The First Mrs. Rothschild

Sara Aha­roni, Yardenne Greenspan (trans.)

  • Review
By – April 6, 2020

The First Mrs. Roth­schild, filled with his­to­ry, romance, intrigue, and fam­i­ly dra­ma, car­ries read­ers back to the peri­od of late 1700s to mid-1800s in Ger­many. Author Sara Aha­roni tells the fic­tion­al­ized sto­ry of the promi­nent Jew­ish fam­i­ly that suc­ceed­ed in build­ing an inter­na­tion­al bank­ing empire.

The nov­el, which was first pub­lished in Hebrew in 2015 and won Israel’s Steimatsky Prize, has now been trans­lat­ed into English.

The author struc­tures her nov­el as three note­books, with entries writ­ten by Gut­le Roth­schild, the wife of Meir Amschel Roth­schild, founder of the bank­ing fam­i­ly. Gut­le serves as the first-per­son nar­ra­tor in a sto­ry that unfolds from her mar­riage in 1770 at the age of sev­en­teen, to her death in 1849, at close to ninety-six.

Dur­ing that time, she nev­er moved out of the ghet­to of Frank­furt, the Juden­gasse, even when Jews were per­mit­ted to do so. She and her hus­band were both born there, and it is where they raised their ten chil­dren and start­ed the fam­i­ly bank­ing busi­ness. Mod­est by nature, she had no desire and felt no neces­si­ty to leave her home.

Gut­le, who was known as Gutaleh, was a care­ful observ­er of the goings on around her, but con­tent with her role as moth­er and home­mak­er. She was very much in love with her hus­band — she admired his ded­i­ca­tion, was proud of his achieve­ments and con­vinced of his good judg­ment, and will­ing to accede to his deci­sions. On occa­sion, she ques­tioned his rea­son­ing or expressed her doubts about some of his actions, but she nev­er opposed him, be it in busi­ness or fam­i­ly mat­ters. Yet, there were deci­sions to ques­tion, as Meir advanced his family’s inter­ests in the bank­ing and finan­cial worlds of Europe, using what was a remark­able tal­ent for rec­og­niz­ing and seiz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties while ensur­ing that his sons would be in the posi­tion to car­ry them even further.

As a per­son­al­i­ty, Gut­le con­veys an air of pas­siv­i­ty, sup­port­ing her hus­band, yet tak­ing lit­tle part in his activ­i­ties, except for a brief inter­lude work­ing in the busi­ness. This may dis­ap­point some read­ers, hop­ing for more from the woman who was at the heart of the Roth­schild empire.

The fam­i­ly dra­ma was enact­ed through the his­tor­i­cal tur­bu­lence of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, the Napoleon­ic wars, and the dis­so­lu­tion of the Holy Roman Empire. Meir suc­ceed­ed in nav­i­gat­ing through it all with­out los­ing his focus, and nev­er stopped fight­ing for Jew­ish rights, seek­ing for oth­ers what his mon­ey had bought for him and his fam­i­ly. He kept his belief in the dec­la­ra­tion of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, lib­er­ty, equal­i­ty, fra­ter­ni­ty,” and was con­vinced that one day, it would include Jews.

While the book may be long and filled with extra­ne­ous fam­i­ly detail, and in parts, filled with over­wrought lan­guage, the his­tor­i­cal set­ting is absorb­ing and the Roth­schild sto­ry, although fic­tion­al­ized, is engaging. 

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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