What made Selig Goldschmidt such an adored figure in the Frankfurt Jewish community? When he died in January 1894, there were many obituaries and tributes singing his praises and mourning his death. Many of these were collected by his son Meyer and then translated by later generations in 1996 and published in Israel in the book I’ve been referring to as the Selig Goldschmidt book.1
One characteristic of Selig was his benevolence and generosity to individuals in need and to charitable organizations. There are many letters in the book describing various donations he made or asking him for help. For example, he and his wife Clementine donated 20,000 Marks to establish an orphanage for Jewish girls in 1882.2 When he died, the letters and obituaries all mentioned his philanthropy.
Selig was also generous in his support of the arts. Much of his generosity was made possible because of the remarkable success of his arts and antiques business. There is not a great deal of detail about the business in the Selig Goldschmidt book, but some of the tributes to Selig provide insights. One man wrote a tribute that was published in the Frankfurt newspaper Finanzerhold as part of its obituary for Selig:3
Mr. Selig Goldschmidt, together with his brother Jakob who long predeceased him, founded the prestigious art business, J&S Goldschmidt which, from modest beginnings, rose to a dominant position in the world of art.
…The importance of the current art and antique trade with its close contacts with arts and crafts… is today well known and appreciated. This is due, in no small measure, to the merits of the departed. Forty years ago interest in art treasures of the past was still nebulous. Often these lay hidden, covered in dust, in most unlikely corners. It was then the task of intelligent dealers to track down such treasures, recover them from their hiding places and turn them into models for imitating the former arts and crafts industry to benefit the living generation. It was not often easy to do justice to this task. Often it meant waging a campaign against the ignorance and limited understanding of the owner as well as against forgery. This required firm knowledge of the trade, energy, sensitivity and understanding—in short, genius. These qualities can be ascribed to the deceased to a high degree, and they earned him rare success. However, this success did not dazzle him, when—much as his reputation, and that of his firm, grew—whatever lasting reward acquired by his efforts in furthering the high aspirations of the art market, he remained the modest businessman and friend of humanity. He never put the materialistic side of his profession above its ideals.
Among Selig’s most famous clients were members of the Rothschild family. Baron Edmund de Rothschild sent a condolence note to Selig’s family. In its obituary of Selig, the Frankfurter General Anzeiger mentioned that Baron Mayer Carl von Rothschild was one of Selig’s loyal clients, thanks to Selig’s “highly developed understanding of art.” Another obituary mentioned that “Rothschild only wanted the most rare and the most beautiful, so that the buying demanded the highest circumspection and skill. In this respect the high level of knowledge, which the deceased had acquired on his own, was quite remarkable.” 4
Selig’s firm not only acquired and dealt with secular works of art and antiques; they also specialized in Judaica, and the book about Selig includes many photographs of the Judaica he collected and traded. That is not surprising, given what an observant Jewish life Selig lived. In his letters to his children and grandchildren as well as to others, he almost always mentioned his gratitude to God and the importance of Jewish values. His letters frequently mention Shabbat and Jewish holidays, including Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hanukah, and others. His support of his synagogue and of Jewish educational institutions was based not just on his charitable instincts but on his commitment to tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (healing the world).
These values were expressed by Selig explicitly in his Last Will and Testament dated July 1889. Unlike most wills, Selig did not merely identify how his assets should be distributed. He also wrote to his children about the way he hoped they would live their lives after he was gone. Today we would call this an ethical will, but back then I think this must have been quite unusual.
Selig wrote, in part:5
May G-d always be with you and bless you with all that is good and noble….Do not be too sad and upset when I have been called to rest with my forefathers, but thank G-d who has allowed me till now to fulfill my mission on earth so well. … Above all, my dear and good children, I beg of you to remain firm and strong in the faith of our fathers. Cling firmly to the laws of G-d and you will have the surest and safest guidance for your entire life. At the same time, don’t be over pious, do not condemn a person who does not share your views. Above all, keep your firm brotherly and sisterly friendship. Help each other with advice and action, and never forget those relatives who need your help.
He then wrote about how he grew up poor and was grateful for the financial security he attained as an adult because it allowed him to take care of them all as well as other relatives and to provide charity for others. His requests of his children were that they take care of their grandmother, Caroline Schuster Fuld, for the rest of her life and that they continue to support the institutions that he and Clementine had supported including the Jewish schools. After listing the specific bequests (not included in the book), Selig’s will concluded with these words:6
My purpose here on earth is now fulfilled, thanks to G-d’s kindness. If now it would please the Almighty to unite me again with my Clementine, I would call eagerly, here I am. I can calmly leave the beloved circle of my dear children, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, since I am quite sure that you will bless our memory by attempting to complete with your noble efforts and Divine help, what we have always endeavored to do.
Now, my good children and grandchildren live cheerfully and happily. May Almighty G-d bless you and make you happy, just as you will strive to make each other and those around you happy. Then you will enjoy a long and happy life, just as your grateful and ever loving father, father-in-law and grandfather has done up to the present day.
That was quite a loving and hopeful legacy that Selig wished for his descendants. In the posts to come, we will learn whether their lives lived up to his hopes and dreams for them.
- Selig Goldschmidt: Picture of A Life (1996, Elmar Printers Ltd. and Bezalel Bookbinders, Jerusalem, Israel)(limited edition of 300 copies) ↩
- Selig Goldschmidt: Picture of A Life (1996, Elmar Printers Ltd. and Bezalel Bookbinders, Jerusalem, Israel)(limited edition of 300 copies), p. 107. ↩
- Selig Goldschmidt: Picture of A Life (1996, Elmar Printers Ltd. and Bezalel Bookbinders, Jerusalem, Israel)(limited edition of 300 copies), p. 152. ↩
- Selig Goldschmidt: Picture of A Life (1996, Elmar Printers Ltd. and Bezalel Bookbinders, Jerusalem, Israel)(limited edition of 300 copies), pp. 149, 151. ↩
- Selig Goldschmidt: Picture of A Life (1996, Elmar Printers Ltd. and Bezalel Bookbinders, Jerusalem, Israel)(limited edition of 300 copies), p. 119. ↩
- Selig Goldschmidt: Picture of A Life (1996, Elmar Printers Ltd. and Bezalel Bookbinders, Jerusalem, Israel)(limited edition of 300 copies), pp. 122-123. ↩