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The founder of the Rothschild dynasty, Mayer Amshel Rothschild who is referred to as the "founding father of international finance," was ranked seventh on the Forbes magazine list of "The Twenty Most Influential Businessmen of All Time" in 2005.
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Rothschild Palace, now a Jewish Museum
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Wood Panelled Smoking Salon
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Ceiling in "Smoking Gun' room
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Hallway Rothschild Palace
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Gold and White Music Salon in Louis XV style and looked up at the arrows from the family coat of arms featuring in the gilded boiseries.
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Rothschild Palace in the distance from the other side of the River
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Tombstone of a Member of Rothschild family, Frankfurt Germany
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Editor's Report from Inside the Rothschild Palace in Frankfurt Germany, where the Rothschild Dynasty began

by Rhonda Spivak, June 16, 2015


While in Frankfurt, Germany in 2012 (my first time in Germany), I decided I would go see the Jewish Museum.  I hadn't had time to read about the museum before getting there and had no idea of what I was in for.



What turned out to fascinate me the most (and worth a stopover in Frankfurt for this alone) was to see the building that houses the Jewish Museum, because it used to be an actual palace that belonged to the famous Rothschilds, the dynasty of Jewish bankers and financiers that was at the time one of the wealthiest families of the world. Needless to say if you are an Editor who comes upon a Rothschild palace when you weren't at all expecting it, it automatically merits being the subject of an article.



The ancestral home of the Rothschilds was in Frankfurt and they owned a number of immense residences in the city, the oldest and largest of which was destroyed during World War II. But this architectural gem built by a French architect trained in Paris in 1820/21, that now houses the Jewish Museum, is completely intact, and looks out onto the city's main river. It was planned as a summer residence on the river with park like grounds, and it was only after walking across the nearby bridge and looking at the residence from the other side of the bridge could I see that it was essentially located on the nicest piece of Frankfurt real estate, which now has many modern high rise downtown buildings built much later in the 20th century clustered around it (see lead photo). 



The Rothschild family’s financial empire was founded by Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who lived in the Jewish ghetto (Judengasse) in Frankfurt-am-Main in the mid to late-1700's. The ancestry of the Rothschilds goes back to Izaak Rothschild in 1577, whose name derived from the house in which he lived in the Judengasse—zum roten Schild ("at the sign of the red shield"). Izaak's grandchildren and descendants kept this "Red Shield" name when they relocated in 1664 to another house in the Judengasse—Hinterpfann (literally "house in the back of the saucepan")—which became the family's home and business location through to the early 19th century.

Mayer Amshel's father had a business in goods-trading and currency exchange and was a personal supplier of coins to the Prince of Hesse. The family lived in a very overcrowded small home in the ghetto.  Note, that in considering the Rothschild family history, it's worth recalling  that in medieval times when Christendom ruled,  the general population believed that Jews were responsible for  killing Jesus, and Jews were prevented from engaging in trade, crafts and agriculture. The only occupation left to them was money lending since the church forbade Christians to lend money at interest ("usury"). In order to pay their Christian noblemen high taxes, Jewish moneylenders could charge high rates of interest. Thus the wrath of the debtors was aimed at the Jews rather than against the ruling classes).  

After Mayer Amschel's father died when he was about age 12, he was sent to apprentice at a Jewish firm in Hanover. Returning to Frankfurt in 1764, he started dealing in rare coins and medals, moving on to antiques. This brought him in touch with rich patrons and in the 1790's he turned his operations into a banking business.



The day before seeing the Rothschild palace I had gone to see the archeological remains of this Jewish ghetto that were accidentally discovered in 1987 while the Frankfurt municipality was clearing land to build something. 



Mayer Amschel had the genius to recognize early on the increasing importance of international financial firms. He thus envisioned a family-owned company that would spread to all corners of Europe, and by implication European territories around the world. He established branches of the family banking business in major centers - London, Paris, Vienna and Naples- each of which were run directly by one of his sons.  The business remained private and entirely controlled within the family, such that it could be run without concern for outside investors.


The Rothschild banks in Frankfurt and London were pivotal in funding the English and Prussian wars against Napoleon Bonaparte, (a controversial decision since Bonaparte supported emancipation/equality for the Jews of Europe). By the end of the Napoleonic wars the Rothschilds were among the richest families in Europe and undoubtedly the wealthiest Jewish family in the world. (During the 19th century the Rothschilds of Austria and England were elevated to the aristocracy).  



The Rothschild palace which houses the Jewish Museum was not actually built by the Rothschild's but for a member of another respected Jewish family, Joseph Isaak Speyer that had resided in the Judengasse since the seventeenth century. In 1846, Baron Mayor Carl von Rothschild purchased the palace (the house at no. 15) from the banker Speyer's widow. In following years, he had it altered by Friedrich Rumpf, who created a new interior with reception rooms in the historicist style that came to be known as “le goût Rothschild” (The Rothschild style). The decorative interior elements of the "Goût Rothschild" include much gilding, precious (and often antique) wooden panelling and parquet flooring. 




The "Goût Rothschild" was (until the end of the 1920’s and in a less opulent way until the 1960’s) the preferred style of people who amassed their fortunes in the late 19th century. Families like the Rockefellers, and others furnished their residences in the US in the "Goût Rothschild.



I walked on a stairway with mirrors and coloured marble incrustations in Renaissance style that lead down to the reception rooms, of which three salons have survived in their original form. These three rooms are the only surviving examples in Frankfurt of the lifestyle of the Rothschild family, who consistently used aristocratic forms and cultural traditions to project their image.



Most memorable was the Louis XIV style wood-panelled "Smoking Salon" with fluted columns mirrors and gilded coffering on a blue ground, which has since 2001 housed a small Rothschild exhibition--small enough that I don't remember noticing it. 



I did enter the adjacent gold and white music salon in Louis XV style and looked up at the arrows from the family coat of arms featuring in the gilded boiseries. 



Walking through the palace I began to wonder how it was that it escaped being destroyed in World War II, or being confiscated by the Nazis. (In Vienna, for example, the Rothschild offices were closed in 1938 after the Germans occupied Austria, and most of the Austrian Rothschild’s fortune was turned over to the Nazis in order to buy the escape of the Austrian branch of the Rothschild family.)



But in Frankfurt, the Rothschild palace had ceased to be used as a palace and had become a public library long before World War II. When Baron Mayer Carl Rothschild was alive, part of his legendary collection of gold was presented in the three rooms. I walked through (I didn't notice any leftovers from the collection lying around!) After his death in 1886 these three rooms were turned into a museum.  In 1887, Mayer Carl's daughter Hannah Louise von Rothschild (1850–92) earmarked the Palace for use as a public library, and designated a foundation in 1893, following her death. In 1906, Baroness Salomon von Rothschild, Lady Rothschild and Baroness James von Rothschild purchased the adjacent house in order to extend the library.  But after World War I, with rampant inflation, the Foundation's capital was so depleted that the Frankfurt city authorities took over the Rothschild Library and house for use as part of the municipal library. The house remained a library throughout World War II and the city of Frankfurt eventually merged the Rothschild Library with other Frankfurt libraries in 1945 to form the municipal and university library head quartered in these buildings, virtually unscathed during the War. In 1980 Frankfurt's city council voted to establish a Jewish Museum in Frankfurt once again.



Later, I would go to see Frankfurt's Jewish cemetery, where I didn't notice Meyer Amshel's tombstone (although it is there) but happened to snap a photo of a tombstone with the Rothschild name. On leaving Frankfurt, I wondered whether I will ever get to see the inside of a Rothschild palace in my lifetime again.  

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.