Quintessential Askan — An Interview With Dr. David Rothschild of Zurich
By Sara Lehmann
This summer, b’ezras Hashem, Mr. David Rothschild will be 99 years-old.
It is not often that I have the privilege of meeting a nonagenarian. The experience turned out to be as remarkable as the man himself.
Mr. Rothschild lives on his own in a stately building in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in Zurich, Switzerland. A metal plaque, with the words Rothschild Messinstrumente — Rothschild Instruments — is affixed outside heavy wooden doors. It denotes the still existing and successful engineering firm that Mr. Rothschild founded and developed.
My husband accompanied me on this visit to a man who continues to dedicate so much of his life to Jewish communal needs. The long history of chessed and hachnasas orchim that shape his life were on full display as he welcomed us into his home.
We were greeted by an immaculately dressed, white-bearded man with metal-rimmed glasses. He wore a red and blue bow tie, which we learned later is his signature dapper style. With a wide smile, Mr. Rothschild brought us into his living room and insisted on serving us “Swiss-style” coffee.
My husband and I sat next to a small table set with a generous plate of cake and looked around a room filled with memorabilia. Pictures of Rabbanim, Gedolim, dignitaries and politicians share space with family pictures of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Shelves of seforim line the room, interspersed with knickknacks from around the globe and an assorted collection of menorohs.
Born in 1923 in Switzerland, Mr. Rothschild has spent his entire life in Zurich. He is still a very active member of the Yekkishe Kehillah, the Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft (IRG) where he served as president for many years. Every morning at 5:00 a.m., Mr. Rothschild drives himself to shul for the Daf Yomi shiur before Shacharis. And each Friday, he composes a poem about emunah and bitachon, usually from a historical perspective, prints it out, and distributes it to shul members.
Mr. Rothschild’s regular visits to the Mendelheim, Zurich’s Jewish old age home, where he served as president and member of the Board of Trustees, continue unabated. Every Friday, and on many other occasions, Mr. Rothschild pays a visit to the institution where the majority of seniors are younger than himself. He happily pulls out his phone to show us a video of himself dressed up as a clown, entertaining residents this past Purim with grammen and magic tricks.
Having served on the Board of Directors of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG), Mr. Rothschild still keeps his finger on the pulse of the Swiss Jewish community. And his daily routine has not veered much over the past decades. An engineer by profession, he still spends time in his office, where he works on a small scale because “it keeps me occupied.”
Our conversation reveals Mr. Rothschild’s sharp intelligence and incredible memory for detail, as well as an amiable nature and sense of humor. It also demonstrates pride in his Yekkishe heritage. His is a history shaped by unique accomplishments and peopled by Rabbinic luminaries and dignitaries over a long and extraordinary lifespan. But most of all, Mr. Rothschild exudes a spirit of extraordinary giving that defined and continues to define almost a century of living.
Can you tell me about your family and background growing up?
I come from a family of ten children — nine boys and one girl. At home, my father saw to it that we had no luxuries, but nothing was too expensive for our education. For instance, we were never allowed to have butter and jam together. That was considered a luxury. But my father gave us all the possibilities that he could to obtain professions. Three of my brothers are lawyers, three are doctors. One is Moshe (Mosy) Rothschild, who built Mayanei Hayehshua, the hospital in Bnei Brak.
I became an engineer. I developed specialized instruments and started my own business. The company started with nothing and then grew and became successful. My business took me on travels around the world — to Japan, Korea, China, India, Africa, America and South America.
Where were you during the War years?
I grew up before the period of World War II. I had a very famous grandfather from my mother’s side, named Harav Ernest Weill, who was the Chief Rabbi in France. He had a small yeshiva where I learned.
When the War broke out, I had to leave yeshiva and return to Switzerland. I was in the military for three years, which was compulsory. We protected the border to prevent Hitler from coming in. Switzerland was like an island. And Hashem helped.
Was your family active in hatzalah efforts during the War years?
Yes, my father had a scrap metal business with his father and brothers. They gave up their business throughout the four years of the War to help in hatzalas nefashos. Most people don’t know that Switzerland had 30,000 Jewish refugees at the beginning of the War. Afterwards, in 1942, they did not allow any more in.
They came from Germany, Poland, and elsewhere and stayed in Zurich and other parts of Switzerland for the duration of the War. My father set aside his parnasah to work for the religious needs of the Jews in the refugee camps here. Our whole family was active. All during the War, I helped out and wasn’t home for even one Yom Tov. We had a general kitchen where 150 people would eat every Yom Tov. I don’t think we ever had a meal in the War time where Jewish refugees were not there.
How did these formative years influence the way you live your life?
I did the same in my own home. Our home was always open for others. We never had a Friday night without guests. In shul I sat in the last row. It was the best place because all the orchim would pass by and I chapped them. My wife always set an extra place at the table so no guest should feel uncomfortable. She would say, “We were waiting for you.” I have two daughters, one in London and one in Cleveland, and they are also both active in their communities. They learned chessed from my wife too.
Your wife was a personality in her own right. Can you tell me her story?
I had a very special wife, who unfortunately passed away. She was from Pressburg, and her father was close to the Pressburger Rebbe. During the Holocaust, she was in the worst place — in Auschwitz — working in the crematorium. After the people were gassed, she had to sort out all the golden teeth, whatever had been in their pockets, etc.
For forty years she didn’t talk about her experiences with anyone except me. She couldn’t. She always said it felt like a small lake that’s frozen over slightly and if you trample on it, you’ll sink in. Even my children didn’t know about it.
Then one day, when she was in her 50s, she was in the hospital recuperating from a broken hip. One of the head nurses came in and saw the number on her arm and remarked, “Oh, that’s nice — so you don’t forget your phone number.”
It was then my wife realized that she has to speak out or people will forget. She became a spokesperson about the Holocaust. She was very well known, appearing in schools, and other venues. She was a gifted speaker and people were shocked to hear her stories.
She became so famous that when she passed away, the president of Switzerland wrote me a letter. In it he wrote, “Not only you, Mr. Rothschild, lost. But all of Switzerland lost.”
I wrote a book about her life, called Leben Heisst Geben — Living Means Giving. Her life was giving to others. My wife said that if she survived the Holocaust while so many others died, it meant that she had an obligation to always be active for other people. I was very proud of her.
Can you share the details of the communal work you are known for?
I helped build up the Yiddishe Schule, the Jewish school here in Zurich, and served as its president for many years. I also worked with the Yekkishe Kehillah (IRG) and was president there for many years too.
I was asked to join the SIG, which is the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities. It is the umbrella organization for all the Jewish communities in Switzerland. Initially, there were Rabbanim who opposed my joining the organization because most of the people there were tinokos she’nishbo and didn’t know anything about Yiddishkeit. But Harav Moshe Soloveichik, zt”l, with whom I was extremely close, encouraged me. I was there for 16 years and did many positive things.
What type of issues did you deal with there?
The organization deals with policy. We were responsible for overseeing and trying to help all the problems and needs of the Jewish community. For instance, there’s a problem with shechitah. There is a ban on shechitah in Switzerland and we have to import kosher meats. I was involved with government representatives regarding permits and importing.
Can you describe the history of the shechitah ban and any efforts being made to overturn it?
The ban began in the 1800s to prevent cruelty against animals. It was a law that was voted in by the population. It does not include chicken, which we’re allowed to shecht.
I tried to promote allowing shechitah. But then we realized that it would awaken sleeping antisemitism here. It would be worse for Jews to do that than to keep quiet and continue importing meat. I’ll give you a good example of this antisemitism. When I was on the SIG Board of Deputies, a Swiss member of the Parliament, with whom I had a good relationship, once wanted to give me a compliment. He said, “Rothschild, you are a nice Jew.”
In the late 1990s, the SIG was instrumental in helping to obtain assets for relatives of Nazi victims from Swiss banks, which initially failed to return deposits to the relatives. Were you involved in that pursuit?
Yes. It was a very awkward situation because the Swiss banks said they would return the money upon receipt of death certificates. Who had certification of death during the Holocaust? Nobody.
One day, I was discussing the case with an ambassador who was appointed by the Swiss government to deal with the case. I told him that he was missing background information about the people involved. I suggested my wife speak about the situation in order to provide a better understanding of it. He agreed and invited other ambassadors too.
By then my wife was in a wheelchair, but she had a special koach ha’dibur. She spoke in front of government officials, ministers and ambassadors, including the American ambassador. After she finished, you could not hear a word. People were so moved that they couldn’t speak.
Then one ambassador stood up and said, “Mrs. Rothschild, can I ask you a question? After all you have been through, how can you still believe in G-d?” She answered, “Mr. Ambassador, those who ask don’t believe, and those who believe don’t ask. I believe all the time.”
The banks ended up ended up compromising and resolving the issue. They gave money back but it was an embarrassment for them.
What do you consider to be one of your biggest accomplishments in communal life?
I founded a system relating to kashrus. In Switzerland, we don’t have many items that have kosher symbols on them. Rather everyone has a list of all the kosher items that can be bought in the supermarkets, without actual certification on the product, but without any doubt of a hechsher or bishul akum. Our Rabbanim supervise the official protocols, and now we have 2500 products on the list.
You were president of the IRG, the Yekkishe Kehillah, for a long time. How has it grown or changed over the years?
The Kehillah itself has stayed more or less the same over the last 40-50 years. Its membership didn’t increase or decrease. But it changed completely in nature. When I was on the Board and president, we were a Yekkishe Kehillah and proud to be so.
Nowadays, our sense of being special as a Yekkishe Kehillah is lost. For instance, when I was president, nobody was allowed to do krias haTorah with a different pronunciation from ours. We say “ow” versus “oy.” These are small things but they changed. When I was young, you were proud to be an “Ashkenaizishe Yid.” Now the pride is gone. Times have changed.
Did you have a relationship with the Yekkishe Rabbanim of your day?
Yes. I met Harav Breur, zt”l, who always spoke in German. I once heard a nice vort from him. He said, “Every day we say in Shemoneh Esrei: ‘Rofei cholei Amo Yisrael.’ Why are we so egoistic? Why don’t we say ‘Rofei kol ha’basar’ or ‘rofei kol ha’adam’? Because it applies to a Yiddishe krank — Yidden who come late to shul, who speak in shul.”
I also knew Harav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, well and we spoke often. Once, I met Harav Schwab in the Catskills and received the biggest mussar. He was in a wheelchair and couldn’t walk anymore. I said, “Wie geht es ihnen? — How goes it with you?” He answered, ”Es geht leider nicht mehr — Unfortunately, it doesn’t go anymore.” I realized how careful you have to be with the words you use.
Which other Gedolim have you met over the years who influenced you?
I had a very prominent uncle in America named Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung, who married my father’s sister. I was very close to him and learned a lot from him. He told me that he was never involved in geirus. But once he became involved in being megaiyer a young woman, whom he felt was very sincere. After teaching her for over two years, the time for geirus came. He told her that she’s making a very big step and asked if she has any regrets. She answered, “A little bit, because I don’t know what osoh ha’ish will say if I do it.” Needless to say, he did not convert her. And I learned how careful you have to be.
I was also very close with was Harav Moshe Soloveichik, zt”l, who really helped and guided me. And years later, I met Harav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l.
Did you have any Interaction with Chassidish Rebbes?
Yes. I met the Satmar Rav, zy”a, after the War. I also met Harav Yonasan Steif, zt”l. He was a refugee in Switzerland who had come on a transport from the camps. He was such an anav. Ten minutes after starting to speak, he would excuse himself and apologize for speaking, saying he’s not holy enough.
Years ago, my wife and I looked after a girl from a poor family in Yerushalayim, who was almost totally crippled by polio. Her father was the nephew of the Gerrer Rebbe. She was in an institution here for ten years, where my wife and I cared of her. My wife realized that there was no future for her without an education and told her father. He didn’t agree until my wife threatened to personally intercede with the Gerrer Rebbe. We arranged for her return to Israel to get an education and ultimately helped her find employment.
When I was with my wife in Yerushalayim, this father asked if I would like to meet the Gerrer Rebbe, the Pnei Menachem, zy”a. I answered, “Of course, who doesn’t want to see a Gadol Hador?” When I met the Gerrer Rebbe, I said, “I’m so happy to meet you.” And the conversation was very brief.
The next year I was in Yerushalayim and met the Rebbe again. This time, I asked him some she’eilos pertaining to the kehillah and he gave me answers. It was a completely different experience. When I walked to the door at the end of the meeting, he called me back. He said in Yiddish, “Reb Dovid, the second time the conversation was much better.”
I also do a lot of hiking with family in the mountains, for leisure and exercise. Two years ago, we were 2000 meters up in the mountains and from far away I saw a Yid coming. If I see another Yid, I go over and say, “Shalom Aleichem.” So, I did, and introduced myself and my children. I said, “My name is Rothschild.” And he said, “My name is Hager.” And we spoke.
Another man came running along and said to me, “Do you know who you’re speaking with? This is the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Harav Mendel Hager.” That second man was the Rebbe’s shammash.
Do you have any memorable stories of dignitaries you met over the years?
When I was on the SIG Board of Deputies, I served in the department of religious affairs, overseeing kashrus and caring for the kehillah’s needs. I was close with one Catholic bishop. One day, in 1987, he told me that Pope John Paul II planned to visit Switzerland and wished to meet with a delegation of Jews.
I asked a she’eilah if I was permitted to go. I was told that a pope is like a king and if he asks for me to come then I have to go. But I was also told to turn the trip into something positive for the Yidden. I prepared to go with my colleagues and we were given instructions. If we had anything to ask or discuss with the pope, it had to be written and submitted three weeks before we meet.
We wrote down three topics. The first concerned the Catholic mission and its relationship to different sects of Christianity. The second asked why the Easter liturgy contains a very antisemitic passage. And the third questioned why the Vatican did not recognize the Jewish State.
We were also briefed on protocol and instructed to address the pope as “your holiness.” I announced that I cannot say that. My holiness is Hashem. But I was told that I had no choice, so I said I would think it over. Also, I insisted on wearing a yarmulke.
The bishop arranged for me to meet the pope in his palace in Freiburg because he knew I could not enter a church. The day arrived and I met the pope, surrounded by his cardinals. As I approached him, I greeted him and said, “Your Excellency, it’s so good to meet you.” And he didn’t say a word.
He dismissed the first question. He agreed with the second topic and told us that he already gave orders to omit the antisemitic passage from the following year’s Easter liturgy. As to why he didn’t recognize the State of Israel, the pope answered, “I also am of the opinion that the Holy Land belongs to the descendants of Abraham.”
If you were speaking to people today, what message would you impart?
I would give a message that you have to learn, but overall, you have to be a mentch. You have to care for other people, look out for other people. That’s something that is needed and has to be done.
Finally, what would you attribute your longevity to?
Very simple. [He points upwards.] I don’t deserve it. Hashem gave it to me.
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