The banking sector of 19th century Warsaw was dominated by banks associated with Jews. Out of twenty-six Warsaw banking houses in 1897, fifteen were owned by Jews, three had been founded by Jewish converts to Christianity, and only eight belonged to born Christians. Beyond Warsaw, in the lands of the former Kingdom of Poland, nineteen of twenty-one banking houses were Jewish (p. 171, note 22). Though not unparalleled in other 19th century Central European capitals, this statistical particularity requires explanation. In her book, Cornelia Aust sets out to uncover some of the individual trajectories that led to Jews dominating the initial world of modern Polish banking, and by doing so she presents her readers with fascinating insights into the lives of Jewish merchant entrepreneurs in late 17th and early 18th century Europe.
Aust uses a wide array of archival sources in several languages and letterings, ranging from commercial files and bills of exchange to state records and business correspondence, in order to study the rise of a small and select circle of Jewish mercantile elites. In western Europe, the long peace following the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) might have deprived Jewish Court Factors of lucrative business, but continued tensions along the Prussian-Polish frontier sustained similar opportunities for Jewish merchant entrepreneurs. First profiting from the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) and then from the Partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795), local Jewish merchants profited from supplying army provisions, steadily accruing the connections and capital that would lead them into banking.
Providing an indirect link from 17th century Court Jews to 19th century bankers, Aust uncovers the ways these Jewish merchant entrepreneurs created and maintained their commercial networks. Starting out in 18th century Amsterdam, where Benjamin and Samuel Symons’ trade in bills of exchange directed credit from Christian lenders to faraway Jewish (and non-Jewish) merchants, Aust emphasizes their marital strategies. In 1722, their sister Sarah married Tobias Boas of The Hague, scion of a wealthy Ashkenazi family, while Samuel married Tobias’ daughter Mitje and two of Tobias’ daughters wedded Benjamin’s sons. Such calculated and often consanguineous marriages, Aust argues, kept the family’s business together and bought in fresh capital through dowries. Their nephew, Simon Symons, married into the Schlesinger family, wholesale textile traders in Frankfurt an der Oder with close ties to Polish Jewish merchants. As Jews’ financial position in Amsterdam waned and the Frankfurt fair got eclipsed by Leipzig’s, some Ashkenazi merchants relocated to Berlin or Leipzig, while others, including the Symons, migrated further east.
It were these Prussian-Polish borderlands of the late 18th century that provided Jewish merchants with routes to new wealth. Itzig Flatau, born in the Polish town of Flatow before its handover to Prussia in 1772, rose from affluent textile merchant to wealthy army supplier, eventually settling in Warsaw as a banker. Itzig’s niece married the daughter of his business partner in Neidenburg, with whom he supplied the Prussian Army’s local storehouses. Itzig himself eventually married the daughter of his Polish partner Szmul Jakubowicz, with whom he supplied Russia’s army during the failed Polish uprising of 1794. A year later, Itzig and his partners secured a contract to supply the Prussian army in all of South Prussia. Itzig’s transregional connections and appetite for risk (provisioning armies was often done on credit) had delivered him a fortune from army supplies and in 1796, following the city’s handover to Prussia, he moved to Warsaw. Three years prior, a string of bank failures (including Simon Symon’s small Warsaw bank), opened up a rare opportunity to Jews. Willing and able to provide credit, Polish Jews and Jewish immigrants now moved from army provisions into banking. The wife of Itzig’s business partner Szmul, Judyta Jakubowicz, had come to Warsaw from Frankfurt an der Oder in the late 1770s. During the Napoleonic wars she joined forces with other Jewish suppliers and mobilized her far-flung connections to supply French, Polish and Russian troops with provisions. By the 1820s, she, too, had successfully transitioned from trade and army supplies into banking and lease holding of state monoplies, becoming one of Warsaw’s most important bankers. Like Itzig Flatau, she owed her success to her willingness to take risks and to her ability to mobilize connections beyond Warsaw and Poland.
The Symons of Amsterdam, the Schlesingers of Frankfurt an der Oder or the Jakubowicz family in Warsaw all used their wide-ranging family and ethnic connections for commercial undertakings. They sought out marriages that preserved or enhanced their business and capital. Their ethnic and familial ties, often transcending political borders, helped strengthen the trust that was vital for securing their risky undertakings. Engaged in niche businesses, which often required geographic mobility, this small elite of Ashkenazi merchants relied mainly, though not exclusively, on Ashkenazi networks and while they did trade with and for gentiles, they did not establish joint businesses.
Recently, Julie L. Mell once more refuted the myth of the medieval Jewish money lender, a legend that is still all too often recited when explaining the origins of modern Jewish banking in Central and Eastern Europe. With her book, Aust offers us the actual history and thereby helps putting this canard to a final rest. In fact, as Aust argues, Jewish merchant entrepreneurs and early bankers stood out for their ability to operate and move across borders and for their capacity to take on risky dealings. But what explains their extraordinary proclivity for risk? Was it faith in divine protection? The need for extraordinary profits to guard a precarious existence? Or a consequence of being crowded out into dangerous niche sectors that gentile merchants steered clear from? In any case, leaving these questions unanswered in no way detracts from the scholarly value of her work. In fact, Aust has written a detailed, superbly researched and valuable book, one that not just studies the businesses practices of this Jewish merchant elite, but moreover brings to life their family histories, religious affinities and communal standings during a transitional period that connected Early Modern to Modern Europe and made some Jewish merchants into early bankers.
 Julie L. Mell, The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender, vols. I & II, New York, 2017/ 2018.