98-year old banker, philanthropist Baron Guy de Rothschild dies

paris | Baron Guy de Rothschild, who managed his family’s French banking empire and saw it taken over first during the Nazi occupation and then 40 years later by a Socialist government, died at age 98.

Rothschild, also known for his family’s renowned wines and his thoroughbred racehorses, died Tuesday, June 12, in Paris. The cause of death was not given.

During the Nazi occupation, the collaborationist French government stripped the baron’s family of its French nationality — and its assets — because they were Jewish. Rothschild fled to the United States and later to London, where he joined Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s resistance force.

After the war, Rothschild rebuilt his family’s financial empire, and went on to chair de Rothschild Freres bank from 1967 until 1979.

In 1981, the bank switched to government hands through nationalization under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.

Rothschild left France and briefly moved to New York, after writing an editorial in Le Monde accusing the Socialists of falling victim to French anti-Semitism.

Later, his son David followed his father’s example and began reconstructing the family banking network, which in 1987 became Rothschild & Cie Bank.

Guy de Rothschild founded and presided over the United Jewish Welfare Fund, France’s primary Jewish philanthropic agency, from 1950 to 1982.

Leadership of the fund was assumed in 1982 by David, who only last year turned the reigns over to Pierre Besnainou, the head of the European Jewish Congress.

The fund helped to restructure the community after the deportation of 75,000 French Jews during World War II, and played a major role in integrating Sephardic Jews who came from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria in the 1950s and ’60s, and now account for at least 70 percent of France’s approximately 700,000 Jews.

“The Baron played a major leadership role in the French Jewish community even though he did not have any official role over the past 30 years,” said David Saada, general director of the fund.

He noted that the Baron was a secular Jew, but understood the role of religion in the field of education, especially among Sephardic Jews. “He signed a very important accord with the Jewish Agency in the 1970s that reoriented and boosted Jewish education in France,” said Saada.

While Rothschild worked on Jewish education in France, his focus in Israel was secular. “The Baron helped Israel enormously directly and indirectly,” said Yossi Haklai, director of the education department of the Jewish Agency in Paris. Haklai said he was responsible for a number of foundations in Israel, the most important being the Keren Caesaria, which focused on secular culture and education programs.

Rothschild was married twice, first to Alix Schey de Koromla, the mother of David, and then to Marie-Helene van Zuylen de Nyevelt de Haar, the mother of Edouard. “His second wife, Marie-Helene, was not Jewish, though they were stars on the French high society scene, Jewish and non-Jewish,” said Saada.

The Baron is survived by sons David and Edouard, among many other relatives.

Brett Kline of JTA contributed to this report.