Musee Nissim de Camondo: Thoughts About the Attacks in Paris

I got the message: "We are all safe and at home. Please don't call; we're going to bed" before I heard anything else. Before I read about the horrible attacks, before I learned the death toll.

My husband & I had returned from Paris two weeks earlier where we had been visiting our son & his family. It had been a lovely trip, half baby-sitting, half sight-seeing. For the Jewish traveler (at least for this one), many European historical sights emit menacing undertones, even those venues not directly associated with anti-Semitic events. So I had been disconcerted by the visit to the Musee Nissim de Camando, by its celebration of French cultural patrimony with little open acknowledgment of the collection's Jewish provenance. Two weeks later, that unease gave rise to darker and more disturbing thoughts.

We were looking for sights we hadn't seen on earlier visits. Friends had mentioned the Musee Nissim de Camondo, and its relationship to the history of prominent European Jewish families. Interest piqued, we schlepped out to the 8th arrondisement to the de Camondo estate.

Moise de Camondo, we learned, was a scion of a major Jewish banking family which included many prominent businessmen and philanthropists. The Comondos trace their enterprises from 15th century Spain through the Ottoman Empire into Paris, where Moise arrived as a child in the mid-19th century. A passionate collector of Ancien Regime decorative arts, Moise constructed his massive home to showcase his collections. Named in memory of his son, an aviator who perished in World War I, the estate sits within a private park in a neighborhood which once housed Paris' wealthiest Jewish families. Moise bequeathed his home and collection to the City of Paris upon his death in 1935.

Moise was the last of the de Camondo family to die a natural death. A small plaque near the tour's exit notes that his daughter and grandchildren were deported and killed in Auschwitz. The plaque, the kosher kitchens, a few artifacts, and a couple of lines in the brochure are the only items which place the family's Judaism within the context of Western European history.

Walking through the displays, I felt sad and puzzled. What, I wondered, attracted this man to these objects, relics of a bygone time in his adopted country, so remote from his own time and tradition, and (even by early 20th century standards) so over-the-top ornate? The facts of his life are few and sad: a failed marriage, the death of a beloved son, a retreat into self-imposed social isolation. His most abiding social contacts appear to have been organized societies of collectors and art scholars.

Apart from his art and collection society membership, no information about his public life is given at the museum. Within his lifetime, the chronic undercurrent of anti-Semitism erupted into overt conflict, as with the Dreyfus affair and the development of the Nazi party in Germany. We do not learn how these events impacted on his life or outlook. The little personal information distributed at the Musee suggests that Moise did not immerse himself in the family business nor engage in civic or political activities.

The art Moise collected idealizes an earlier era of his adopted homeland. He purchased these and gave them back to France as a public bequest. He and his family contributed so much to France. In proportion to his giving, they received so little. In the end, France offered no safety or protection for the de Camondos, as Jews or as citizens.

The horrifying events in the weeks following the trip intensified my confusion. It is clear that the France of the 21st century is very different, in crucial ways, from the de Camondo's France. Within the context of European nations, it is more welcoming of immigrants and refugees. It has taken in, however ambivalently, Middle Easterners and North Africans. How different it was for the de Camondos and other Jews. They threw their lot in with France, only to find the most limited and problematic acceptance. It is a tragic fact that a nation can not always fulfill its primary mission to protect its citizens. It is an affront when it chooses not to do so.