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Zak, Avraam Isakovich

(1829–1893), banker, philanthropist, and public figure. Avraam Zak was born into a well-established family in Bobruisk (now Bobruysk, Belarus), where he may have been influenced by local maskilim. He was self-taught, mostly in mathematics and later in economics, and showed an interest in Hebrew literature and music.

Zak began his career working for Baron Evzel’ Gintsburg in the 1850s, first as a clerk in the liquor business and later as an employee in Gintsburg’s bank in Saint Petersburg. In 1871, Zak became director of the Petersburg Discount Lending Bank, owned by Leopold Kronenberg. Under Zak’s management, the institution emerged as one of the largest banks in Russia. Beyond this venture, Zak worked in insurance and helped to build Russia’s first railroads. His most notable accomplishment was the Libavo–Romni track line that opened the northwest of Russia to development. His ideas were implemented by other railway companies.

Because Zak also had keen insights into economic theory, the Russian government consulted with him to determine how the country could prevent a severe financial crisis in the event of war. Zak recommended that the treasury gradually accumulate gold reserves. When he was offered the position of deputy to the minister of finance on condition that he convert to Christianity, he refused; nonetheless, government officials continued to seek advice from him about financial matters.

Within the Jewish community of Saint Petersburg, Zak helped form the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE). In 1880, he was one of the founders of ORT, and was also a benefactor for the city’s Jewish orphanage and Jewish school. Zak’s home was a gathering place for musicians and critics; in particular, he supported the career of Anton Rubinstein.

In 1878 when a blood libel arose against Jews in Georgia, Zak paid the defendants’ legal expenses in the city of Kutaisi. With the outbreak of pogroms in 1881, he was part of a Jewish delegation to Alexander III. Zak and other Jewish leaders then appeared before the Pahlen Commission (1883–1887), which examined the status of Jews in Russia. In his final years, Zak became ill. Traveling abroad for medical treatment, he died in Hessen, Germany.

Suggested Reading

Valerii Gessen, K istorii Sankt-Peterburgskoi evreiskoi religioznoi obshchini: ot pervykh evreyev do XX veka (Saint Petersburg, 2000); Sa’ul Ginzburg, Forshungen un zikhroynes vegn yidishn lebn in tsarishn Rusland, vol.1, Amolike Peterburg (New York, 1944); Viktor Kelner, ed. Evrei v Rossii: XIX vek (Moscow, 2000); Genrikh Sliozberg, Dela minuvshikh dnei: Zapiski russkago evreia (Paris, 1933–1934).