Polish family of bankers, philanthropists, industrialists and scholars.
Volf Zelig Natanson (also called Samuel; 1795–1879) was the patriarch of a dynasty well known for its financial and communal activities. He was born in Warsaw, and began his commercial activities by trading fabrics in Warsaw’s Jewish district and by 1841 becoming a leading merchant in that field. Natanson liquidated his capital to invest in industry, opening a soap factory and becoming one of Poland’s cosmetics pioneers. In 1857, Natanson entered the sugar industry, purchasing two industrial plants and a number of warehouses. He then reinvested his profits in the financial market and in 1866 founded the S. Natanson i Synowie (S. Natanson and Sons) bank. Ultimately, all of his sons were involved in its operations. The firm existed until 1932.
In 1873, with the tycoon Leopold Kronenberg, to whom Natanson was related through his son Ignacy, he established the Warszawskie Towarzystwo Kopalń Węgla i Zakładów Hutniczych (Warsaw Coal Mining and Metal Production Company) in order to gain a foothold in the mining industry in the Zaglębia region. Over the years the commercial links between the two families grew closer.
In 1850, with a group of graduates of the Warsaw Rabbinical Seminary, Natanson founded a synagogue in his home in the heart of Warsaw’s Jewish quarter. A modern cantor and choir led the services, and the sermon was delivered in Polish (after 1871, the language was switched to German when Russian authorities outlawed the use of Polish at public events). The format represented a great innovation for Warsaw’s Jews; its services were attended by maskilim and other supporters of integration. Natanson also made a large financial contribution to the building fund of the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie Street (opened in 1878); this synagogue was later attended by most of the members of his home congregation, including his family.
Eight of Natanson’s children survived into adulthood. Józef (1823–1881), Szymon (1824–1894), Ignacy (1828–1863), and Adam (b. 1829) were bankers; Adam and Szymon ceased their involvement in the family bank after moving to France. Józef’s daughter, Paulina (1861–1928), married the well-known mathematician Samuel Dickstein. She was a talented pianist and disciple of Ignacy Paderewski. Scientists and intellectuals gathered in her salon. The youngest of Volf Zelig’s children was his daughter Rosalie (b. 1839). Henryk (1820–1895), the oldest, studied at the Warsaw Rabbinical Seminary. A club that included members of the progressive Polish and Jewish elite was active in the bookstore that he operated together with a publishing house until 1868. In addition to managing the bank founded by his father with his brothers, Henryk was an industrialist, philanthropist, and member of the Warsaw Stock Exchange, as well as a member of the executive committee of the Jewish Communal Organization. His second wife, Amelia (1837–1897), was active in the philanthropic life of the Warsaw Jewish community, especially in the area of the protection of poor Jewish girls. She founded an institution in the Warsaw Jewish quarter where indigent girls received clothing, food, and education. In 1887 she founded a Women’s Committee in order to supply linen and clothes to the Jewish Hospital, cofounded by her brother-in-law, Ludwik (1822–1896). The women of the next (third) generation of Natansons also participated in this committee.
Jakub (1832–1884) became a professor of chemistry and author of an organic chemistry textbook. He worked out a new method of organic synthesis, synthesizing urea and other substances as well as creating synthetic dyes, including magenta. Jakub was an important figure among the advocates of Warsaw positivism. In 1861 he served as a member of the Warsaw delegation, which wielded power in the city during the patriotic demonstrations preceding the outbreak of the January uprising; during the uprising he was a member of the Provisional Municipal Council.
Other than Henryk, perhaps most notable among Volf Zelig’s children was Ludwik (1822–1896), a physician, communal leader, and philanthropist. After studying at the Warsaw Rabbinical Seminary, he studied medicine at Vilna and Tartu (Dorpat), returning to Warsaw in 1843. Although he was a partner in the S. Natanson and Sons bank, Ludwik became known as a prominent society physician who took an active interest in public health. In 1852, he joined a commission for the reorganization of health services in the Kingdom of Poland. He published one of the first Polish medical journals, Tygodnik Lekarski (1847–1864), as well as the first Polish-language dictionary of anatomy. In addition, he wrote dozens of popular and scientific works in diverse medical fields. Concerned more broadly with social and economic reform, Ludwik, along with his brothers and leading Polish aristocrats Jan Lubomirski and Jan Zamoyski, founded the Museum of Industry and Agriculture in 1875, part of an effort to promote the development of industry and the modernization of agriculture in Polish lands. He conducted modern philanthropic activity, facilitating access for the poor to vocational training and providing numerous scholarships. His interests included both Christian and Jewish causes. As longtime president of the executive committee of the Warsaw Jewish community (1871–1896), he reorganized and modernized (and subsidized) its activities. He cofounded the Warsaw Jewish hospital, initiated a trade school for poor Jewish youth, and was among the founders of the Reform synagogue on Tłomackie Street.
Henryk’s son Kazimierz (1853–1935) was a banker, trade magistrate, member of the Provisional Council of State (1917), and a publisher of the economic press and a leader of the so-called assimilationists in Warsaw. He was the only Natanson of his generation who remained a Jew throughout his life. He and his brother Józef (1854/55–1929) led the bank after their father’s death.
After the death of their father, Ludwik’s sons, Edward (1861–1940) and Władysław (1864–1937), converted to Catholicism and took the surname Szeliga. Edward, a chemist and industrialist, participated in numerous economic organizations, led the bank with his cousin Edward until its liquidation in 1932, and was active in Warsaw’s city government. After the Nazi invasion, his property was confiscated, but he died a natural death. Władysław was an eminent physicist and mathematician. In 1899, he became a professor at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. As rector (1922–1923) he opposed attempts to limit the number of Jewish students, a result of which was an attempt to bomb his apartment by a group of antisemitic activists. He was president of the Polish Physics Society and a member of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Władysław’s son, Wojciech Natanson (1904–1996), was an esteemed specialist in literature, a theater critic, and a translator of French literature.
Alina Cała, Asymilacja Żydów w Królestwie Polskim, 1864–1897: Postawy, konflikty, stereotypy (Warsaw, 1989); Artur Eisenbach, Kwestia równouprawnienia Żydów w Królestwie Polskim (Warsaw, 1972); Adolf Peretz, “Żydzy w bankowości,” in Żydzi w Polsce Odrodzonej, ed. Ignacy Schiper, Aryeh Tartakower, and Aleksander Hafftka, vol. 2, pp. 439, 441–442 (Warsaw, 1933); Jacob Shatzky, Geshikhte fun yidn in Varshe, vols. 1–3 (New York, 1947–1953); Itshak Shipper, “Di Familie Natanson,” Haynt, nos. 142–156 (21 June–4 July 1935); Alina Szklarska-Lohmannowa, “Natanson Seelig (Zeelig),” in Polski słownik biograficzny, vol. 22, pt. 3, pp. 607–608 (Wrocław, Warsaw, Kraków, and Gdańsk, 1977).
Polish text translated by Karen Auerbach; Hebrew text translated by David Fachler