In recent years, scholars of Jewish history have (re-) discovered the Jewish economic encounter as an area with considerable potential to shed light on processes of societal integration or segregation, cultural transformation, and communal development. A prominent focus was trade networks as a core element in the functioning of a transnational Jewish community, and the interactions between Jewish and non-Jewish mercantile elites. The volume reviewed here, a translation of the doctoral dissertation of the author published in Hebrew in 2006, shifts the focus to the economic alliance between Polish-Lithuanian Jews and one magnate family, the Radziwiłłs, as it unfolded between the late 17th century and the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century. The core matters are well described in historical scholarship: the close cooperation of the Polish-Lithuanian aristocracy with Jewish leaseholders, their central role in the production and sale of alcohol (the so-called propinacja), the impressive demographic growth of Jewish communities on privately owned estates, the prominent role of Jews in wholesale and retail trade. The innovative, indeed pioneering achievement of this study is its review of the case of one latifundium, the estates of the Radziwiłł family, as reflected in the family's archive, by far the largest accessible archive of its kind.
As the author emphasizes on several occasions, the Radziwiłł—whose subsequent leading members are briefly introduced at the beginning—were not unique in their economic cooperation with Jews, but their archive offers unique insights into the unfolding of this cooperation, motivated by the objective to increase monetary revenue from the latifundium. In the first chapter, the author demonstrates that the considerable demographic growth of Jewish communities on the vast Radziwiłł estates—the estates owned by this family contained up to two thousand villages and urban settlements—was clearly the result of this strategy. The second chapter reflects the occupational structure of small and larger urban settlements, with Jews prominent in trade and lease holding. The third chapter very briefly introduces the framework in which revenues were extracted from the estates: direct management, mortgage, the leasing of estates or of monopoly rights: the propinacja, milling, and customs and duties.
Among these, the leasing of estates would be the least popular among Jews, as it pitted the leaseholder against peasants, Christian town dwellers, as well as the lower ranks of the nobility. The remarkable case of the Ickowicz brothers, described in the following, gripping chapter, illustrates the remarkable wealth and position of power that such a role provided, but also the suspicion, jealousy, and conflict it provoked. Perhaps the most stunning quote in the whole volume is a note of Hieronim Florian Radziwiłł to Shmuel Ickowicz stemming from the early 1740s: “Even though I gave orders to write you a letter of reproach, treasurer, I am doing so only for appearance's sake, so that people will not be suspicious” (237n172). It reflects both the extraordinary position of trust of one of the brothers, gained through ruthless and sustained efforts to maximize income from the estates for the landlord, and the need of the magnate to demonstrate his independence.
The author convincingly argues that for most Jewish entrepreneurs, however, the leasing of more modest monopoly rights would offer sufficient economic opportunities, ranging from general leases of such rights, which would then be farmed out to sub-contractors, to modest leases, such as in the form of a tavern. The last chapter is devoted to a comprehensive discussion of the role of Jews in the export of the estates' products—which was of secondary relevance—as well as their prominent role in local commerce. In this area, Jewish merchants were indispensable not in the least due to their ability to adapt more quickly to changing market conditions. The author includes a discussion of the sustained success of some Jewish women traders.
Beyond an impressive analysis of the Radziwiłł family archive, this study carefully integrates the existing older scholarship with the more recent, both Polish and international. While emphasizing the supreme power of the aristocratic landlord, the author offers fascinating examples of the often considerable room to maneuver enjoyed by Jewish entrepreneurs. The volume, of great benefit for the expert reader, will also complement academic reading lists in European economic history as well as European Jewish social and economic history.