Let­ters to Camondo

  • Review
By – May 13, 2021

The promise of assim­i­la­tion offers no bet­ter illus­tra­tion than the Camon­dos, an enor­mous­ly rich fam­i­ly of financiers who were inevitably tagged as the Sephardic coun­ter­parts to the Roth­schilds. May­er Amschel Roth­schild famous­ly launched his career in Frank­furt. The Camon­dos did it their way — under the Ottomans in Con­stan­tino­ple, before mov­ing, in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, to France, where the exper­i­ment in Jew­ish eman­ci­pa­tion had begun. Author Edmund de Waal is also a high­ly regard­ed ceram­i­cist dis­tant­ly relat­ed to the Camon­dos, and he depicts with awe their Parisian home. Imag­i­na­tive­ly address­ing him­self to Count Moïse de Camon­do (18601935), de Waal lav­ish­es atten­tion on the lux­u­ri­ous lifestyle that the splen­dor of the Belle Époque facil­i­tat­ed. The Right Bank home at 63 rue de Mon­ceau was packed with arts déco­rat­ifs, and required four­teen ser­vants to main­tain. Moïse de Camon­do bought one of Peugeot’s first auto­mo­biles; he also enjoyed yacht­ing and hunt­ing, and owned rac­ing sta­bles. Endowed with exquis­ite taste, this col­lec­tor and con­nois­seur gen­er­ous­ly sup­port­ed the Lou­vre, and patron­ized con­tem­po­rary painters like Renoir, too. In Let­ters to Camon­do, Mar­cel Proust darts in and out of the lives of Camondo’s cul­ti­vat­ed and cos­mopoli­tan fam­i­ly; so does the Jew­ish prime min­is­ter, Léon Blum.

The Camon­dos under­stand­ably prid­ed them­selves on the depth of their loy­al­ty to France and to its egal­i­tar­i­an ide­al of civic rights. Despite the Drey­fus Affair, this fam­i­ly felt insu­lat­ed from the lurk­ing dan­ger that anti­semitism posed. Equa­nim­i­ty wasn’t shat­tered until the heir appar­ent, Nis­sim de Camon­do, was killed in World War I — a war so bloody and so sense­less that both the Bol­she­viks and the Nazis would tri­umph in its aftermath.

Soon nei­ther immense wealth nor French cit­i­zen­ship would keep this fam­i­ly out­side the gates where Arbeit Macht Frei.” Nissim’s sis­ter, his broth­er-in-law, and their two chil­dren were mur­dered in Auschwitz. Their end is recount­ed in the longest chap­ter in de Waal’s slen­der vol­ume, and the impact is dev­as­tat­ing. It makes this book the equiv­a­lent of films like Woman in Gold (2015), in which the Holo­caust spells the grim end of a rich and sophis­ti­cat­ed Vien­nese Jew­ish fam­i­ly, and The Gar­den of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis (1970), in which Fas­cism dooms a sim­i­lar fam­i­ly in Fer­rara. Let­ters to Camon­do extracts no instruc­tive les­son on the per­ils of assim­i­la­tion, how­ev­er, or even proof of the delu­sion that patri­o­tism and politesse can guar­an­tee safe­ty. The Final Solu­tion extin­guished the very pious and the very poor too. If a larg­er moral can be found at all, it is the his­tor­i­cal pre­car­i­ous­ness of Jew­ish exis­tence itself.

Discussion Questions