The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France
A book review of James McAuley’s The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France (Yale University Press, 2021).
In The House of Fragile Things, Washington Post Global correspondent James McAuley examines the place of Jews and the role of anti-Semitism in French history, as well as in culture, from the perspective of four prominent Jewish families and their art collections. The four families—whose histories he details over the course of an approximate hundred-year period, from the second half of the nineteenth-century through the first half of the twentieth—are: the Camondos, Reinachs, Cahens d’Anvers, and, most familiar but least important to the story, the Rothschilds. All four families migrated to France from points further east; all amassed fortunes in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, mostly in the banking and financial sectors; and, as befit of France’s upwardly mobile bourgeoisie of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all pieced together extraordinary art collections, displayed in opulent houses and châteaux which they designed. From one generation to the next, moreover, their young men and women regularly married among themselves.
McAuley uses the four families’ experiences to highlight the tension between France’s official adherence to the universal republican values of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution—based on the equality of all men (and sometimes even women!), all simply “citizens” in the French Republic, without regard to other identities—and the ever-present force of anti-Semitism, sometimes hidden, often overt. In its most virulent form, anti-Semitism held that Jews, including the wealthy Jews who are the subject of the study, could never be fully French. Understanding the world of these Jewish families and their battles against anti-Semitism, McAuley argues, constitutes a key to “one of the central and unresolved dilemmas in modern French history: the place of minority communities in a society of ‘universal’ citizens … that emerged from the French Revolution.”
The families McAuley portrays demonstrated their allegiance to France by embracing wholeheartedly the republican values of the Revolution. They were “careful architects of an identity that sought to present Frenchness and Jewishness as symbiotic, and perhaps even as natural extensions of each other.” They collected art, especially pieces with a noble provenance and history, as “testimonies to the specific people they were but also to the proud identity this milieu sought to build—Jewish and French, particular and universal.” As different as the collections might have been from one another, they constituted for their collectors a public statement—their attempt to write Jews into France’s national narrative, buttressing the argument in favor of the “eternal compatibly of Frenchness and Jewishness.”
But the compatibility of Frenchness and Jewishness, McAuley soberly concludes, rather than being eternal was never more than an illusion. The conclusion became inescapable with the fall of France in 1940, when the invading Nazis found a willing partner in the collaborationist Vichy regime, a regime which undertook the “great undoing of the French Revolution [as] a nationalist rejoinder to the excesses of liberal democracy and the impotence of a decadent society.” Within months, the “entire social world” that the families had assiduously constructed over the course of a century proved to have been a most “fragile thing” indeed, a social world that was “quickly and deliberately destroyed with the approval—and even the encouragement—of the same nation they had championed.”
The French Revolution provided citizenship to France’s sizeable Jewish population. But it also induced a strident conservative reaction, based on a vision of France as Catholic, aristocratic, and monarchial, a country deeply tied to the land and rural life. In nineteenth-century French conservative circles, the universal values of the Revolution came to be perceived as a “discourse about Jews,” McAuley writes, who were viewed as the “victors of the Revolution.” As the four families prospered in the second half of the nineteenth century, anti-Semitism waxed and waned, but came unambiguously to the forefront during the century’s last decade with the polarizing treason trials of Alfred Dreyfus. (in 2012, I reviewed three works on the Dreyfus Affair on my personal blog).
It is “one of the central and unresolved dilemmas in modern French history: the place of minority communities in a society of ‘universal’ citizens … that emerged from the French Revolution.”
Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew with an impeccable military record, was falsely accused of passing military secrets to the Germans. In 1899, after the zealous campaign of the “Dreyfusards,” led by Emile Zola and his famous tract J’Accuse, Dreyfus was pardoned and released from prison. He was then given a second trial in which he was again found guilty despite evidence strongly supporting his innocence. It was not until 1906 that a military commission officially exonerated him. Joseph Reinach, a prominent member of McAuley’s elite Jewish milieu, became France’s most consistent and fierce defender of Dreyfus after Zola, writing a detailed and authoritative account of the affair.
Except for Reinach’s writing, however, the elite milieu remained mostly silent about the “collective wound” of the Dreyfus affair, retreating into a “fierce clannishness” that “transcended the injunction to marry within the Jewish community” (marriage outside the faith was not only a recurring source of friction for the families; in the case of women, it may have been a way of asserting independence from the families’ tribal patriarchy). The Dreyfus affair jeopardized the four families’ “carefully constituted social positions” and forced them to see themselves as others saw them, underscoring the “fragility of their illusions.” For McAuley’s families, Dreyfus constituted what he terms a “bitter reminder that the world as they understood it was not the world as it was, and that in fact it never had been.”
As the families sought escape from late-nineteenth-century anti-Semitism, art collecting came to be seen more as a necessity than just a rich man’s pastime, providing the collectors with a “profound sense of solace and sanctuary.” In the Dreyfus era, France’s most acerbic anti-Semitic commentators frequently expressed their disdain for Jews and Judaism in material terms, criticizing the Jewish collectors and their collections as “inauthentic,” the work of “outsiders” who could never acquire true French aristocratic taste. For Edmond de Goncourt, a prominent anti-Semitic journalist of the 1880s and a “self-appointed arbiter of taste,” Jews were “fundamentally counterfeit, doomed to a mimetic parroting of a national identity that could never be theirs” (the annual Prix Goncourt, awarded today for France’s most imaginative literary work, is named after Goncourt and his brother). Léon Daudet, another virulently anti-Semitic journalist, attacked Jewish collectors through the objects they bought and the houses they owned. They were no more than “facsimiles of Frenchmen,” Daudet contended, “truncated, hybrid beings … in search of an impossible nationality.”
The opportunity to refute the premises of the era’s anti-Semitism once and for all came with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, less than a decade after Dreyfus’ exoneration. McAuley quotes an historian who wrote that 1914 was the moment when elite Jews “definitively considered themselves emancipated in the spirit of 1789 and fully integrated into the nation.” Most members of the four families felt a “profound sense of obligation to contribute to the French war effort in whatever way possible.” There was “almost a sense of romance in conscription,” McAuley notes. Some of the families offered their homes as military hospitals, with Jewish women often working as nurses. For the elite milieu of the four families, World War I was the “moment when they definitely proved their Frenchness—at least in their own eyes.”
But the war’s potential for social redemption and personal glory quickly gave way to harsher realities. Adolphe Reinach, the son of the Dreyfusard Joseph, was killed in the earliest phase of the war, in the Ardennes in August 1914. McAuley, however, gives more attention to the death of Nissim de Camondo in 1917, shot down at age twenty-five in aerial combat somewhere over Lorraine. From the time of Nissim’s death, McAuley’s often sprawling narrative focuses increasingly on the Camondo family: Nissim, his sister Béatrice, and their parents, Moïse and Irène Cahen d’Anvers.
For the elite milieu of the four families, World War I was the “moment when they definitely proved their Frenchness—at least in their own eyes.”
Moïse de Camondo, born in Constantinople, in addition to directing and adding to the family’s banking fortune, became the foremost art collector among the four families. In 1910, Moïse inherited a house from his mother on Paris’ rue de Monceau, at the edge of the Parc Monceau in the 8th arrondissement, which he remodeled after the Petit Trianon at Versailles. As dedicated as he was to republican values, Moïse entertained a nostalgia for the eighteenth-century aristocratic era, an “imagined social world in which elites, as they had been before the French Revolution, were free to pursue lives of dalliance and refinement at the same time as they controlled the natural order that afforded them such pleasure.”
Moïse’s wife Irène became the center of a widely publicized scandal when she left her husband and two children to marry an Italian count, and at the same time converted to Catholicism. As an eight-year-old, Irène had been the subject of a famous Renoir portrait, La Petite Irène, to which McAuley refers throughout the narrative. The portrait was seized by the Nazis; for a time became part of Hermann Göring’s personal collection; was recaptured by Irène after the war; then sold to a German-born Swiss arms manufacturer who had collaborated with the Nazis.
Nissim, who was Moïse and Irène’s only son, had been expected to take over the family business, but had not shown himself particularly adept at finance. He seemed to look at military service in wartime as an escape from the listless existence of a rich but aimless young man. The news of Nissim’s death devastated Moïse, who for a while stopped eating and sleeping, and refused initially to accept that his son was not coming back. When Nissim’s body could not be located, denying him a proper Jewish burial, Moïse set out to reclaim his son’s remains with “more vigor than any other object he ever sought.” It took him years, but he eventually arranged to steal the body and bring it back to Paris.
In the 1930s, Moïse donated both the rue Monceau house and the collection it contained to the French state. The house became the Musée Nissim de Camando, designed both to memorialize Moïse’s fallen son and to celebrate the “ancien régime aesthetic” that Moïse had “tirelessly pursued for decades.” McAuley considers the museum—today part of Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs—as Moïse’s rejoinder to Goncourt and his ilk, demonstrating that a Jew “could not only be French but proudly so, a credible arbiter of what Moïse called the ‘glories of France.’” A significant number of Jewish collectors established private collection museums in France in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1935, the same year that Moïse bequeathed his house and collection to the state, Charles Cahen d’Anvers donated his country estate, Château de Champs, to France. The château was transferred to the Ministry of Culture in 1971.
In an inter-generational study that contains multiple portraits of individuals from the four families, Béatrice de Camondo—Moïse’s daughter and Nissim’s sister—stands out as McAuley’s lead character, featured both at the book’s opening and its closing. A prominent Parisian socialite when France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Béatrice had two children, Fanny, then twenty years old, and Bertrand, seventeen. In 1940, she was already separated from and in the process of divorcing her husband, Léon Reinach, an aspiring musician who was the son of Joseph Reinach’s brother, Théodore, a wide-ranging intellectual who had given his Greek-themed Villa Kérylos on the Cote d’Azur to the Institut de France in the 1920s.
From that time forward, Jews, including those who had strayed from Judaism, were … told in no uncertain terms that they no longer belonged to France, and that “in fact they never had.”
Béatrice was also converting to Catholicism. She was typical of her generation of elite French Jews who felt little attachment to the Jewish faith or Jewish communal life. She didn’t take particularly seriously the Vichy government’s edicts about Jews, which in her view were aimed at recent immigrant Jews, whom she and her family looked down upon. Nor did she see any need to try to escape. In September 1942, she wrote with emphasis that she was “certain” that she would be “miraculously protected” by God and the Virgin “for years.” In fact, McAuley notes, Béatrice’s protection lasted exactly three months.
Despite her claim to no longer being Jewish and her standing in the right social circles, despite her family’s contributions to French artistic and cultural life over generations, Béatrice was arrested and sent to the notorious holding camp at Drancy, outside Paris. From there, she and her two children were deported to Auschwitz, where they died in early 1945, just weeks before the camp’s liberation by the Soviet Army. In a cruel irony, Béatrice’s ex-husband Léon also wound up at Auschwitz, and he too perished, in late 1944.
What Béatrice had failed to realize, McAuley writes, was that the establishment of the Vichy government and its persecution of France’s Jewish citizens was the end of the “hybrid identity that earlier generations had sought to refine and, ultimately, to display.” From that time forward, Jews, including those who had strayed from Judaism, were “confined into a single identity category,” told in no uncertain terms that they no longer belonged to France, and that “in fact they never had.” As part of his research, McAuley was able to uncover Béatrice’s death certificate, which stated that she had “Died for France” (“mort pour la France”), the usual inscription for fallen soldiers like her brother Nissim. Béatrice died not for France, McAuley writes indignantly, but “because of France, and specifically because she had been Jewish in France.”
The Moïse de Camondo line was extinguished entirely at Auschwitz. As to those elite Jews who survived the war, the betrayals of the Vichy years unalterably undermined the faith of many in the “nominally universal values of the French republic.” Some renounced any kind of Jewish identity, while others left France for the United States, Great Britain, and South America.
Without mentioning specifically Eric Zemmour, McAuley alludes to the current French presidential candidate’s argument that the Vichy government protected French-born Jews as a matter of principle, targeting only foreign Jews (Zemmour has also questioned Dreyfus’ innocence). Most historians agree that French-born Jews fared better than foreign-born Jews under the Vichy regime, with approximately 75% surviving. But that still means that 25% did not survive, McAuley notes, and his emphasis on Béatrice de Camondo’s fate illustrates the point graphically. By reminding us how extensive France’s unforgiving anti-Semitism was under Vichy, McAuley not only sheds light on a discomforting slice of French history. He also provides a timely contribution to France’s polarizing contemporary debates about what it means to be French.
Image Credits: Yale University Press