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The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire

Written by Michael T. KaufmanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Michael T. Kaufman

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List Price: $13.99

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On Sale: September 29, 2010
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-307-76592-5
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A penniless émigré who made a fortune and became one of the great philanthropists of the twentieth century, George Soros has led a remarkable life. This biography brings forth his story in unprecedented depth, from his childhood as a Jew in occupied Budapest during World War II to his conquests on Wall Street and the establishment of his philanthropic Open Society foundations. Soros offers exclusive glimpses at an often misunderstood man, revealing a shy character whose own struggle to escape the Nazis left him with the adamant belief that people of the world are entitled to live without the fear of oppression.

Enigmatic, contradictory, and inspiring, George Soros is one of the most intriguing and globally influential men of our time. In this accomplished biography, written with Soros’s cooperation, Michael T. Kaufman fully illuminates the man, his motivations, and his legacy.

Excerpt

chapter 1

Erzebet and Tivadar

In 1985, George Soros arranged for his mother to dictate her recollections and for them to be taped and transcribed. That way his children would have access to them and he would be able to check his own memories against hers. Erzebet Soros was then an eighty-two-year-old widow with failing eyesight who had repeatedly rejected offers by her two very rich sons to house her in a grand style with maids and a driver. She preferred her modest two-room apartment in Manhattan near Columbus Circle, with its mismatched furniture, paintings by Hungarian artist friends, and small African animal carvings. At her death in 1989 she willed the apartment to George Soros's Open Society Institute to be used as accommodations for visitors from overseas who were in New York for brief periods. Though many people have stayed there, the place has remained quite the way it was when she lived in it, shelves filled with dog-eared books in several languages, including works by Kierkegaard, Paul Tillich, and Martin Buber, as well as several Bibles.

In this setting Erzebet recorded her story and that of her family. Her tone was basically reportorial, with very few rhapsodic flights of pride. Instead, with often rich detail, she described how her family had endured the vicissitudes of war, separation, and displacement. She told of the prewar years when the upper-middle-class family pursued an unconventional and bohemian lifestyle. She recounted how, once the Nazis came, she, her husband Tivadar, and their sons, Paul and George, lived under false names and Christian identities. In her down-to-earth chronicle she went on to tell of the time when George, then barely seventeen, escaped from Communist Hungary to a life in the West, with the entire family assuming that they would never again be reunited. Then, as she explained, in 1956, in the wake of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising, she and her husband were able to walk away from their native land to join their sons in New York, where the boys were becoming successful. "So," as she said in her Hungarian-accented English, "that is the story; that is how we loved each other and how we grew."

Though the telling was for the most part as prosaically modest as her apartment, her story clearly had its hero. Over and over, during the months that she talked into the tape recorder, she spoke in worshipful terms of her husband and his profound role in shaping the life of the family, assuring its survival and determining its unfolding destiny through the rearing of his sons. She mentioned how once when George was a child of seven or eight, he had written a poem in which he had portrayed his father, Tivadar, as Zeus, or, as she added, "the father God." The impact of her husband's life upon the family had been so powerful, she declared, that even then, as she was taping her memories years after his death in New York, Tivadar continued to dominate the thoughts and feelings of those he had loved most and who in turn had loved him so intensely.

"George really has now the problem," she said. "I think that is the reason he is going to a shrink, to find out how to get completely rid of his father."

When, fifteen years later, this passage was pointed out to George, he laughed, recalling that at the time, "if anything, I was trying to get rid of my mother." Nevertheless, he conceded that Erzebet's overall point was valid. Tivadar was indeed the central and dominant figure in the saga. It was he who shaped the family, defined its character, and instilled in its members a loyalty to each other that superseded all other identities, whether of a wider family, friends, religion, class, nationality, or citizenship. "There was definitely an awareness that we were different," said Soros. He does not remember the poem he wrote about Zeus, but as he talked at length about his youth, Tivadar emerged both as a loving and innovative father and a Platonic demiurge, a man who, using what life had taught him, prepared his sons for the unpredictable and unforeseen and set everything in motion.

Then on the verge of seventy, George Soros gave the impression that his dialogue with his long-dead father was far from over. During long conversations at his baronial Westchester County estate, he would digress into what appeared to be lifelong musings about Tivadar. "I guess he could be best described by the German word lebenkunstler, or artist of life," he observed. "Was he a strong man or a weak man? Even to this day I am in doubt. On the one hand, he was very strong and this had to do with his First World War experience when he obviously went through very trying times as a prisoner in Siberia and then witnessing the Russian civil war. People were getting killed and he went through hell. Obviously, the very fact that he lived through it may have marked him so powerfully that maybe he didn't want that kind of exposure again. And so he may have bought himself a comfortable life by marrying my mother. Here there was a sense that he had withdrawn, lost ambition."

As Soros weighed such judgments his thoughts moved forward to 1944, the most instructive year of his own adolescence and perhaps of his entire life, when Tivadar, no longer simply an artist of life, drew upon his experiences of Siberian rigors to make sure that his immediate family, as well as many other endangered Hungarian Jews, would escape the Nazis and their Hungarian Arrow Cross henchmen. Here Tivadar had undoubtedly been strong, and his son would later write of that year, when Budapest was in flames and when people like him were being deported or taken to the Danube and shot, that it had been "the happiest of his life," for it had provided him with an opportunity to observe a man he adored and admired act bravely and well.

Clearly, Tivadar has persisted as a dominating presence in George's mind, and on a wintry day in 1999, as he sat in the sun room of his resplendently furnished home, surrounded by paintings by Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, and Childe Hassam, the multibillionaire and pioneering global philanthropist casually found parallels between Tivadar's life and his own, seemingly questioning how he had measured up.

He explained how he had experienced the lowest point in his own life, or his own Siberia, when after leaving Hungary he found himself a seventeen-year-old in England, without money, friends, or likely prospects. "I had the feeling that I had touched bottom, and that I could only rise from there. That is a strong thing. It has also marked me for life, because I don't ever want to be there again. I have a bit of a phobia about having to live through it again. Why do you think I made so much money? I may not feel menaced now but there is a feeling in me that if I were in that position again, or if I were in the position that my father was in in 1944, that I would not actually survive, that I am no longer in condition, no longer in training. I've gotten soft, you know."

Tivadar was born in 1893 into an Orthodox Jewish family, whose name was not Soros but Schwartz, in Nyirbakta, a rural village not far from Hungary's border with Ukraine. His own father had a general store and sold farm equipment. The business prospered, and when Tivadar, the second of eight children, was still quite young the family moved to Nyiregyhaza, the regional center in northeastern Hungary. By giving their oldest son a typically Hungarian name like Tivadar instead of its German equivalent, Teodor, his parents were reflecting the respectful identification that many successful, rising, and assimilating Jews were showing for the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy. Though the family had roots in Jewish piety, by the time Tivadar and his siblings were born, many of its members were becoming less visibly devout. George believes his paternal grandparents spoke Yiddish, and he remembers being amused when as a child he noticed that one of his father's sisters was bald. The traditional wig that as a married Jewish woman she wore over her shaved head had slipped as she dozed on the living room couch while she visited her brother's family in Budapest. Tivadar, who has left separate biographical accounts of his experiences in each of the century's world wars, noted in one of them that his father had lost his religious zeal but that he kept this from his friends and neighbors in the interest of community harmony and continued to regularly attend synagogue.

Tivadar himself grew openly less religious and more assimilated than his brothers and sisters, though he too never broke ties with the more religious part of his family, nor they with him. In Maskerado: Dancing around Death in Nazi Hungary,* a memoir he wrote in Esperanto, Tivadar reflected on his religious beliefs, saying that there were periods in his youth "when the problems of god and religion and of mankind and the universe were foremost in my mind," with the "preoccupation strongest around the age of thirteen." He added that he had been particularly interested in the problem of death and afterlife. However, he added that after much reading, he ultimately concluded that "not only did God make man in his own image, but also man imagines God in his own human way. The anthropomorphic nature of the deity frightened me away from organized religion. Instead of going to services I was happier worrying about human lives. Understanding, a love of people, tolerance-these were the virtues I cultivated." With a touch of self-mockery he added that such tolerance was soon tested since his Erzebet was an "enthusiast for all kinds of religious mysticism."

During the latter part of the nineteenth century Jews in Hungary had grown markedly in numbers, prosperity, and prominence. They fared better under Magyar rule than virtually anywhere else in Europe, and Soros's grandfather Schwartz was among the Jewish merchants who benefited as capitalism and the industrial age continued to alter a fading world of agrarian and feudal values. Though anti-Semitism was hardly unknown, Tivadar grew to manhood in a period of boom in which liberal and tolerant attitudes dominated. He would recall as a child being taunted by cries of "Hep! Hep!" which he was told was an acronym for Hierusolyma est perdita, Latin for "Jerusalem is lost." He also remembered that when he was a boy there was a blood libel case in the nearby town of Tiszaeszlar where Jews were falsely accused of murdering a Christian girl and using her blood for rituals. He could even recall the words of an anti-Semitic song that related to the trial.

Hundred Jews in a row
March on to Hell below
Nathan is the leader
A sack on his shoulder
Hundred Jews in a row.


Yet, while outrages occurred, Jews were at the same time entering almost all levels of Hungarian society, and by the late 1880s they were significantly represented in all the professions. Many of the country's industrialists, the so-called magnates, were of Jewish origin, though among these a large percentage had converted to Christianity. Alone among Central and Eastern European countries, Hungary had even elevated some Jews to noble status, raising a number of the magnates and even a rabbi to the rank of baron and seating them in the upper house of the legislature. The upsurge of remarkably capable Hungarian Jews in this period is perhaps best reflected in the realm of science, where Jews of Tivadar's generation were soon to achieve international fame. Among the best known of these were the mathematician John von Neumann, who among other things helped to establish the computer age, and the nuclear physicists Leo Szilard and Edward Teller, whose work led to the development of both the atomic and the hydrogen bombs. Similar high accomplishments in the humanities, the social sciences, the professions, commerce, and industry by Hungarians of Jewish origin have been the subject of much academic scrutiny of a kind that is succinctly expressed in the title of a highly intriguing and illuminating book by William O. McCagg Jr., Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary.

Whether Tivadar Schwartz of Nyiregyhaza as a young man might have qualified as one such potential "Jewish genius" is moot, but certainly he was very bright and gifted, showing both promise and ambition. His father, having moved the family and his business from rural hamlet to regional center, realized his eldest son's capabilities and singled him out to receive a university education. He was even willing to invest the tuition and boarding fees to send Tivadar to Sarospatak, a prestigious and elitist private boarding school that had been founded by Protestant churchmen in 1698. From Sarospatak, Tivadar went on to study law at the university in Cluj, in what was then Hungarian Transylvania. He traveled in Central Europe and spent some time auditing courses at Heidelberg. By all family accounts he was hard-working and eager to make a notable career.

Then in 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist terrorist, shot and killed the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. By August all the European powers were at war, and very shortly thereafter Tivadar, who was twenty years old and still in university, enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army. He would later write that he did not take up arms in any spasm of patriotism but rather because of his belief that the war would prove to be a worthwhile adventure and that he felt he had better hurry because it would probably end quickly. It is also likely he calculated that volunteering would prove advantageous for his future legal career. As things turned out, he was wrong in all his assumptions.

He was commissioned as the lowest ranking of officers. At first, in the trenches on the eastern front, he had time to read law books and even supplied a few dispatches for Hungary's major news agency. He occasionally returned home on leave, and on one of these visits he called upon the family of his father's second cousin, Mor Szucz, in Budapest. It was not a particularly memorable visit for him, but the Szuczses' daughter, Erzebet, had reason to remember it. After Tivadar left she claimed she had fallen in love with him. He presumably wore his uniform. She was then eleven years old.


From the Hardcover edition.
Michael T. Kaufman

About Michael T. Kaufman

Michael T. Kaufman - Soros

Photo © Librado Romero

Michael T. Kaufman spent close to forty years at The New York Times as a reporter, foreign correspondent, columnist, and editor. He has won the George Polk Award for foreign reporting and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship. This is his sixth book. Born in Paris, he lives in Manhattan with his wife.
Praise

Praise

“A fascinating account of one of the great men of our times.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Masterly . . . [Kaufman] is a likable and intelligent narrator who writes with both insight and compassion.” –The Washington Post Book World

“A flinty-eyed exposition of a brilliant capitalist, devoted provocateur, and accidental humanitarian. You come away believing it is possible to be a really rich man and a really good man after all.” –The New York Times

“Kaufman excels at dissecting and explaining Soros's psychological makeup.” –Salon

“Kaufman’s biography of Soros meets a higher truth standard than most . . . A compelling narrative notable for its candor and breadth.” –The Plain Dealer

“What’s memorable about Kaufman’s biography is its exploration of Soros as a man who satisfied his contemplative side not by making money but by finding visionary ways to spend it.” –Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“The enthralling story of an extraordinary individual. . . . Rewarding reading on several levels–as an adventure story, as food for serious philosophical speculation, and as a peek into the world of high financial wheeling and dealing.” –Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Surprisingly even-handed. . . . A thoughtful analysis on the complex intersection of wealth and compassion.”–Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Engaging. . . .To call Soros complex is an understatement. . . . Clearly written and thoroughly researched.” –San José Mercury News

“A fascinating book about an exceedingly complicated and competitive man.” –The Jewish Advocate

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