Pierre Assouline, “Le dernier des Camondo”

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.

Memorial to Nissim de Camondo in eastern France. photo Eric Mansuy

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.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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13 Responses to Pierre Assouline, “Le dernier des Camondo”

  1. motheretc says:

    Very eye-opening! I don’t really know anything about the de Camondo family.

  2. carolwallace says:

    The museum is an old favorite of mine, and the juxtaposition of the eye-popping decorative arts collection (all the best of late 18th-century French) and the tragic personal story is really stark. It was nice to be able to read more about it.

  3. Anthony Brown-Hovelt says:

    My Mother Peggy Brown-Hovelt (then Margaret McMurray) lived with Beatrice and her family in 1939, while she studied dressage in Paris having previously studied under Major H Faudel-Phillips in England. She had to leave once the war started and ended up working for the SIS in London, as she spoke good French and German. We still have a photo of Beatrice on horseback in a riding school in top hat and tails. Attached to the back is a letter in response to my mother trying to find out what happened to Beatrice and her family. Fanny and Bertrand were of a similar age to her. She always remembered them all with great affection right up to her death.

    Transcript of the letter from Cousin Irene dated 15.8.1945

    Your letter addresses to my cousin, Beatrice, has been passed to me and I apologise for the delay in replying to you.

    The news I have for you is so terrible that I only wanted to write to you when I was absolutely certain, however cruelly, of what happened; that is the reason why I am writing to you in French.

    I don’t know if you knew that Beatrice, her husband and children were all arrested in December 1942. After a year in Drancy they were deported to Germany and it is only in the past few weeks that we have come to know that all four died in Auschwitz, massacred by Nazi barbarism. Fanny suffered the least in that she died of typhoid on arrival. For all the others the torture (martyrdom) went on for several months.

    That, Madame, is the sad task I have had to perform for you; I would be very grateful if you would pass on the extremely painful news to Miss/Mrs Dorothy Morton for me.

    With best wishes
    Yours sincerely

    On the envelope Peggy had written “all my very dearest friends”

  4. carolwallace says:

    Oh, my — this is extremely moving. Thank you for going to the trouble of posting it.

  5. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

  6. Richard tillinghast says:

    Ladies and gentlemen:

    I am wondering if anyone knows more of the history of the Camondo family? I was in Istanbul in March, looking in particular at the history of that city’s Jewish community. There are pictures of the Camondos in the Jewish museum in Karakoy, and the famous Camondo stairs, commissioned by one of the family as a way of getting easily between his residence and his bank. I would be glad of any information.

    With thanks, Richard Tillinghast

    • carolwallace says:

      Richard, there is a lot of information in French, notably the book I review here. You may also be able to get information in English on the website of the Musee Nissim de Camondo, which is in Paris. It was created by Moise de Camondo, last of the line. His son Nissim, for whom the museum is named, died in WWI. His daughter Beatrice Reinach and her two children died in the Holocaust.

    • Anthony Brown-Hovelt says:

      Dear Richard there is quite a lot about the family in Wikipedia and their Turkish connections. They were the principal bankers for the Ottomans’ at one time and were related to the Rothschilds by marriage.

  7. Was there a banking/finance/investing specialty or angle or specialty or slant that the family followed or incarnated?

    Were they pioneers of railroad finance?

    Role in Italian unification?



    • carolwallace says:

      Embarrassing to say that I can’t answer these questions. The Assouline angle is more on consumption (i.e. collecting) than on earning. I do have a vague memory that they were involved with the Pereire family in Paris, which largely means real estate. I think the Italian connection was very superficial. Sorry not to be more helpful!

  8. Catherine Brooks-Baker says:

    has anyone traced what happened to Margarete, the daughter of Clausse and Isaak de Camondo; she would have been a second cousin of Beatrice. Evidently she lived on to die in 1961.I wonder where she had managed to escape to?

    • carolwallace says:

      I don’t know, Catherine: quick check of the family tree in the Assouline book doesn’t show her. But I’m sure somebody at the museum has to know. Or for that matter, maybe you can find Pierre Assouline online, & ask him?

  9. Pingback: Pierre Assouline, “Le Portrait” | Book Group of One

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