Guest Post: “Simon Baruch: A Case Study of Acculturation and Assimilation”

In my previous post, I concluded that a deeper exploration of the life of the family patriarch, Simon Baruch (1840-1921), is warranted to better understand why the Baruch family developed the types of relationships they had with other Jews and African Americans in South Carolina.  This shall be the focus of this second installment.

On a micro level, Simon Baruch was the product of the Jewish enlightenment movement known as the Haskalah, his eventual emigration as a young man to the American South during the late Antebellum era; and his participation in a process of acculturation as a result of his medical education and his subsequent involvement in the tumultuous politics of the Civil War and Reconstruction.  More broadly, like other  participants in the Haskalah in Europe, Baruch was likely a staunch supporter of emancipation for all, regardless of creed or race.  Many Central European Jewish immigrants to the northern United States adopted the social values of their new homes, which included a strong central government and free labor.  A similar pattern of acculturation occurred among Jewish immigrants to the American South.  However, it differed due to the region’s emphasis on slavery and states’ rights.  In his autobiography, Bernard Baruch explained that his father’s decision to enlist in the Confederate Army was the “natural, human thing for him to do.”  He claimed that his father, like others who neither owned slaves nor approved of slavery, participated out of allegiance to his adopted state and region.  Moreover, “nearly all of the youths he knew in Camden were enlisting.”  While many joined the Confederate cause in support of slavery, disdain of federal tariff policy, or out of fear of Black emancipation, Simon Baruch did so because of his identity as a southerner.  In order to better understand why he made this decision, and continued to encourage his family’s acculturation after the war, we must examine the socio-cultural environment that shaped his childhood and transition into young adulthood.

Revisiting Simon Baruch

In her biography of Simon Baruch, historian Patricia Ward describes him as an “agnostic and a reformed Jew, less concerned about his Sephardic ancestry than about his role as a citizen in the communities where he later made his home.” However the situation is more complicated than presented by Ward, who largely focuses her attention on Baruch’s career as a physician.  Completely missing is any discussion of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement which aimed to integrate Jews into mainstream European society through practical, secular education and intellectualism during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. A native of Schwersenz in Prussian Silesia, Simon Baruch’s parents were likely influenced by this movement.  For those unfamiliar with this period in Poland’s history, the region became Prussian in 1793 following its partition by Russia and Austria.  Individual Jews and some families had lived in “Swarzedz” for much of the its history but their population did not grow significantly until the seventeenth century, as migrants from German speaking lands to the west arrived in pursuit of economic opportunities in the budding textile industry.  By 1834, six years before Simon Baruch’s birth, the town of Schwersenz had a population of 2,829, of which approximately 60 percent were Jewish.  Thus, when the Haskalah reached Schwersenz in the early nineteenth century, converts were predisposed to its German-Jewish origins and oriented their social and cultural habits accordingly.  This greatly differed from other residents in the region, Polish-Catholics that doggedly clung to their Polish identities in the face of pressure from those who sought the “Germanification” of the region. Overall, the “Germanification” of Swarzedz was successful because its largely Jewish population accepted German culture in every respect, except for religion.  According to historian Tomasz Kamusella, Jews in Silesia became an “almost indistinguishable part of the German nation” due to the influence of the Haskalah.  Over the course of the nineteenth century, the declining economic situation, periodic flooding and disease outbreaks made life difficult for the new arrivals.  Many Jews, such as Simon Baruch, left Schwersenz in pursuit of greener pastures.  Young Simon was also inspired to emigrate to South Carolina by Mannes Baum, a family friend, who wrote glowing reports of life in Camden.  This combination of circumstances inspired the ambitious fifteen-year-old to begin a new life in America.


Simon Baruch young2

This portrait of Simon Baruch (1840-1921), was painted by an unknown artist sometime between 1862 and 1864 while he served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army. The bars on his collar signified medical rank equivalent to that of a captain of calvary.  After the war, Simon Baruch continued to show allegiance to his adopted region by working as a small town doctor in rural Camden.  He also became a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

According to Ward, there are no extant records of Simon Baruch’s early scholastic career at the Freidrich Wilhelm Gymnasium, a Jewish preparatory school in Schwersenz.  While specific details are missing, we can infer some conclusions based on the information provided above.  First, Simon was part of a German-Jewish social milieu that privileged the Haskalah and embraced “Germanization” initiatives in order to claim citizenship in the burgeoning German state.  Embracing one’s minority status and fighting against the current of greater political, social, and economic pressures were alien concepts.  Secondly, Simon’s parents’ decision to enroll him at the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium, an institution that provided a rigorous secular education, revealed the dwindling importance of religious instruction and observance.  Otherwise, he would have been enrolled in a Jewish school.  The few Jewish practices Simon and his family continued to observe were likely performed out of habit and convenience, largely due to their residence in a majority Jewish town.  After migrating to America, Simon Baruch likely displayed a predisposition to both acculturation as a means of claiming citizenship in his adopted home and a diminishing adherence to Jewish religious tradition.

After relocating to South Carolina, Simon Baruch was aided in his acculturation by Mannes Baum. Despite his decision to become a physician rather than a shopkeeper, Baruch followed Baum’s lead and adopted the ways, habits, mannerisms; opinions; and customs of his newly adopted home.  While he never converted to Christianity, Simon became like his neighbors in every other way, just as his parents had in Schwersenz.  Simon’s fortunes were largely determined by where he settled.  If Mannes Baum had lived in the abolitionist north, the Baruch family might have had an entirely different story.  Perhaps Simon Baruch would have found success in the Union Army, supported the emancipation of the enslaved, and created an entirely different weltanschauung for his descendants Bernard and Belle. However, their interest in Judaism probably would have remained the same.  But this we will never know.



Barry Stiefel - Guest Author

Barry L. Stiefel is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation and Community Planning at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of Jewish Sanctuary in the Atlantic World: A Social and Architectural History published by the University of South Carolina Press, for which he received the 2009 Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program Hines Prize for best first book manuscript. He also co-edited Preservation Education: Sharing Best Practices and Finding Common Ground, with University Press of New England.  Stiefel seeks to uncover how local preservation efforts affect regional, national, and multi-national policies within the field of cultural resource management and heritage conservation.  Dr. Stiefel can be reached at or

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