Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Camondo Family Museum

I once attended a Connecticut book club where I met an older woman who had helped during WWII with the Cevanol school in Le Chambon (a village in the Haute-Loire region of France known for saving Jews). We spoke of the different scenarios, the people, the Vichy government. Our conversation shifted to Paris and she corrected me with abruptness, "There were Jews living in Paris during the war."

"What?" I was astonished and curious.

She shut down and wouldn't continue the conversation as if she were privy to some great secret.

Left to make sense of what she had alluded to, I assumed that Jews could have stayed alive in Paris by knowing and bribing the right people.

After touring the Museum Nissim de Camondo, I learned that staying alive in German occupied France with money and connections may have been the exception; for the Camondo family, it was not.

The Camondo family was part of a Sephardic Jewish community in Spain. In 1492, after a decree that all citizens must convert to Catholicism, the family moved on to Venice. Unsettled once again by changes of an Austrian takeover, the family moved to Istanbul where they flourished as merchants, branched into banking, and became extremely wealthy.

In  1869, the family patriarch after the death of his son, followed his two grandsons to Paris, and what a life they lived. More success, more money--enough for one of the second-generation-in-Paris sons, Moise, to become a passionate collector of 18th century French treasures.

He acquired land on the exclusive edge of Parc Monceau, where he built a mansion specifically to showcase his art and furniture collection. Exquisite parlor rooms were arranged with six walls in between big windows to hang a collection, a story in paintings of two separated lovers eventually reunited. When Moise found an ancient Chinese vase, he hunted the collector's market until he found its pair. Tapestries, rugs, Louis the XV desks, grace the home in a timeless capsule of a nineteenth century, wealthy man's mansion.

The lovers reunited

Moise married and fathered two children, but his wife ran off with an Italian horse trainer. The marriage ended in divorce and Moise won custody of the children--but of course, such scandal would never have rewarded this woman.

Moise's children were loved, indulged, and raised well. Nissim and Beatrice were the center of his life. But the times created more tragedy. Nissim was killed in WWI.

Beatrice married and had two children, Fanny and Bertrand~~the light of Moise's life, so much that Beatrice stayed at the Camondo mansion during their young years.

Beatrice loved horses and riding; she didn't share her father's passion for art. Moise Camondo bequeathed his art filled mansion to the French Union Central Des Arts Decoratifs. He continued to collect and improve the worth and aesthetics of his life long passion named for his deceased son: Nissim. Part of the gift included his very specific desires of how the mansion should be cared for, the display of furniture, and even hours of operation.

In 1942, the last of the Camondos were arrested in Paris for the crime of being Jewish. Like other wealthy, socially established Jews throughout Europe, Beatrice believed she was insulated by her money, social standing, her father and brother's sacrifice to France. The family was sent to Drancy, a Paris holding prison of filth and degradation--until the entire family, husband Leon Reinach, Fanny and Bertrand in 1943, and Beatrice in 1944, were sent to Auschwitz.

They never returned.

Beatrice and Nissim Camondo

The irony of this great tragedy is that the mansion was kept perfectly in tact according to Moise's expectations because it became a Paris museum at the time of his death, before the Nazi invasion. Had Beatrice inherited the family home, as an arrested and imprisoned Jew, the art treasures would have been confiscated, dispersed; the house sold. That we walk among beauty only because of the Camondo family's misfortune brings conflict, sobriety and sadness, at the end of a lovely afternoon.

Photos copied from