Ghosts from the pages of Proust and paintings by Renoir wander through sumptuously furnished lounges and galleries, charmed by James McAuley in his seductive and disturbing story “The House of Fragile Things”. These spectral figures once came from a very wealthy background that was as famous as it was demonized. Its members bore names such as Cahen d’Anvers, Camondo, Ephrussi, Reinach and Rothschild – Jewish citizens of France who, in the years between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the ignominious defeat of the country to Hitler in 1940, have assumed that their wealth, prominence and perhaps above all their philanthropy would save them from harm. How wrong they were about the depths of French anti-Semitism is the astonishing subject that Mr. McAuley lays bare.
The house of fragile things
By James McAuley
Yale, 301 pages, 30 $
Irene and Alice survive, just like the two paintings from their childhood. But many other members of their extended family do not, leaving the once prized possessions of these relationships to be destroyed, dispersed or disappeared. However, Mr. McAuley’s primary focus is neither the artistic treasures that the Nazis stole from Jewish collectors, nor the continuing quest for restitution by the descendants of these victims. What Mr. McAuley does instead is expose the visceral prejudice in France that long preceded Hitler and worryingly manifested itself with the notorious Dreyfus affair – a scandal that erupted in 1894 after the officer Jewish artillery, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was charged with treason. The fury at Dreyfus did not subside until his full exoneration in 1906. In this context, the wartime complicity of the French government in the Third Reich’s ruthless war against the Jews should not have been surprise.
For Washington Post columnist McAuley, the collections amassed by these families offer a way to understand their aspirations, mentalities and wishful thinking. He maintains that the types, styles and histories of paintings, the decor art and the impeccably designed houses they bought and, over time, gave to France testify to the desire of collectors to be viewed with the same measure of equality and fraternity that the French constitution granted to all citizens – including Jews. Assimilation was their goal and despite their riches, all their efforts proved to be of little or no use.
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Voltaire was the poster child of French anti-Semitism even before the Revolution of 1789. Subsequently, socialists and nationalist reactionaries wrote chapters defaming the Jewish financiers and bankers of France as cosmopolitans and capitalists. foreigners. In the 1880s, extravagant conspiracy theories made French Jews the scapegoats for all financial scandals and political betrayals. Most of the accusations were false, of course. But the few that were true – like the involvement of a member of the Reinach banking family in the Panama scandal of 1888-89 – further reinforced hate stereotypes.
All of this is the prelude to the frenzied anti-Semitism sparked by the Dreyfus affair, when it became fashionable to publicly humiliate and ostracize Jews. The chief amplifier of the vitriol was Édouard Drumont, author of the ardently anti-Semitic controversy “La France juive” and editor-in-chief of the newspaper of the same orientation La Libre Parole. Two other prominent writers of the time – the Goncourt brothers, Jules and Edmond – used their widely read Journal to condemn Jews individually and as a group from all angles, including their taste for the art and objects that ‘they chose to collect.
Drumont and the Goncourts believed that the works of art produced in the years preceding the Revolution most fully embodied the national spirit of France. The Jews, they argued, could not possess an “authentic” aesthetic appreciation of artefacts so singularly representative of the country’s cultural and patriotic heritage. Drumont likened the Jewish ownership of such historic objects to an aggressive act of occupation. “In Drumont’s eyes,” writes McAuley, “collecting was an act of Jewish violence: it was by conquering French objects that Jews like the Rothschilds inserted themselves into a national narrative which they then undermined. inside. The futility of the Jewish struggle for acceptance was clear. “In the eyes of the French elite, the Jews were Jews, loyal only to themselves,” McAuley tells us. They were, and still would be, suspiciously regarded as “other”, if not worse.
And yet, at the start of the First World War, Nissim de Camondo, 23, like others in his community, did not hesitate to enlist. A pilot, he was shot down in 1917 while flying behind enemy lines. His father, Moses, was devastated. Proust was among the many to send letters of sympathy.
The elder Camondo fell back on his grief, devoting himself almost exclusively to refining his collection of 18th-century art, housed in the Parisian house he had meticulously fashioned to resemble Marie-Antoinette’s Petit Trianon castle in Versailles. When Camondo died in 1935, he bequeathed the building and its contents to France in memory of his son, the only stipulation being that nothing will ever be changed. Mr. McAuley interprets this painstaking reconstruction of France’s past glories as more than a labor of love; it was a rebuttal of Drumont and his ilk. “The Jews, the museum proclaimed, could indeed know and preserve true and authentic beauty,” writes the author. Today, it is a public museum, a little gem open to all.
Camondo’s brother-in-law, Charles Cahen of Antwerp, made a similar statement when, in 1935, he too bequeathed to France his family estate, the superbly landscaped Rococo-era Chateau de Champs-sur-Marne. The history of the property, written by Cahen d’Anvers himself, made little distinction between the noble residents of the house from the 17th and 18th centuries and its more recent owners, the Jewish family who bought it in 1895. They all, Mr. McAuley tells us, “were also invested in the project of perfecting and maintaining the highest French aesthetic ideal.”
The Reinach and Rothschild families also found ways to leave behind – through the collections and buildings they donated to France – additional aftershocks to the anti-Semites who attacked them. All these donations proclaimed that the donors were both French and Jewish, their aesthetic flawless. They had made their point, they thought.
Then, in June 1940, German troops arrived in Paris. “In the months and years following the Nazi occupation and the establishment of the Vichy government,” writes McAuley, “the whole social world that a generation of Jewish collectors had built up was swiftly and deliberately destroyed. with the approval – and even the encouragement – of the very nation they had defended.
Mr. McAuley tells this haunting saga in eloquent detail. As French anti-Semitism increases again today, the effect is nothing short of frightening.
-Mrs. Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges”.
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