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Wodianer Family

Economic and political figures, active in nineteenth-century Hungary. Shemu’el (Sámuel) Wodianer, the first member of the family known to us, migrated from Bohemia to southern Hungary where his son Philip (Shraga Feivish, Feivish Ehprevitz, Oporovec; d. 1820) was born in Veprovác, Bács county (now Kruščić, Serbia) in the second half of the eighteenth century. Feivish Ehprevitz moved to Szeged with several siblings once the city opened its gates to Jews in 1783. In a short time, he was the wealthiest Jewish resident, trading in agricultural produce and also maintaining an apartment and a warehouse in Pest. Active in the Szeged Jewish community, he served as its head in 1808, 1813, and 1815. He donated the land for its synagogue in 1792 and later bequeathed silver ceremonial objects to the burial society. He may have had an advanced traditional education since he was addressed by the honorific ḥaver.

While following their father’s footsteps, Feivish’s three sons—Rudolf, Sámuel, and Yehoshu‘a parted ways dramatically. The youngest, Yehoshu‘a Kosman (1789–1831), studied at the yeshiva of the Ḥatam Sofer and became a private scholar in Győrsziget, maintaining a sizable yeshiva with 40 to 50 students. His novellae were published by Vilmos Bacher as Sefer naḥalat Yehoshu‘a, (1890) with a valuable introduction listing the books in his possession; that library reflected his interest in the Haskalah.

Rudolf Wodianer (1788–1856), Feivish’s middle son, moved to Pest in 1810. Two years later, he married the 14-year-old sole heiress of Abraham Koppl, a wealthy merchant from Óbuda. Rudolf gained his wealth through transporting for the royal treasury, and by the 1840s was exporting wool and grain to Western Europe. He built large warehouses along the banks of the Danube in Pest, where as many as 60 workers washed and sorted wool before shipping it to England, France, Belgium, and Germany. Wodianer backed numerous entrepreneurial projects including the Steam Roll Mill, the Merchant Bank, and the Savings Bank. He also invested heavily in real estate, particularly in a grand three-story apartment house that became a landmark in Pest; as a Jew, however, he could not formally own the building and had to be satisfied with front men who also bought him several estates in the provinces. When he died, he left a fortune of 633,000 florins, of which a third was invested in urban real estate and a quarter in rural landed properties.

Rudolf’s youngest son, Albert Béla Wodianer von Maglód (1831–1896), studied engineering and was a captain in the 1848–1849 revolution. In 1853, he took over a grain-exporting firm that his father owned in Pest, and was a founder of Concordia and Unio, two major grain mills. Albert was ennobled in 1867 with the predicate maglód, the name of the estate upon which he had established a model farm. At some point he converted to Christianity and entered parliament in 1869 as a member of the Liberal Party, serving almost uninterruptedly until his death.

Sámuel Wodianer von Kapriora (1778–1852), the eldest son of Feivish Ehprevitz, became the most significant Jewish businessman in Hungary, exemplifying the evolution from merchant capital to banking to financing industry. Until moving to Pest, he made Szeged the headquarters of his growing enterprises. There he served regularly on the board of the community, of which he was president in 1816 and 1820. Sámuel expanded the range of the family’s firm to include wholesale trade in wool, grain, and tobacco. He had much in common with Moritz Ullmann, the only analogous figure in Hungary, who also made a fortune transporting grain for the imperial treasury. In 1821, Sámuel bought some 80,000 tons of tobacco in Csongrád county for 1 million florins.

Szeged soon became too confining for Sámuel’s rapidly expanding business interests. In 1828, he requested permission to settle in Pest as a tolerated Jew, successfully citing his concern for the general welfare and his patriotic efforts to improve the economic position of Pest and Hungary. In 1834, he also received a privileged status as a wholesaler. But by then his private fortune surpassed 800,000 florins, and even Pest was growing too small for his ambitions. Hence, he turned to Vienna in 1834 with similar requests for tolerated status and wholesale privileges, but was denied. By the 1830s, he had also come to occupy a dominant position in the wool trade; his only serious competition was the Biedermann firm in Vienna. The raw wool was treated in his factory in Vienna, where 200 workers washed and sorted it. The firm also undertook the transportation of some 6,000–7,000 tons of sorted wool to Western Europe annually. In 1839, he submitted what he called a patriotic proposal for moving his factory operations from Vienna to Pest, bringing well-paying work to hundreds of local women. His request for a six-year monopoly was rejected after consultation with both Christian and Jewish merchants.

Unlike most of his counterparts, Sámuel Wodianer shied away from taking on a leading role in the Pest Jewish community. He was socially ambitious and in 1837, as the richest merchant in Hungary, he tried, without success, to enter the prestigious Pest Nemzeti Casino. Around this time, he converted to Christianity and was promptly received into ranks of the Pest burghers and their merchant society. In 1844, he received a patent of ennoblement for himself, his wife, and two sons with the predicate kapriora; it cited not only his contributions to Hungary’s economy but also the philanthropic activities that he had been careful to document over the years.

Among his patriotic enterprises, Sámuel listed the project to build the first bridge over the Danube linking Pest and Buda. The Chain Bridge (Lánchíd) was completed in 1849, and as a commemorative plaque affixed to the bridge attests, Baron George Sina, Salomon Rothschild, and Sámuel Joseph Wodianer financed the endeavor. Indeed, Wodianer now enjoyed the confidence of Viennese banking circles. In an additional joint venture with Sina in the 1840s, the partners cornered the tobacco market in the region east of the Tisza, overtaking Ullmann in this sector.

Sámuel then shifted into banking, founding (with Ullmann) the Merchant Bank, and financing such ventures as the new Steam Roll Mill and the Tisza Steamship Company. In the years preceding his death, he expanded into buying urban real estate. It was perhaps only natural that in 1848 Lajos Kossuth, as minister of the treasury, appointed Wodianer to be ministerial banker.

Baron Mór (Moritz) Wodianer von Kapriora (1810–1885), Sámuel’s older son, played an even more active role in the Hungarian cause in 1848, gathering information and buying up arms in Vienna and passing them on to Budapest. When the Imperial Ministerial Council in Vienna discussed the punishment to be meted out to Hungarian Jewry for its part in the revolution, Wodianer and Ullmann (both converts, hence not liable to pay the collective punitive fine) were singled out as the worst culprits who were said to be going scot-free.

Mór surpassed even his father in the central role he played not only in the Hungarian, but also in the Austrian economy. In 1833, he married Mór Ullmann’s daughter, Franciska, who brought with her a generous dowry of 30,000 florins. Soon after, Wodianer converted. By the 1840s, he had moved to Vienna where he opened a wholesale firm exporting tobacco. His father was a silent partner in the Viennese concern, while he was his father’s silent partner in Pest. Thus he took part in financing the grand transportation projects of the Reform Era—the Chain Bridge, railways, and steamboat companies—as well as industrial ventures such as the steam mill. By the 1850s, he shifted his focus to Vienna, where he came to exercise enormous influence on the economic and financial life of the imperial capital, circulating in the heights reserved for the Rothschilds and their like. He was a founder of the state railway, and served as its president; his name was on the board of every leading financial institution in Vienna; and he served as president of the stock exchange, governor of the national bank, and president of the Viennese Wholesale Merchant Association. In addition, he was the president of the Danube Steamship Company, and was on the board of Hungarian Creditbank and the Tisza Railroad Company.

Mór was decorated several times. In 1863, he received an Austrian baronate, and 11 years later was elevated to the rank of a Hungarian baron, the first titled noble of Jewish origin. He left a fortune of 15 million florins, and was survived by a son, Albert, and two daughters, who married Hungarian counts. He counseled his son to withdraw from the business world and had over the years set aside his capital to establish a family trust fund. The firm was closed down in 1883.

Baron Albert Wodianer von Kapriora, Sr. (1818–1898), Sámuel’s second son, had studied at universities in Pest and Vienna, and spent many years in England. He did not fill any significant economic role. After he received the Hungarian baronate in 1886, he sat in the Upper House until his death.

Karolina, Sámuel’s daughter, married Gerson Koppl’s son, Philip (1801–1873), thus further cementing the ties between the two families. Converting in about 1840, Philip changed his name to Koppély and had a successful business career. He was ennobled in 1867, and once again changed his name to Harkányi, which had been his predicate. His son, Baron Frigyes Harkányi (1825–1919), entered the Wodianer firm and soon occupied important executive and board positions in several banks and industrial concerns. He married a Baroness Podmaniczky and was elevated to a Hungarian baronate in 1895. Their son, Baron János Harkányi, was a member of parliament who entered the civil service in the Ministry of Trade in 1867. The appointment of Sámuel Wodianer’s great-grandson to Count István Tisza’s cabinet in 1913, as minister of trade, marked both the end and the beginning of an era.

Suggested Reading

Vera Bácskai, A vállalkozók előfutárai: Nagykereskedők a reformkori Pesten (Budapest, 1989), pp. 153–169 and passim; Vera Bácskai, “Jewish Wholesale Merchants in Pest in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century,” in Jews in the Hungarian Economy, 1760–1945, ed. Michael K. Silber, pp. 40–49 (Jerusalem, 1992). See also Antal Áldásy, A magyar nemzeti museum könyvtárának címereslevelei, vol. 8, 1826 (Budapest, 1941), pp. 463–465; Béla Kempelen, Magyarországi zsidó és zsidó eredetü családok, vol. 1 (Budapest, 1937), pp. 42–46; Emma Léderer, Az ipari kapitalizmus kezdetei Magyarországon (Budapest, 1952), pp. 73–75; Immánuel Löw and Zsigmond Kulinyi, A szegedi zsidók, 1785–1885 (Szeged, 1885); William O. McCagg, Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary (Boulder, 1972), pp. 55–56; Gyula Mérei, Magyar iparfejlődés, 1790–1848 (Budapest, 1951), pp. 170–171; Constant von Wurzbach, Biographisches Lexikon des Kaiserthums Oesterreich, vol. 57, pp. 201–203 (Vienna, 1889).