Life of richest Pole to have ever lived after he won 774 kilos of gold in a casino is explored in riveting new book
Challenged to name a wealthy Pole, by default most people would think of names such as Kulczyk or Sołowow.
But, as a new book by Wacław Holewiński reveals, their fortunes shrink into insignificance when compared to that of Karol Jaroszyński.
Regarded as the richest Pole that ever lived, Jaroszyński was born in Kyiv in 1878. A sugar factory owner by profession, his father was briefly imprisoned in Kyiv for surreptitiously funding insurgents involved in the January Uprising.
Dying when his son was just seven, much of his father’s money was bequeathed to Karol. Although this was not an inconsiderable amount, it was still far off what he would later acquire.
“He became the richest Pole in history, no-one can compare to him,” says Holewiński, author of ‘Being a shadow, I became a shadow’ (Cieniem będąc cieniem zostałem).
“There were only a few dozen people who had such wealth in the world. Even today, the very richest Pole would have the equivalent of only 20 percent of what Jaroszyński enjoyed.”
A high-living bon vivant, his youth was characterised by wild spending and long nights in Europe’s most glamorous casinos. As obscene as his losses were, they were ultimately offset by a gigantic win in 1909.
Almost literally breaking the bank of Monte Carlo, it was then that he won 774 kilos of gold at the roulette table. At a stroke, everything changed.
Able to pay off the debts that he had racked up, he bought a villa in Monte Carlo and then set off on his path to staggering wealth. Not content with resting on his laurels, Jaroszyński took out further loans and reinvested the money.
A risktaker by nature, he became the paragon of the ‘speculate to accumulate’ mantra. Continuously leveraging his assets and holdings to get loans to acquire more, his acumen was equalled only by his luck.
Although he controlled 30 percent of the Russian Empire’s sugar market by 1914, his world was far from the financial Eden that it may have seemed; behind the scenes, spiraling costs threatened the collapse of his business interests.
Incredibly, he was saved by the outbreak of WWI. No other private entity conducted more business with the Russian army than Jaroszyński’s businesses.
Gaining him access to the Imperial court, at one stage it even looked like he could marry one of the Tsar’s daughters. “This would have been unprecedented at the time,” says Holewiński, “but the immensity of his wealth all made this possible.”
These were not the only doors that were open to him. Whilst his somewhat reckless nature lent him something of a playboy reputation, he was also intensely socially aware.
He bankrolled dozens of Polish orphanages, set up scholarship funds and played an integral role in the foundation of the university in Lublin. Likewise, he was a key driver behind the creation of a Polish army based in Russia.
Wacław Podhorski, writes: “Modest in everyday life, he was burdened with the atavistic need to gamble. His attitude towards employees was also interesting. He was concerned about their lot, which he always tried to improve, even at the cost of the profitability of his enterprises.
“I never heard of him refusing to help anyone, and his generosity was always matched by his delusions of grandeur. I have never heard that he hurt anyone, but he did a lot of good, which he never boasted about”
As the war ground on, he found himself taking up opposition to the Bolsheviks and was eventually forced to flee his principal residence in St. Petersburg.
Although he often billed himself as “the Russian Vanderbilt”, Jaroszyński simultaneously saw himself as a Polish patriot. When the Polish state was reformed, he served as the financial advisor to Józef Piłsudski.
The good times, though, were coming to an end. The main shareholder of Bank Towarowy, he lived in Warsaw’s Sobański Palace, yet he struggled to emulate his previous successes.
Largely, this was attributed to his reluctance to work with German and Jewish bankers, many of whom he was suspicious of on account of their perceived opposition to the Imperial Russian state.
Unable to secure the kind of loans needed to rebuild the banking empire he had lost in Russia, his financial influence rapidly diminished. Once the largest sugar factory owner in the world, his relevance was now a shadow of what it once was.
Worse was to follow. Attending the Paris Opera, a bid was made on his life by a Bolshevik assassin. Stabbed with a poisoned needle, he survived but would be racked with ill health thereafter.
“He had good ideas for Poland’s economy,” says Holewiński, “but he wasn’t the right man for the time. He was a firm man, and when people did not accept his ideas he managed to alienate them.”
Briefly moving to France and then Italy, he returned to Poland in 1926 having directed much of his remaining money to Lublin University.
Taking a small apartment on Warsaw’s Smocza street, he died in 1929 of typhoid fever and was buried in a modest grave at the city’s Powązki Cemetery.
Something of an ignominious end for the man that broke the bank at Monte Carlo, only now is history recognising the staggering story of Karol Jaroszyński.