The Gunzburg family. Evzel Gunzburg
In the 1850s-1860s, Evzel Gabrielevich Gunzburg became the most influential and respected leader of the St. Petersburg community, as well as all of Russian Jewry. He was born in Vitebsk in 1812 and received a traditional Jewish education. A tax-farmer in the early 1840s, Evzel Gunzburg succeeded in amassing considerable capital and establishing numerous contacts in the Russian bureaucracy. As soon as the state monopoly on the banking business was abolished, Gunzburg founded a private commercial bank in Kiev, then the Discount Bank in Odessa and later the Discount and Loan bank in St. Petersburg. In 1859, Evzel Gunzburg established the banking house "I.E. Gunzburg" in St. Petersburg and from this time on the life and works of the Gunzburgs were connected with St. Petersburg.
Gunzburg was much respected by the public authorities. During the reign of Nicholas I his father, Gabriel Gunzburg, was awarded a hereditary honorary citizenship even while the Emperor rejected the overwhelming majority of petitions. Banking allowed Evzel Gunzburg to establish business and personal relations with Prince Alexander of Hessen, a brother of the Russian Empress Maria Alexandrovna, who at that time was in the service of the Russian government. His son Horace Gunzburg performed the duties of the Hessen consul in Petersburg without pay. This service brought him, and later his father Evzel Gunzburg, the title of Baron of Hessen. In 1874 Alexander II legalized it as a hereditary title, but the Gunzburgs still did not obtain the rank of Russian noblemen.
A major philanthropist, Evzel Gunzburg in 1856 set up a fund to enable the Ministry of State Property to support Jewish farmers. In 1857 he established a scholarship for Jewish students at the Medico-Surgical Academy. He also made generous contributions to the St. Petersburg community. Evzel Gunzburg resolutely upheld the preservation of Jewish traditions in combination with secular education and vocational training (handicrafts and agriculture). He was one of the promoters of the Society for the Spread of Education among Jews in Russia (OPE). On his initiative, the czarist government granted permission for construction of the first synagogue in Petersburg.
Thanks to his contacts in government circles, he successfully petitioned to expand the rights of Jews. Thus, merchants of the 1st guild, university graduates and handicraftsmen were allowed to reside throughout the Empire. He also achieved equality for Jews in respect to military duty. Evzel Gunzburg died in Paris in 1878. According to his will, his inheritance would pass to his sons only if they retained Russian citizenship and their fathers' faith. Gunzburg willed considerable amounts to charities and the establishment of Jewish agricultural settlements on his land.