Moïse de Camondo came from one of the most prominent Jewish families in 19th-century Constantinople, but in 1869 at the age of nine he moved with his family to a new promised land for Jews: Paris. At the conclusion of the French Revolution almost a century earlier, France became the only nation in Europe to grant citizenship to Jews. The Camondo family and many others around Europe and Russia, including the Ephrussi family from Odessa, built homes on the Rue de Monceau in Paris’s 8th arrondissement. Edmund de Waal, author of the best-selling memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes, is a descendant of the Ephrussis and a distant relative of the Camondos. His latest book is a collection of imaginary letters to the late Moïse de Camondo from the archives of Moïse’s former residence, the Musée de Camondo.
In Letters to Camondo, de Waal writes fifty-eight letters, beginning the first several with “Dear Friend”, but soon admits he doesn’t know how to address Camondo.
In these things I am caught between not wanting to offend and not wanting to waste time. Monsieur is possible and dignified and might lead to Cher Monsieur. So I am not going to call you Moise. And to call you Camondo sounds stentorian, a barked greeting across a library or dinner table. I know we are related in complicated ways but that can wait. So I am writing to you as friend. We shall see how we get on.
He ends up alternating between friend, monsieur, cher monsieur in these short, lyrical letters, and sometimes doesn’t address Moïse de Camondo at all.
Moïse de Camondo spent his first decade at 6 Camondo Street in Galata in Constantinople, “looking out over the Bosphorus”. In the archives at the Musée de Camondo, de Waal learns more about the Camondo’s history in Constantinople.
Then I find out a little more, that the whole of Galata seems to have been owned by your family, and that your grandfather was responsible for my favorite staircases in the world, those sinuous intertwined runs of steps, breathing in and out down a hillside. I had a photograph of this staircase by Cartier-Bresson above my potter’s wheel for years. I’d look up, hands covered in clay, and think elsewhere.
Despite such richesses, Moïse’s father Nissim de Camondo moved the family to Paris. As an adult, all Moïse hoped for was to fit into Parisian society. To do that, he built a new house at 63 Rue de Monceau and started to collect French paintings and artifacts, with the end goal of donating it all to the state. To make room for these paintings and objets d’art, he gave away everything that connected him to his past life in Constantinople.
The oratory in your father’s house is stripped. Could there be a more biblical phrase? And you donate the ornamental plaque for the Torah given to you on your bar mitzvah, and the rimmonim for the Torah scroll, in engraved gold, and the lamp reconsecration given by David Sassoon to the Camondo family in 1864. You give the coffre à rouleau de Torah with its Hebrew inscription, ‘the notable, the esteemed, the superb, the lord, the influential prince of Israel, R. Senor Abraham of the line of Camondo’, to Temple Buffault, and four pieces of Oriental and Dutch silverware used in Jewish worship to the Musée de Cluny.
Other prominent Jewish families come into the story, namely when Moïse married Irene Cahen d’Anvers when he was in his thirties and she was only nineteen. Besides leaving Moïse for her riding coach, Irene’s claim to fame was to sit for a portrait by Renior in La Petite Irène, which is now housed at the Foundation Bührle in Zurich. There is also the family of Leon Reinach, husband of Moise’s daughter, Béatrice.
Moïse’s family made the ultimate sacrifice during World War I when his only son, Nissim, was killed after his plane was shot down over enemy territory. Yet no matter how much Moïse tried to become French and shed his former identity, and no matter how much he gave to the state, it was not enough to protect his family from deportation to concentration camps. Moise was long gone by then and his home and collection had been turned over to the state in 1936, but that meant nothing when it came to his daughter, her husband, and their children.
Interspersed in de Waal’s book are images of artifacts from the Musée de Camondo. He also weaves in a little of his family history and his research in Japan, Paris, and Vienna for The Hare With Amber Eyes. But above all, Letters to Camondo is the story of a family searching for belonging and finding that no matter how hard they tried to become French—namely donating all their possessions to the state—none of it mattered in the end. The Musée de Camondo still stands as it appeared in 1936 and is one of the lesser frequented museums in Paris. Perhaps de Waal’s book will give it the recognition it and the Camondo family deserves.