Letters to Camondo 
by Edmund de Waal.
Chatto, 182 pp., £14.99, April, 978 1 78474 431 1
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The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France 
by James McAuley.
Yale, 301 pp., £25, March, 978 0 300 23337 7
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In​ 2016, Theresa May told the Conservative Party Conference: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means.’ This characterisation was not – rightly not – considered antisemitic, merely an appeal to the autochthonic Brexiter mentality. But it taps into a long history of such sly phrases. A hundred and fifty years ago, we would have known what it meant. Another way of cloaking the same sentiment was ‘cosmopolitan’ – or, more forcefully, ‘rootless cosmopolitan’. In France, antisemitism was far more blatant. In the Paris of the 1870s, the diarist Edmond de Goncourt complained that even the grandest salons had become ‘infested with Jews and Jewesses’. Worse still, these infesters were charming the people Goncourt most looked up to. He particularly hated Charles Ephrussi, an art critic and collector – and a cousin of Edmund de Waal’s great-grandfather. Ephrussi had become the chosen companion of Princesse Mathilde, niece of Napoleon I and herself a collector, albeit of writers and artists. Goncourt biliously referred to him as a ‘mahout to guide her through life’. ‘It is an unforgettable image,’ Edmund de Waal wrote in The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). ‘The formidable, aged princess in her black, an elephantine presence rather like Queen Victoria, and this young man in his twenties, able to guide her with the merest of suggestions, of touch.’

The Ephrussis (grain) had come to Paris from Odessa via Vienna. Their friends the Camondos (banking) had come from Venice via Constantinople. The two families lived a few doors apart on the rue de Monceau in the eighth arrondissement, overlooking the English-style Parc Monceau. It was a street of golden-stoned houses where many elite Jewish families owned or built their own mansions. The park, according to one rancid journalist of the time, was where you could watch ‘the female “illustrations” of “La Haute Finance” and “La Haute Colonie Israëlite” promenade’. ‘Monceau’ was slang for nouveau riche, just as ‘le goût Rothschild’ was shorthand for slathering everything in gold.

It was Charles Ephrussi who at some point in the 1870s bought the collection of netsuki that formed a main thread of The Hare with Amber Eyes. Eleven years later, de Waal has returned to the rue de Monceau, to the interlinked and intermarrying Jewish families, whose exact connections are sometimes hard to follow: as he acknowledges, their family tree resembles a spider’s web. And that’s before considering how you should indicate a long-standing adultery between Husband A and Wife B, such as that between Charles Ephrussi and Louise Cahen d’Anvers. Perhaps, de Waal suggests, with a red line?

De Waal’s Letters to Camondo begins at 63 rue de Monceau, built by Moïse de Camondo in 1911 and since 1936 the Musée Nissim de Camondo. This is the same opening-point chosen by James McAuley for The House of Fragile Things. Both books also end in the same way: by tracing the fate of Renoir’s famous if winsome 1880 portrait of the eight-year-old Irène Cahen d’Anvers, who was later to marry Moïse de Camondo. The two writers tell essentially the same story of the Ephrussis and Reinachs, Rothschilds and Cahen d’Anvers: de Waal more narrowly, McAuley more widely. Both concentrate on the houses that were built and the collections they contained. Both lay out a story of seeping prejudice, harassment and persecution until the final tragedy of the French zealously deporting their Jews in far larger numbers and with much greater efficiency than the Germans had expected. Both reproduce identity cards issued at Drancy prison camp in 1942: drab, bureaucratic items which over the decades have gathered enormous emotional power. They are marked, with a typewriter’s authority, ‘à ne pas libérer’.

Renoir’s ‘Mlle Irène Cahen d’Anvers’ (1880)

This is a bizarre publishing coincidence, which must have made McAuley’s spirits sink; this is his first book and he has spent ten years on it. But for the potential reader, it is not an either/or so much as a plus/and. The two writers are different in their approaches and researches. De Waal is a deep insider writing a series of familiar and familial letters to Moïse de Camondo, addressing him as ‘Friend’, ‘Dear friend’, ‘Monsieur’, ‘Cher Monsieur’, ‘Mon cher Monsieur’ and even ‘Monsieur le Comte’. His manner is softly prowling, whether inside or outside the house and its archives; his tone is intimate, melancholic, speculative, at times whimsical. At the end he sternly resists any idea of ‘closure’ about the disasters of 1941-45. On the contrary, he argues, the past and its wounds must be kept open. James McAuley’s book is the work of an American outsider, who has been diligent in many archives. It is a well-judged investigation, and generally well-written, except for lapses into theoretical jargon perhaps obligatory when the book began its life as a doctoral thesis. But neither work excludes or diminishes the other.

For instance, a central moment in the story is the death of Nissim de Camondo, Moïse’s only son. He was a reconnaissance pilot, shot down behind German lines in September 1917 and buried along with his photographer-cum-gunner in a small cemetery at Avricourt in Lorraine. De Waal and McAuley both describe Moïse’s violent grief and quote Proust’s letter of pre-condolence (after Nissim was reported missing but before he was confirmed dead). De Waal describes the 268 letters and cards the son sent to his father; also, the (now beautiful) two-metre-long reconnaissance photographs in the Camondo archive. The house has become his shrine (de Waal mentions that nissim is Hebrew for ‘miracle’). McAuley adds to the story and the lineaments of grief. Moïse established that his son’s body lay in ‘row eight, place five’ of the Avricourt cemetery. But even after the Armistice, France wouldn’t allow the disinterment of its war dead. So in January 1919 Moïse engaged a local schoolteacher – for an unspecified sum – to exhume the coffin, presumably after dark, store it in his house, and arrange for its onward transportation to Paris. Moïse, McAuley writes, ‘was a consummate collector and he pursued his son’s remains with more vigour than any other object he ever sought … He seemed to approach this mission with the exacting precision he used to investigate all his acquisitions … Possession was the dream of any collector.’ This seems at least a little over-interpretative; it’s hard to imagine that Moïse thought the jewel in the crown of his collection was his son’s body.

The French Revolution gave Jews full citizenship (they had been the largest minority in the country during the 18th century). The first Rothschilds arrived in 1815, and after 1870 there was much civic advancement for Jews, in administration, politics and the military. The historian Pierre Birnbaum has calculated that there were 25 Jewish generals, 34 Jewish judges and 42 Jewish prefects in the period to 1945. De Waal quotes Philo of Alexandria to the effect that Jews considered their ‘real fatherland’ to be the country they inhabited. Nineteenth-century elite French Jews were fous de la République. They also distinguished themselves from the influx of Jews from Eastern Europe, who were more Zionist in tendency, and whom they feared might undermine their social position. They were hardly immune from snobbery, either. In July 1917, Nissim de Camondo was in Vichy, recovering from appendicitis, where he ran into Jacques Séligmann, his father’s old friend and principal antique dealer. Séligmann insisted on introducing everyone he knew at the hotel: Nissim described them in a letter as ‘all fourth-class Jews with German accents or, by contrast, exotic princes with ridiculous names … as for their wives, it’s best not to mention them because, despite their respectable age, they are all dressed in sky blue or pale pink.’

The period saw a weakening of Judaism and its obligations, especially in private life. There was much marrying-out – Nissim had been planning just that – and even divorcing. Attempting to counter this moral drift, Hermann Reinach established a ‘Reinach dowry’ given to any ‘young French-Jewish woman who married an especially prominent Jewish man, all in the name of inspiring a Jewish “regeneration” at all levels of French society’. It was an uphill task. Moïse Camondo’s experience may not have been typical, but it was indicative. In October 1891 he married Irène Cahen d’Anvers. It was a union of two great banking families, both vastly rich. The dowry came in at more than a million francs. Le tout Paris Israëlite was at the Grande Synagogue in the rue de la Victoire and the couple processed out to the strains of Lohengrin. Moïse was 31, Irène only 19; he had grown up in Constantinople, whereas she was, McAuley notes, ‘a quintessential Parisienne’. They had an eight-month honeymoon in Cannes, and produced a son and daughter in quick succession. Then everything fell apart and Irène started an affair with her riding instructor (nowadays it would be the tennis coach). After six years of marriage the couple separated; five years after that they divorced, in the course of which Irène converted to Catholicism. The riding instructor happened to be a count. She sued for custody of their daughter, Béatrice, and failed. The children grew up, Nissim was killed, Béatrice married, and Moïse spent his last decades growing old alone in a house with fourteen servants and countless inanimate treasures. This would probably not have been his life had he stayed in Constantinople.

If elite Jews were now behaving more Frenchly, it did not in any way reinforce their Frenchness in the eyes of others. While the most overt and toxic expressions of antisemitism were Paris-based, antisemitism was endemic across the country and in most classes of society. The differing political settlements of the Revolution, Napoleon and the Third Republic hadn’t solved anything in this regard. One of the most forgotten passages of French history was described by Birnbaum in The Antisemitic Moment: A Tour of France in 1898 (2003). From January to October of that year – with legislative elections falling in the middle – a convulsion of antisemitism seized France. No major population centre was spared (not even those without Jews). There were riots and demonstrations; the journalist Édouard Drumont and Jules Guérin, founder of the Ligue antisémitique, toured the country stirring up hatred. The arms manufacturer Goyot produced, especially for Guérin’s supporters, the ‘anti-Jewish cane’, an oak staff with a lead or steel head, ‘very heavy … a terrible weapon’, in the words of one police report. The Catholic Church disgraced itself; one affiliated organisation laid out its position in an advisory tract called The Seven Deadly Sins of France:

Through their perfidious mutual accord, the Freemasons, the Protestants and the Jews are truly the Devil’s Pitchfork … It is therefore obvious that God, Catholicism and Christian France are their common enemy.

As another Catholic organisation put it: ‘Candidates will have to run [for office] while making the sign of the cross.’ In Rouen, lists of local Jews were handed out on the steps of churches. Astonishingly, no one was killed (in Birnbaum’s phrase, it was ‘a pogrom without fatalities’) and civil authority, including the police and the army, held firm. One immediate consequence, however, was the establishment of a noisy parliamentary group of official antisemites.

In the face of accusations of otherness, you can try – as Nissim de Camondo did – to prove your Frenchness and patriotism by fighting for your country, and even dying for it. Many Jews greeted conscription as meaning that they were finally emancipated and integrated. (There was a similar hopefulness on the German side, and German war cemeteries in northern France feature Jewish gravestones side by side with ‘German’ ones.) There were many serving Jewish doctors and nurses, and behind the lines, rich Jews turned their houses into military hospitals. Dreyfus, now pardoned and restored to his rank, saw front-line combat on the Chemin des Dames; he was then in his fifties.

But even dying for your country didn’t confer authenticity. You live in a house built in the same Trianon style as those of French connoisseurs such as Boni de Castellane or Robert de Montesquiou, but are seen as merely imitating them. Your collection specialises in the again fashionable 18th century – you are sequestrating the French patrimony. (Angst about ‘cultural usurpation’ was a pre-echo of the current ‘great replacement’ paranoia.) No one complains when you commission Renoir to paint your daughters or collect the work of Degas – not even the two antisemitic artists themselves – because their works are not yet part of the patrimony. But then there are public cultural events when the facts fall perfectly for those who hate you. In 1896, two years after the Dreyfus scandal began, one of the greatest treasures of the ancient world, the golden tiara of Saitaphernes, was bought by the Louvre for the vast sum of 200,000 francs. The acquisition was achieved mainly at the insistence of two of the three Reinach brothers, who provided both connoisseurship and money. The only problem was that this glittering tiara, once the possession of a third-century Scythian king, had been made quite recently by a goldsmith in Odessa, who was even brought to Paris to demonstrate how he had constructed it. Worse, the tiara had previously been offered to the Imperial Museum in Vienna and the British Museum in London, both having turned it down. This was, McAuley concludes, ‘the most embarrassing episode in the history of the museum’. Further:

Everyone in the story was Jewish: Israel Rouchomovsky, who had made the tiara; [the dealers] Anton Vogel and Schapschelle Hochmann, who had sold it to the Louvre; and Salomon and Théodore Reinach, who defended it against its critiques long after that position had become indefensible.

What could prevent any true, decent, blood-and-soil Frenchman from concluding that Jews were not only forgers but also, themselves, forgeries – false, confected Frenchmen? And, as a Jew, how do you argue for your own authenticity? You say you are French; they say you aren’t. You insist you are a patriot, you fight for your natal country, but your sacrifice is discounted as some weird existential manoeuvre. You behave as the other French have been advised to behave – Guizot’s ‘Enrichissez-vous!’ of 1843 was the dictum of the age (even if the phrase and its exact remit are much debated) – and you are denounced as a leech and a bloodsucker. You are, you believe, assimilated into French high society: you ride to hounds, you have a yacht and a racing car, you are a member of the Jockey Club, you own racehorses and throw lavish parties, you are un sportsman and a connoisseur, you have affairs with the non-Jewish French, you sometimes leave the faith altogether. This is not enough; it will never be enough (conversely, it will also seem too much). When you hunt in ancient French forests, this is viewed as racial insolence. You are wearing a yellow star before it has been invented (when you are forced to, it will connect you to the colour of persecution in medieval and early modern times). There is an old Yiddish saying that ‘France devours Jews’, but obviously this doesn’t apply to you. You also have high social and political connections – though when they are finally tested, they fail you. Many appealed to Marshal Pétain; he saved precisely three Jewish lives. Béatrice de Camondo tactically divorced Léon Reinach and wholeheartedly embraced Catholicism; she firmly believed that ‘God and the Virgin’ would protect her. They didn’t. Meanwhile, there were two new occupants of the rue de Monceau: at number 43, the antisemitic newspaper Au Pilori; at number 61, the headquarters of the Milice.

Your public opponents are often cultured, but always implacable. They include Drumont, author of La France Juive, a blood libel never out of print from 1886 to 1944, and editor of its journalistic counterpart La Libre Parole; Edmond de Goncourt; Léon Daudet (son of Alphonse); and, in the 1930s, Céline. The first two were aesthetic as well as traditional antisemites. Drumont was an antiquarian who hated modernity, expressed as it was in the – often Jewish-funded – developments such as the grands boulevards, the railways and the department stores; while Goncourt, as well as the greatest diarist of the period, was also the art critic who helped rediscover the 18th century. It gave both men added pain and disgust to see Jewish collectors buying up French art objects in a Johnny-come-lately fashion. When Jews had the chutzpah to build houses in 18th-century style, and fill them with porcelain and pictures from the period, such enthusiasm only indicated their inauthenticity. For Daudet, describing Gustave Dreyfus’s house and collection, they were ‘truncated, hybrid beings … in search of an impossible nationality’. Drumont regarded their collecting as ‘an act of Jewish violence’ and in La France Juive he reviewed the Rothschild house at Ferrières (built by Joseph Paxton after the pattern of Mentmore in Buckinghamshire) room by room. ‘It’s a mess, a train wreck, an incredible junk store.’ The centre of his ire was the Louis XVI salon. Here were masterpieces of art and furniture, acquired for ‘the sovereigns of Israel’ from dealers across Europe. And, ‘in the middle, like a trophy, there is the incomparable harpsichord of Marie Antoinette, which is heartbreaking to find in this house of Jews.’

It is probably pedantic as well as fruitless to point out that while Marie Antoinette played the harpsichord as a girl in Vienna, she had switched to the newly developed pianoforte by the time she was queen of France. But in any case, how had the Rothschilds got hold of it and how had patriotic French collectors been outsmarted? One underemphasised aspect in both books is the matter of where the elite Jewish collectors bought their treasures, who supplied them and where the treasures had been secreted until they came onto the market. It’s also the case that Camondo and company didn’t just buy the Sèvres, Bouchers, Watteaus and Tiepolo ceilings that so enraged the home team. Many had a wider interest in French art. As de Waal notes, Moïse helped to buy Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio for the nation. Some fraternised with contemporary artists. Charles Ephrussi was on dining terms with Degas and supplied him with opera tickets; he features in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party and owned forty works by Manet, Degas (including three pastel Danseuses), Pissarro, Morisot, Monet and Sisley, as well as Renoir. Isaac de Camondo bought the famous Manet lemon, Charles Ephrussi the famous Manet bunch of asparagus. (He generously paid more than the agreed price; in response, Manet painted another spear and sent it with a note saying: ‘This one slipped from the bundle.’) Alphonse de Rothschild, who moved from collecting 18th-century art to Rubens, Rembrandt, Hals and de Hooch, also made massive donations: two thousand or so contemporary works to 150 provincial art museums.

In the 1930s many of the elite Jewish families donated their houses and collections to the French state. Moïse bequeathed 63 rue de Monceau and everything in it, even the ‘shovels and tweezers’, to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs; Théodore Reinach left his ‘ancient Greek’ Villa Kérylos to the Institut de France; Béatrice Ephrussi did the same with her house on Cap Ferrat; Charles Cahen d’Anvers gave the family Château de Champs-sur-Marne to the French state. It was as if they were saying: we are French, and we leave our greatest treasures to France. But to their enemies, this was no more than the deathbed repentance of thieves feeling guilty about their swag.

Antisemitism is very hard to counter. You can correct facts – Salomon Reinach published a pamphlet listing Drumont’s errors – but the fantasies metastasise. During the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck seized Ferrières; he then chose it as the place to receive the surrender of the French. To the likes of Drumont, however, the narrative was different: in this absurd and anatopic house, a monument to bad taste, the Jews had ‘hosted’ France’s humiliation. The Rothschilds also perfectly illustrated the slogan: ‘They came poor, then became rich among the French poor.’ As McAuley notes, one of Drumont’s favourite metaphors was ‘invasion’. The Rothschilds had invaded France in 1815, they had reportedly made millions on the back of the Prussian invasion of 1870, and they continued to invade France every day they spent at Ferrières. The fact that the indemnity demanded by Prussia was largely paid off by loans raised by the Rothschilds was beside the point.

You may seek to argue back against what Thomas Reinach called ‘the men of irreducible biases’; or you may respond with what he advocated, a ‘silence of disdain’: lie low, and wait for the bluster to pass. One thing you can’t do is treat with a committed antisemite. The Reinach family was deeply implicated in the Panama scandal of 1892-93. Baron Jacques de Reinach, financial adviser to the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique, was also the company’s primary link to the government. The Panama Canal was a vastly ambitious project, but the company was accruing considerable losses. The only way to avoid liquidation was to raise money by means of a lottery loan, which required parliamentary approval. Hundreds of deputies and ministers were bribed to get the legislation through. The company still collapsed and 800,000 French citizens lost all they had invested. It was a perfect story for Drumont’s La Libre Parole. Catastrophically, Jacques de Reinach, seeking damage limitation, approached Drumont and offered the names of all the parliamentarians he had bribed in exchange for the newspaper laying off the Reinach family. Drumont accepted the offer, and his pernicious newspaper received a key circulation bounce, soon reaching sales of 300,000.

The three Reinach brothers were exemplary republicans, but also proud defenders of Jewish communal life. Is that enrichment, or dual allegiance? And in any case, is dual allegiance such a bad idea? Théodore Reinach argued that the particular could be reconciled with the universal; and, in his Histoire des Israëlites, he proposed that the ‘cosmopolitan’ attributes of the Jews could indicate a useful future direction for the French – indeed, for all humanity. Or you could approach it from the opposite direction. Fifty years earlier, Léon Halévy had described ‘clear traces’ of republican universalism in the Hebrew Bible. ‘The government of Israel … was a republic with a king, but this king was God.’ And Mosaic law provided ‘the means to establish and ensure the absolute equality of citizens’. (Citizens, of course, being men.) In 1917, Théodore Reinach, whose nephew Adolphe had been killed in the first months of the war, and whose son had won the Croix de Guerre and was currently at the front, supported the idea of a union sacrée to put aside the differences ‘that could separate the Israelite and the French patriot of the 20th century’. But less than thirty years later, the Reinach family had ‘vanished, along with the majority of its written records’. The Nazis destroyed the ‘immense family archive’ at the Villa Kérylos, and its entire library. Some family members survived, but ‘its family culture became a relic, a thing of the past.’

Renoir painted his portrait of Mlle Irène Cahen d’Anvers in 1880, along with a double portrait of her two younger sisters. Their mother Louise didn’t care for either work; the double portrait was banished to a maid’s room. Also, ‘she made Renoir wait for his money,’ de Waal notes, ‘which isn’t a great footnote to art history.’ Louise gave the portrait of Irène to her granddaughter Béatrice, who married Léon Reinach. In 1939 it was sent to the Château de Chambord, where some of France’s patrimony had been shipped for safe-keeping. The portrait was then looted by the Germans and ended up in Goering’s private collection. In 1942 he traded it to a dealer in exchange for a Florentine tondo. After the war, it was shipped back to Paris and formed part of an exhibition at the Tuileries of recuperated artworks. But by then Béatrice and Léon, and their two children, Fanny and Bertrand, had died at Auschwitz. The picture was claimed by its subject, now Irène Sampieri, as practically the last Cahen d’Anvers standing. But she too was unsentimental about the picture, selling it three years later to the Swiss owner of the Oerlikon arms manufacturer, who during the war had traded with both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It is now at the Fondation E.G. Bührle in Zurich, while the double portrait has found its way to the Museu de Arte in São Paolo. De Waal writes that ‘objects carry so much, they belong in all the tenses, unresolved, unsettling.’ Pictures, which are closer to people than objects, also have their history, their geography, their wanderings, their diaspora.

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