In Plain Language: The last Camondo

The Grand Salon at the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Grand Salon at the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Like so many other people reading this article, we love to travel. The Almighty created a big, beautiful world out there, and it is no sin to experience and enjoy it. While Israel is home, and contains a “little bit of everything” within its modest borders, there is certainly a lot to see in the world at large. I have no doubt that this is the way the greatest rabbis of our history felt, for they often speak of exotic places within their works, including in the pages of both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud.
Indeed, the sages prescribed blessings for any number of natural phenomena – including the eruption of volcanoes – which clearly occur outside Israel.
But everywhere we visit, we always seek out the “Jewish factor.” After such a long and rich Diaspora, permeated with profound tragedy and destruction, there are fascinating Jewish sites and sights to visit almost everywhere we go. China, India, Japan, Africa – virtually every spot on the map – all have a “Jewish story” to tell. This is particularly true in Europe, where our people sojourned so extensively for the past thousand years.
And so, when visiting Italy, we stood under the Arch of Titus, built to commemorate the Roman conquest and sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE. There we recited Hatikva and mocked the once-mighty Romans, whose empire crumbled, even as ours remains.
We traveled the short distance from Barcelona to Girona, and stood in its ancient Jewish Quarter, reading from the works of the most famous Jewish Gironan, the Ramban (Nahmanides), whose passion for Israel is unparalleled.
And we prayed in Poland in the little synagogue of Elimelech of Liszensk, one of the founders of Hassidism, handing a few coins to the elderly non-Jewish man who maintains the shul in an area now completely Judenrein.
But I wish to tell you about another little-known, remarkable place that we recently visited in Paris. It made a deep impression upon us, and I believe that it serves as a kind of “moral tale” regarding French Jewry, which today is the largest Jewish community in Europe, and third largest in the world, after Israel and America. I speak about the Nissim de Camondo Museum.
The Camondos were popularly known as “the Rothschilds of the East.” Powerful financiers of Sephardi origin, they found refuge in the Ottoman Empire after being driven from Spain in the 15th century Inquisition.
Brothers Isaac and Abraham-Salomon Camondo founded a bank in Istanbul in 1802, which soon grew into one of Turkey’s major financial institutions. Like the Rothschilds, the family engaged extensively in philanthropy, building schools, synagogues and hospitals.
The Camondos eventually took their banking business to Paris in 1869, where they prospered immensely.
They purchased an expansive tract of land on the edge of the fashionable Parc Monceau, which to this day is a large and lovely place to stroll, with beautiful flowers and trees lining the walkways. Between 1911 and 1914, Moise de Camondo, the last head of the dynasty, built a magnificent mansion there, and devoted the rest of his life to creating an authentic 18th-century chateau filled with the continent’s most extensive collection of period art and furniture. Fabulously wealthy, the suave and refined Moise was eclectic and versed in many things. He was a sportsman and hunter and owned many yachts and automobiles, including one of the first motorcars ever built in France. But his prime passion was art.
Moise’s family amassed a truly impressive collection of artwork over the generations. Much of it was donated to the Louvre and to the Musée d’Orsay, including a large number of Impressionist paintings – among them priceless works of Degas and Monet. But Moise poured his heart into assembling France’s premier collection of 18th-century artifacts, and these he meticulously placed throughout his elegant mansion, re-creating what he reasoned a noble chateau would have looked like a century and a half earlier. In 1924, he willed the mansion and its possessions to the Musée des Arts, and the official museum opened in 1936. The strict provisions of his will stipulated that his collection must be open to the public; that no artworks could be removed or shown in exhibitions, and that each and every object must remain exactly where he had placed it. This ensured the pristine ambiance and authenticity of the museum.
As stunningly beautiful as the mansion is, it belies a tragic personal history of the Camondos.
Moise was separated from his wife – who ran off with a non-Jewish Italian count – after just six years of marriage, and in a high-profile divorce trial in 1902, he was awarded custody of their two children, Nissim and Beatrice.
Nissim, who served as a pilot in the French air force, was killed in 1917 when his plane was shot down.
Moise was devastated, and named the museum “Musée Nissim de Camondo” after his son. Moise never remarried, and he died in 1935. Daughter Beatrice took over the reins of the family and dedicated herself to her father’s project. But she, her husband and their two children, Fanny and Bertrand, were taken by the Nazis in 1942 (no doubt with help from the collaborationist French gendarmes) and sent to the internment camp at Drancy. All four were murdered soon after in Auschwitz.
A walk through this amazing edifice is, in truth, a walk through Paris, and by extension all of France itself. For is there any more beautiful place in Europe than “la Ville des Lumières,” the City of Lights? Grand palaces and wide boulevards, a la the Avenue des Champs-Élysées are breathtaking. Precious objets d’art dot every corner, every building, even the underground Metro stations.
The French language is lyrical and lilting, flowing off the tongue like a delicious crepe suzette or a fancy French pastry.
But the Jewish experience in France is far less sublime. From the moment they arrived in large numbers there in the Middle Ages, French Jews have experienced – along with significant periods of “the good life” – discrimination, expulsion, persecution and anti-Semitism. While at times the Jewish community flourished and built great institutions of finance and Jewish learning – producing eminent scholars like Rashi and Radak – the specter of doom was ever-present.
Autos-da-fé, Inquisitions, the public burning of the Talmud, the Dreyfus affair, the Hyper-Cacher massacre; all these traumas and more mark the French Jewish landscape.
As we visited the gorgeous towns of Provence, we saw the former synagogues-turned-churches, the Hebrew engraving still visible above the door; and we heard the whispers of the “convert-ordie” decree that decimated those communities in the Middle Ages, bringing tears and tragedy to the poor Jewish souls trapped there.
To be a Jew in France – then as now – is to agonize between pride and survival, between beauty and fear.
While the Camondo museum remains in all its glory for the world to enjoy – and I highly recommend seeing it – only the inanimate objects of its once-royal founding family are left. Not a single, living human being that goes by the name Camondo, the museum’s curator informs me, has survived. The ghost of Judaism past is the mansion’s only permanent resident.
At the end of the museum tour, there is a large book for visitors to sign and leave their comments. Though most of the entries are in French, one written in English immediately caught me eye. It reads: “Trust the French government to inherit this legacy, and then send the offspring to the gas chamber.”
There wasn’t much I could add to that, except to write: Am Yisrael Hai.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;