As indicated in my last post, I recently obtained copies of documents from a file on my great-great-great-great grandfather, Jakob Hirsch, preserved in the Austrian State Archives in Vienna since 1797. My cousin, Britta Fischer, transcribed and translated these old papers, and this is the story they told.
This statement about Jakob Hirsch and his business partner is striking: “They supplied several hundred thousand pounds of flour to the Imperial troops, advancing their own funds to purchase the supplies.” In the 18th century, as today, military success depended on troops being continuously supplied with food and equipment. As a pacifist, I was disconcerted to learn that my family’s origins were built on military contracting, but that’s how Jakob Hirsch, became wealthy. He and his business partner, Wolf Levi, gathered hundreds of tons of flour for bread for the troops and huge quantities of grain for the cavalry, and transported them to the Holy Roman Emperor’s troops in Serbia, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Germany during the wars that raged over Europe throughout the 1790’s.
Before 1800, Jews in Europe were restricted in where they could live and in the trades they could pursue, and were subject to huge discriminatory taxes whenever they traveled. Because they were forbidden to own land or engage in skilled trades, many of them became merchants and bankers. In these businesses, Jews developed communications and business networks that allowed them to move both goods and information across Europe. As governments grew stronger through the 1700’s, kings and princes needed to raise capital to build new cities and palaces and to pursue wars against one another. To do this they turned to Jews with their extensive trade and finance networks.
Jakob Hirsch was a Jewish merchant and supplier in Karlsruhe in the state of Baden in what is now southwestern Germany. In the 1760’s or 1770’s he became a major supplier to the Margrave of Baden, who rewarded him for his service there by naming him Markgraflich Hoffaktor or Court Agent, that is, an officially recognized government contractor and supplier. Around 1790, Hirsch entered into a partnership with Wolf Levi and expanded the range of his business. Levi was a supplier to the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, who was engaged in a seemingly endless series of wars, first against the Ottoman Turks in the east and then against Napoleon and the French in the west. Levi had connections to the Imperial court and he may also have had a transport network, but he came from Hohenems in western Austria, which was not a grain-producing area. By joining Levi’s connections and transport system to Hirsch’s access to flour, feed and other goods, they could fill important supply needs of the Imperial armies. They purchased large stocks of supplies with their own funds and made their first deliveries to the Imperial supply depot in Stalać in Serbia in 1791, demonstrating their trust that the Emperor would compensate them appropriately — which he did. Levi and Hirsch repeated this performance many times over the next six years.
During all their work for the Emperor, and as they crisscrossed Europe in his service, the fact that they were Jews subjected them to endless interference from local authorities and endless fees and special taxes. There was one way to bring an end to such interference, and that was to ask the Emperor to name them Imperial Court Agents and the provide them with Letters Patent providing concrete proof of their protected status.
On March 18, 1797, Hirsch and Levi submitted a petition to the Emperor in Vienna asking to named Imperial Court Agents (Hoffaktoren). Their request was accompanied by a substantial payment to the Imperial Treasury. The petition was written by a scribe on blue paper, about 10 by 15 inches, in beautiful handwriting. Here is the image of it that I received from the Austrian State Archives 215 years after it was submitted:
This petition was accompanied by five testimonials from military officers attesting to Hirsch and Levi’s loyalty, integrity and effectiveness in supplying the Imperial troops. Here are two of the testimonials:
On April 7, 1797, Emperor Franz II granted Hirsch and Levi’s petitions and granted each the title of Imperial and Royal Court Agent (kaiserlicher und königlicher Hoffaktor). The Emperor directed his Chancery to prepare the necessary documents, and clerks prepared drafts for review. After full clearance, the drafts were transcribed to the final Letters Patent in elegant caligraphy on donkey-skin parchment to which was affixed the large wax Imperial seal depicted above. The Letters Patent granted to Jakob Hirsch served as a passport authorizing him to travel anywhere within the Holy Roman Empire without molestation or limitation on the size of his retinue, “free of the obligation to pay any of the fees otherwise required of his coreligionists” (Glaubensgenossen). The parchment decree was presented to Hirsch, and the draft was kept as a file copy in the archives of the imperial Chancery. The parchment decree came into my mother’s hands in 1939, but was destroyed by an Allied bombing attack on the city of Dusseldorf on June 12, 1943. The original petition, testimonials and the draft of the Letters Patent, however, rested quietly in the archives in Vienna until I was able to get copies of them in April 2012.
You can see scans of all the documents in the Viennese file here . You can read an English translation of Jakob Hirsch’s petition, the testimonials and the draft decree by clicking here: Hoffaktor Appointment Master File – March 1797.
Here is the first page of the draft of the Letters Patent from the Imperial Archives:
The Höbers of the 20th century were secular intellectuals and professionals, and any religious affiliation they had was Protestant. A century before that, however, the roots of my father’s family were solidly Jewish. The transformation of the family’s identification between 1800 and 1900, from Jewish “outsiders” to socially integrated participants in civil society, was a fairly common story among educated Germans of the period. When I was growing up I was only dimly aware of these origins, but in recent years I have learned more. My first post in this historical series concerned my 5X great-grandfather, Jacob Hirsch, who lived in Karlsruhe in the late 18th century and later changed his name to Höber. Jacob Hirsch was a leader in that city’s Jewish community, and played a role in the early development of the city on behalf of the Margrave of Baden. I knew from my parents that Jacob was a merchant who had been appointed Hoffaktor, or Imperial Court Agent, to Franz II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia. This appointment was made official in Letters Patent, a large document in elegant calligraphy on parchment with the Emperor’s seal. A distant cousin had given this parchment to my mother in Germany only in 1939, after my father had already fled to America. My mother had to leave it behind when she too left later that year. The beautiful parchment was destroyed in a bombing raid on Düsseldorf in 1943. The only thing I knew about it was what my mother told us.
Late last year, my friend Achim Bonte, a historian in Dresden, suggested that some record of this transaction might exist in Vienna, the seat of Emperor Franz II. Achim searched the online index of the Österreiches Staatsarchiv, the Austrian State Archives. Deep within the records of the Imperial Chancellery, under a subhead for titles and honors granted, Achim came up with a 1797 file with Jacob Hirsch’s name on it. It was hard to believe that something like this could have survived for 215 years, through all the European wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the depredations of the Nazis. I was stunned when Achim sent me the link.
My first thought was about getting to Vienna to see what was in this folder. I started, however, by asking about the procedures of the Staatsarchiv. I thought I’d try an email in English, and if that didn’t work I’d write in German. I explained who I was and what I was interested in, and said I was prepared to come to Vienna to view the documents. Two weeks later, an email showed up in my inbox with another startling message in a letter attached as a pdf. It said:
[In response] to your letter, the direction of the Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv wishes to inform you that the granting of the title Hoffaktor to Jakob Hirsch in 1797 is preserved in our archival holdings “Imperial chancellery (Reichskanzlei)”. The record contains the draft of the diploma [i.e., the Letters Patent], the request and other attachments of Jakob Hirsch and his companion Wolf Levi in old German handwriting, altogether 15 pages. We can offer you to scan the whole record and send a CD with the files to you. The price amounts to € 37,– (excl. postal fees). Please mail us a short message if you agree to our offer and we will send you the CD with the invoice.
This was an emotional moment. To have such documents, the real origins of my family, reappear after two centuries meant a great deal to me. I found it hard to believe it was true.
I immediately emailed back to the Archives, asking them to send the scanned records as soon as possible. Within a couple of weeks a package arrived in the mail containing the CD. As soon as I slipped the disk into my computer I realized why they sent the files on a CD rather than by emailing them to me. Each scan is in excess of 45 megabytes in size, much larger than allowed by most email programs. This means that each high-resolution image is reproduced with wonderful clarity. Each page can be enlarged so that every stroke of the pen, each dot of ink, the varying textures of the different kinds of paper, are as clear as if I were holding the originals in my hand. They are stunningly beautiful.
There was just one problem: I was unable to read more than a few words of each page. Although I read German, these documents were written in an old German script that has only a slight resemblance to modern handwriting. I have made only slight progress in learning this odd script, and was therefore frustrated in my attempts to read the documents I finally had in my hands. Fortunately, the last step in this process of discovery was surmounted by my cousin, Britta Fischer, who has mastered this tricky handwriting. I sent her copies of the images I had obtained and in a matter of a couple of weeks she succeeded in transcribing them into computer files, so that the wording of these historic papers was here in front of me.
What I learned from the documents will be the subject of my next post.