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Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

2021, Vintage

photo from book cover
photo, Bertrand Reinach, son of Beatrice de Camondo, 1938

Charlotte gave me this book for my birthday after we decided to visit the Nissim Camondo Museum in Paris for the same occasion. I started reading before the Museum visit, but the book took on greater meaning afterwards when I could visualise the artworks. Count Moïse Camondo, the descendant of a successful Jewish banking family from Constantinople, amassed an extensive art collection in his villa on the Parc Monceau in Paris. Heartbroken by the death of his only son Nissim, during WWI, he bequeathed the house and collection to the Decorative Arts Museum in Paris, stipulating that nothing be changed. A visit to the museum reveals a house overflowing with exquisite objects, paintings, books, and furniture, as well as family photographs, notably portraits of his son, still in their original setting.


Epigraph (p. vii):

lacrimae rerum 'tears of things', from 'there are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind', Virgil, Aeneid, Book 1, line 462


The author, whose ancestors lived next door to the Camondos in Paris, extensively researched the family archives, looking for links to the past through the lives and deaths of the Camondos, and in the collections themselves, as a way of honouring their memory.


You become part of the street, the neighbourhood, the city, the country, so perfectly, so delicately aligned, assimilated, that you disappear. You leave your gift, your name, and go. (Lettre LII, p. 152)


Moïse Camondo died in 1935, leaving behind one daughter, Beatrice, and her two children Bertrand and Fanny. They were the last of the family line. Beatrice thought she was safe during WWII due to her circle of friends among the aristocracy and the generous financial and artistic donations her family had made to France. But she, her husband and children were deported in 1943-1944, and died in Auschwitz.


'Perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can be described this way: he takes up the struggle against dispersion. Right from the start, the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which the things of the world are found.'


- Walter Benjamin, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 211. (Lettre XXX, p. 80, Notes p. 175)



Please add your perspective if you have read this book.

 

Sue shared her perspective on this book, her favorite of the year.


..when I started reading I felt like I was being fed an arid list of facts. Someone was born, they built a beautiful house, terrible things happened to their family under the Nazis.


As I read more, the story seeped into my consciousness. In this beautiful home (now the Nissim Camondo Museum in Paris), all is perfect and safe - if you visit, as I did, you will wonder how anything bad could happen here. Reading the book, this myth was shattered. I wanted to warn Camondo, I wanted to speak out against the trusting nature of this Jewish financier who hoped he could protect his family by his generous philanthropy and ties to French society. Camondo thought that the world had moved on from the anti-semitism of the 19th century. The last pages which describe the steps the family took to save themselves in the 1940’s are heartbreaking. I felt a deep sense of poignancy and wished I could go back in time and change history.

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