Interview with 1880 Society Member, Nadia Guth Biasini
If ORT founder Horace de Gunzburg were to look down today on the organization which, together with Nikolai Bakst and Samuel Poliakov, he established 140 years ago, he would be proud not only that ORT continues to succeed in its mission to support Jewish communities into meaningful employment; but also that his own family continues to play such an important role.
Nadia Guth Biasini is a great-great granddaughter of Horace de Gunzburg. “I grew up with ORT, hearing about its history and learning about its important achievements,” recalls Nadia, who is based in Basel, Switzerland.
The Gunzburg family became linked with the Dreyfus family in 1923 when Nadia’s grandmother Vera, who had been born in ORT’s birthplace of St Petersburg but who fled to Paris after the 1917 Revolution, married Paul Dreyfus. The two set up home in Basel, where the Dreyfus family’s banking services had already been in business for over a century, having been established by Isaac Dreyfus-Bernheim in 1813.
2013 was the bank’s bicentenary and, to mark the occasion, the Isaac Dreyfus-Bernheim Foundation was created, with its aim to pursue charitable, humanitarian, cultural, educational and scientific goals.
In the past seven years the Foundation has supported several social causes in the community. It is a champion of museums and exhibitions, in the fields of the arts and of history. Exhibitions dedicated to the Im Obersteg Collection (Picasso, Chagall, Jawlensky), to 1,000 years of the Basel Cathedral, a retrospective of Isa Genzken, as well as a spectacular exhibition by contemporary artist Raphael Hefti were all supported by the Foundation. In addition, concerts and recitals as well as performances and events in contemporary music are central to the Foundation’s aims. Although the Foundation mainly endorses initiatives in Basel and Switzerland, it is also present in Israel and elsewhere.
The Isaac Dreyfus-Bernheim Foundation also facilitates selected scientific research projects – particularly the search for a cure for rare illnesses which affect children and currently also in the field of virology.
Nadia herself is very involved, currently responsible for developing the Jewish Museum of Switzerland and active on the Board of the Basel Conservatory, the Musikakademie, as well as serving as President of the Associazione Concorso Chitarristico Internazionale Maurizio Biasini, a guitar competition and festival established in 2011 by Nadia in memory of her late husband, himself an accomplished classical guitar player. Nadia also supports causes in Israel, including being on the Swiss Board of Keren Hayesod, a governor of the Hebrew University and a supporter of World ORT Kadima Mada’s Smart Classrooms project. As a member of the Foundation’s board of trustees she oversees its support of ORT projects, which today focuses mainly on the former Soviet Union.
“I first became personally involved on a visit to the region some years ago, where I visited projects in Vilnius and Kaunas, Lithuania, in Odessa, Ukraine and in Kishinev, Moldova.” Having previously visited Russia in 1981 Nadia had seen first-hand the extremely difficult conditions under which Jewish communities and individuals lived, and had provided the limited support possible on the visit, which extended as far as ironing patches for blue-jean jackets: “at that time it was definitely important for the Jews in the region that they knew that we knew of them and their hardships”.
As the region opened up, more opportunity arose to provide far more practical support to the FSU’s Jewish communities: “it was and is very important for us to support schools which focus on educating their children through a pedagogy and teaching which focuses on the child and is at the same time keeping up with the requirements of today. This is not always guaranteed and we want to ensure that students’ talents are nurtured and developed”. School education is not the only consideration for Nadia and the Foundation, however: “we also understand the importance of professional training, as well as the urgent need to rebuild Jewish backgrounds through the children – otherwise it will be impossible to return to traditional Jewish community life”.
Today the Foundation generously supports projects in Russia, in Ukraine (in schools in Kiev, Odessa and Zaporozhe) and in Moldova. Thanks to this support, students in Kishinev are provided with safe transportation to and from school, ensuring that those who need to travel daily a long distance from their home (up to 80km round trips per day) are able to do so in comfort and security. In Ukraine, the Foundation’s support enables the schools’ best teachers to receive supplemental salaries to run a wide range of extra-curricular STEM programs and supportive services to the students. This helps incentivize the teachers to maintain high standards and to remain at the school despite the temptation of better salaries in private schools; it ensures that students receive the best quality education, helping them to achieve high academic grades and to excel in regional, national and international competitions; and it helps raise the reputation of the schools in the region. All these benefits combined also ensure that the ORT schools remain the best choice for local Jewish families.
“I felt that it was really important to help Kishinev after visiting and seeing how necessary our support was,” Nadia confirms. “As for Ukraine, the involvement is more personal as parts of my family come from Kiev and the region. It means a lot to be able to provide support.”
The Covid-19 crisis has of course affected the Foundation’s projects, with several cultural events postponed to a later date and a potential family visit to the family’s roots in Kiev and Kamenetz Podolsk put on hold. However, Nadia is looking forward to the Foundation’s continued close work with ORT. “We do feel Russian! We had the good luck and grace to survive and to be able to remain tied to our roots. And it is fantastic that ORT schools are still important 140 years after its founding and have been able to return to the FSU, helping to rebuild Jewish communities through the school system and professional training. We feel very connected and want to continue what our ancestors started.”