Visitors to the wonderful Parisian house museum, Musée Nissim de Camondo, tend to get hung up by the photographs. There you are, gazing your fill at the stupendous decorative arts ensemble — paneling, tapestries, porcelain, mind-blowing 18th century furniture. And then sitting on the marble top of a marquetry table, you see a framed picture of a mournful-looking young man, or of a girl on horseback, or of a portly fellow in natty tailoring. Shortly you understand: they are no more. The family that assembled this museum, and the money that created it, has vanished. The last of them died at Auschwitz.
But what Pierre Assouline wants us to understand in Le dernier des Camondo is the context of this disappearance. The last of the Camondos is actually Moïse, father of Nissim for whom the museum is named. He outlived his only son by 18 years, aware that his family line would end with him. The museum thus becomes their monument, and the terms of its gift to the Paris Musée des Arts Decoratifs insists that everything in the museum remain as it was at his death. No loans, no acquisitions, no moving so much as a snuff box.
The Camondo family were Sephardic Jews who settled in Istanbul and in more recent history had become Italian citizens and bore Italian titles. They did not come to Paris until 1869 when they joined other high-flying Jewish financiers in the Parc Monceau area. Moïse’s cousin was the collector Isaac de Camondo whose death in 1911 added a splendid collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings to the collection of the Louvre (rather before the Louvre was ready for them, but that’s another story). Eventually Moïse lived at 63, rue de Monceau, just down the street from the Ephrussi family. Assouline has done a great deal of research on the earlier history of the Camondo family and conscientiously links the various generations to the social movements and personalities of their eras. Proust appears here, of course, as do the Rothschilds, and notably Charles Ephrussi. But for all his research Assouline doesn’t manage to bring his characters to life the way Edmund de Waal does his Ephrussi ancestors in The Hare with Amber Eyes. Le dernier des Camondo is a fairly conventional social history.
That being said, there are fascinating questions here and Assouline is more than willing to explore them. How much, for instance, can or should a Jewish family assimilate into its host society? The Camondos left Istanbul because they were Westernized, liberal, cosmopolitan. But once in Catholic France, they stayed true to their religion. The children studied Hebrew, the family supported Jewish causes generously, they married within the faith. Assouline does an especially good job tracing the fitful rise of anti-Semitism in France, and the always ambiguous social position of families like the Ephrussis, the Camondos, and even the Rothschilds. The last survivor of the family, Beatrice Reinach, assumed that she would be safe from the Germans because as an excellent equestrian she had many German friends in the world of the horse. Wrong guess. She, her husband, and her children died in Auschwitz.
But somehow the saddest part of the tale is the death of young Nissim, the gifted, courageous son who was a much-decorated flyer in World War I. He was killed after an air battle on the German front and the Germans so admired his bravery that they paid him the honor of burying him in one of their cemeteries. After the war Moïse had to move heaven and earth to bring Nissim’s body home. He is buried in the family tomb in Montmartre and the golden stone palace, modeled after the Petit Trianon, is his memorial.