring that “someone once said that the wealth of Rothschilds consists of the bankruptcy of nations”—a quote with no citation that future writers would use against the family. Wars between nations are merely “stepping stones” in their “demonic drive” for wealth. They order around royalty and presidents, and entire nations rise and fall based on their whims. “The history of Rothschild is the history of other people’s Waterloos,” he concludes at one point, making an uncomfortable point that for a Rothschild to win, someone else has to lose.
Unsurprisingly, some of Morton’s hyperbolic claims about the family found their way into more conspiratorial and antisemitic work. Christian conspiracy theorist Des Griffin’s 1976 book Descent Into Slavery? And Eustace Mullins’s The World Order: Our Secret Rulers both take quotes from A Family Portrait out of context to portray the Rothschilds as piratical bankrupters of nations—and cast Morton as the biographer brave enough to pull back the veil on the Rothschild conspiracy.
The criticism and misinterpretation of Morton’s work aside, there is value in his examination of the myth of the Rothschilds. But that value can be found not in the laundry list of artworks the family hung on its walls, but in what he doesn’t write about: Morton’s own relationship with the Rothschilds as figures of aspiration.
Morton, born Fritz Mandelbaum in 1924, narrowly escaped with his family to New York during the Nazi annexation of Austria, with his family changing their name so his father could join an allegedly antisemitic trade union. As such, he writes with great sensitivity about the Rothschilds’ difficulties during the early years of the Nazi regime, such as Louis spending months as a hostage of the Gestapo, or Parisian winemaker Philippe’s arrest and subsequent escape across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain and freedom.
The common thread between one Jew fleeing tyranny to another is clear in a piece Morton penned for The New York Times in 1970. Remembering his desperate flight from Vienna, he wrote,
my family and about 600 other Jews were in the Vienna Rothschild palace. We were there to beseech the new tenants, the Jewish Passport Section of the Gestapo, to let us leave the Austria Hitler had taken over. For ten hours we trembled and inched and starved our way up an alabaster staircase. I remember having to go to the bath room and being sure there wasn’t any—why would Rothschilds need a john? And when we finally left, precious passports in hand, I remember the SS man coming in at the door. Under the mighty Rothschild portals, he wiped his shoes briefly before he caught himself.
For Morton during those desperate hours, like Elie Wiesel during his poor childhood, the Rothschilds were awe-inspiring legends, with their mere name serving as “a myth which could impose itself on the most hostile mind” like an SS flunky who shows a modicum of respect for the great house he’s using to help decide which Jews can leave and live, or stay and likely die.
The Rothschilds’ largesse was victory for all Jews. They were heroes who fought tenaciously for the freedom of other Jews, while never giving in to the temptations of conversion and assimilation. And if they enjoyed vast art collections or bottles of wine that cost more than a house, well, they earned it. At a WNYC author’s luncheon around the time of the book’s release, Morton gushes over the family’s love of fine food and wine. He’s particularly impressed with how Mayer would stuff potential business partners or local overlords with rich food to get them drowsy enough to give in to his demands. It was all bigger than life.
Excerpted from Jewish Space Lasers: The Rothschilds and 200 Years of Conspiracy Theories by Mike Rothschild, available from Melville House.