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The Most Generous Giver

The Most Generous Giver

| March 21, 2024

The 162nd wealthiest man. The “most generous giver” (Forbes). A survivor of the Holocaust. The target of an assassination attempt. Who in the world are we talking about?

His name is George Soros, and he is a Hungarian-American billionaire residing in New York. If you’ve heard of him, it’s likely in a political context, and possibly not in the most favorable terms. His strong liberal views and Jewish heritage make him a frequent target of attacks. But if we take a step back from any preconceived notions about this investor, political figure, and hedge fund manager and view him as a person like you and me, you may learn a thing or two—whether you agree with him on everything or nothing.

Early Years

George Soros was born György Schwartz to a non-practicing, middle-upper class Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary. It was the year 1930, and at that time Budapest was a safe haven for Jews from all over Europe. This continued for the most part up until the forties, as tensions rose and the Nazi regime grew in strength and scope.

Soros was thirteen years old, just entering his teenage years, when the Nazis began to occupy Hungary. The Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend school with everyone else, and instead were employed to unknowingly hand out deportation papers to their fellow Jews in the community. Soros’ father, Tivadar, saw the papers and knew immediately what they were, and he warned Soros to tell all the Jews he gave them to that if they were to report, they would be deported. One can only imagine how much Tivadar knew about the situation; did he know that being deported was literally a death sentence, a one-way ticket to a gas chamber?

The Soros family was able to buy false documentation identifying them as Christians, and they helped other Jews to do the same. Despite his complicated relationship with his father, Soros later said about that year that it was “the happiest of his life”, because he had the opportunity to see the hero inside his father (Kaufman, 2002, p. 5). 

Soros was still in Budapest in 1945 during the infamous siege of Budapest, which is considered one of the deadliest sieges of the war. Imagine being just fourteen years old and hiding for your life while countless others lose theirs in the door-to-door battle between the German and Soviet forces.

He endured terrible horrors during the war and after it. In his later teen years, he wanted to go abroad, and his father realized that the opportunity to be able to leave might close soon due to the Iron Curtain. So after diligence and patience, Soros was able to acquire a passport and visa, and left his family for Britain at 17.

Strangely, in looking back at these two different periods, he speaks of the life-threatening circumstances in Hungary as exciting and adventurous, but the times of safety in Britain as dismal and lonely. He was allowed to stay with distant relatives there, but they didn’t welcome him. He didn’t speak English well, and he struggled to adjust to a “normal” life again. He thought people would be interested in him and his exciting experiences, but they didn’t seem to care at all.

He said that the exclusion he felt was more traumatic than the anti-Semitic insults back home, and he described the reason why: “I knew about that kind of insult, but then I had never wanted to be friends with Nazis or Hungarian anti-Semites. Being excluded, and trying to break into a closed society as an outsider, that was new and painful” (Kaufman, 2002, p. 56).

Money was tight as well, and he worked menial jobs to survive. Picking pears, waiting tables, and working as a railway porter were just some of the tasks he took on.

Still, London brought one good thing into his life: he received his education, eventually ending up at the London School of Economics, which started him down the path of becoming a billionaire.

At LSE he was introduced to Karl Popper, a famous philosopher who is known for his support of a liberal democracy. The principles of his philosophy deeply affected Soros, and he applied them in his business from then on.

The Path to Becoming the Soros We Know

In 1954, Soros worked as a bank clerk in London, and later in the arbitrage department. That led him to New York, where he would work as an arbitrage trader.

He planned on saving up money and moving back to Britain to continue his studies in philosophy. Life rarely follows our plans, however, and he ended up starting his first hedge fund in 1969, called Double Eagle, which later became the Soros Fund and then the Quantum Fund. The rest was history, as they say, since that fund became the most successful hedge fund in history. Since its beginning, it has generated a total of $40 billion.

In his investment career, Soros has taken many risks, and has used the knowledge he has accumulated to ascertain some pivotal events, such as Black Wednesday in 1992. This led him to being called “the man who broke the Bank of England”, and he made over a billion dollars from this bet.

Philanthropy

Soros isn’t tight-fisted with his money; he was deemed by Forbes as “the most generous giver”, when comparing his net worth to the amount he has given away. In the past four decades, he has donated $32 billion, $19 billion of which has been distributed already. That is three times his net worth of $6.7 billion.

What does this money go toward? The majority of it has been put into his Open Society Foundation, linking back to Karl Popper’s philosophy of liberal democracy. In over one hundred countries, his foundation supports justice, equality, and human rights.

His first act of philanthropy was in 1979, when he gave scholarships to Black students under apartheid in South Africa. He has also supported the Roma people in Europe, who have faced tremendous prejudice. And after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he founded a school in his hometown of Budapest called Central European University, with the goal of promoting critical thinking to those who had been heavily affected by their environment.

In 2009, Soros donated $35 million to New York for underprivileged children and their families. In more recent years, he has made many donations to colleges, and to support civil and human rights groups.

Surprising and Lesser-Known Facts

  • George Soros was born only eighteen days before Warren Buffett, another famous American billionaire, on August 12, 1930.
  • In 2023, Soros gave his son Alex control of his $25 billion empire. Alex is the fourth of his five children, so it took many by surprise that he was chosen by Soros.
  • Soros had a brother named Paul, known as “the invisible Soros” (New York Times) . He, too, was a businessman and financier. The brothers’ relationship was rocky in their early years, but they reconnected in New York and continued to be close until Paul’s death in 2013.
  • In 2018, a pipe bomb was found in Soros’ mailbox in New York, and it was taken care of before hurting anybody. Soon after, bombs were sent to others with similar political views, such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. A man from Florida was convicted of these assassination attempts. He had sent out sixteen bombs to thirteen people, and thankfully none of them detonated.
  • Tivadar, his father, was a well-known Esperanto author, and taught his sons to speak the language. Esperanto was created in the late 1800s to be used as an international secondary language, and although it didn’t succeed in its mission, it is still around today. It currently has around 2 million speakers, which is the most for any constructed language (one that has not come about naturally), and continues to grow, thanks to online language-learning sites like Duolingo. 

A Complex Man

There’s no denying that George Soros has had quite the eventful ninety-some-odd years. From a comfortable childhood to wartime horrors to moving to another country as a minor to becoming a billionaire, it was anything but uneventful. As far as what your opinion of him should be, that’s entirely up to you. But one thing’s for sure: figures in the media are rarely as black-and-white as they’re made out to be.

Sources:

Georgesoros.com

Wikipedia.org

Britannica.com 

CNBC.com

Encyclopedia.ushmm.org

Sharpenyouraxe.com 

NYTimes.com 

Kaufman, M. T. (2002). Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire