Letters to Camondo: An Intimate Yet Worldly Book
Letters to Camondo
By Edmund de Waal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
This intimate yet worldly book—a slim collection of 58 imaginary letters that the British ceramic artist Edmund de Waal wrote to a onetime real-life Jewish count, Moïse de Camondo—is an original and precious literary gem. De Waal, known for the international best seller The Hare with Amber Eyes, about his wealthy Jewish forebears, the Ephrussis, here turns the spotlight on the Camondos, distant Sephardi relatives (and neighbors of the Ephrussis). Sweeping across centuries, Letters to Camondo is a daring effort to memorialize a once significant Jewish family of financiers and philanthropists.
To this day, the Camondo family occupies a central place in Paris. Moïse de Camondo (1860 to 1935) bequeathed his handsomely furnished mansion to France, provided it was retained without alteration as a memorial to his son, Nissim, a pilot shot down in World War I while on a mission for France. That home is now the Musée Nissim de Camondo.
Bouncing back and forth in time, the imagined letters describe the Frenchification of the Camondos, among 10 leading wealthy Jewish families in the city. These families—besides the Rothschilds, there were also the Reinachs—built mansions around the Parc Monceau in a hilly area of Paris. While the Camondos’ experience of acculturation, wealth and antisemitism is revelatory, it is the author’s description of the mansion, his artist’s eye for meaningful details, that makes the book such a rewarding read.
Moïse de Camondo, who was 9 when his family moved to France from Turkey, inherited his father’s home at 63 Rue de Monceau in 1910. He soon tore it down and built his masterpiece in the spirit of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles, disposing of most of the treasures his father brought from abroad, including many Jewish religious artifacts. Only a few items in the museum indicate Moïse’s Jewishness: The vast kitchens include separate sinks, for meat and dairy dishes, and there are two bound books of prayers and rituals for the High Holidays and Passover.
Camondo furnished the mansion with French creations from the reigns of Louis XV and XVI. A staff of 14 oversaw its upkeep. The Camondos belonged to every exclusive French club, entertained political leaders lavishly and patronized the arts. Their Jewishness was just one part of their identity, an identity that largely focused on French patriotism. “You become part of the street, the neighborhood, the city, the country, so perfectly, so delicately aligned,” de Waal wrote, “that you disappear.”
In his letters, de Waal describes the reactions of the antisemitic French press to the Dreyfus affair (1894 to 1906), the scandal that occurred when Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason. He also writes that he knows “far too much about who my cousins slept with a century ago.” At the age of 31, de Waal relates, Moïse de Camondo married 19-year-old socialite Irène Cahen d’Anvers.
The marriage produced two children, Nissim and Béatrice, and lasted for six years, until Irène ran off with an Italian count and converted to Catholicism. Camondo won custody of the children. Béatrice went on to marry Leon Reinach, a Jewish musician from that prominent family, and had two children, Fanny and Bertrand. The two later divorced.
Sadly, their wealth and patriotism did not help the Camondos during the Nazi occupation, and the family story ends in tragedy.
De Waal describes how Béatrice, who believed her money and social standing would shield her, rode in the Bois de Boulogne every day, the Star of David armband required by the Nazis affixed to her riding costume. In 1942, the Gestapo sent the entire family to Drancy, a concentration camp outside Paris, and later to Auschwitz, where they were all murdered. The house museum in Paris as well as accounts of the family, like de Waal’s, are all that remain of the influential Camondos.
Of related interest is an exhibition on view through May 15, 2022, at The Jewish Museum in New York City. “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” based on de Waal’s earlier book, tells the story of the Ephrussi family as well as showcases the breadth and depth of their illustrious art collection.
Stewart Kampel was a longtime editor at The New York Times.