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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: July 2020

Morality, Motherland, and Freedom: The Arduous and Triumphant Journey of Michael Heilprin to America


ON SATURDAY, 12 May 1888, a rather simple funeral ceremony was conducted for Michael (Mihály) Heilprin ‘Russian Talmud student, teacher in Hungary, Hungarian patriot, American abolitionist, encyclopedist and practical and selfsacrificing philanthropist … perhaps the greatest Jew, from a purely intellectual point of view, that the country has seen’. Michael Heilprin was, even in his death, humble and unpretentious. His funeral, as described by Wendell Phillips Garrison, an eyewitness and also a personal friend of Heilprin, was as unassuming as was his life:

It was very gratifying to me to be asked by the family to come and speak at his funeral. They were desirous to have neither a Jewish nor an anti-Jewish service, so did not call in either Dr. Adler or Mr. Chadwick. They allotted to me some remarks on Mr. Heilprin's learning and literary life; to a Dr. Goldman (if I caught the name right), a brother-in-law of Dr. Adler, a general discourse on his moral qualities, and in particular some account of his self-sacrifice for the Russian Jews. This programme was carried out yesterday to the letter, without the aid of music or any formality whatever, but I believe to general acceptance… .

It was widely decided to bury Mr. Heilprin where he fell, and the body was taken to a country cemetery nearby, on the side of a hill commanding a lovely prospect over the valley of the Passaic. The air was full of moisture, and a haze hung over everything, partly heightening the charm, but rather, I fancy, concealing the best features of the landscape, which was quite new to me. No words were spoken at the grave, but a Jewish (and German) custom was observed of the relatives themselves throwing each a spadeful of earth upon the coffin.

Now, 130 years after his death, Michael Heilprin's name is rarely mentioned and is remembered by very few historians and scholars. Who was he? Why is it incumbent upon us to recall and study the life and achievements of this citizen of the globe? To put it plainly: Heilprin's ideas, ideals, and guiding mottos and practices in America were shaped during his formative years as an uncompromising scholar and political activist in Hungary during the tumultuous 1840s.