A TRAGIC ASSIMILATION. Edmund de Waal is an artist who has exhibited in museums around the world. His bestselling memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, has won many prizes and has been translated into 29 languages. His new book is Letters to Camondo.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Edmund de Waal you propound your strange destiny at the end of your new book, Letters to Camondo, as follows: 

“My father is a half-Jewish Anglican clergyman. My mother is the daughter of a country vicar, a historian, a writer on monasticism. I’ve been brought up in the Church of England, in cathedrals. I’ve written about the Quakers and am drawn to their silences. I read Zen Buddhist poetry. I love the psalms and they cross over everything, are proper poems of exile. I am half-English, and a quarter Dutch and a quarter Austrian and completely European.”

Your original family the Ephrussi, a Russian Jewish banking and oil dynasty, came to Vienna from Odessa. They are linked to your cousins the Camondo family, bankers to the Ottoman Empire who migrated from Istanbul to Paris. In your new book you write unanswered letters to Count Moïse de Camondo, the collector who founded the historic house Musée Nissim de Camondo at 63 rue de Monceau in the 8th arondissement of Paris. What is your book about?

The story is one of assimilation, of where you begin and where you choose to go. And when you go to the place you’ve chosen, what have you brought with you and how do you become a new person in a new country? For the Camondos it’s from Istanbul to Paris, where they become part of Jewish Belle Époque society. At the heart of it is this story of leaving somewhere and settling somewhere else. Then there’s the story of what assimilation actually means, and also the forces against that, trying to tell you that you don’t belong. There is this extraordinary, painful moment when this perfect Parisian family is turned inside out and deported to Auschwitz.

“The story is one of assimilation”

Edmund de Waal

Edmund de Waal’s book LETTERS TO CAMONDO is published in the UK by Chatto & Windus and in the USA by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The French hardback edition is published by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. In November 2021 the Italian hardback edition will be published by Bollati Boringhieri, Rome,

Edmund de Waal, your book starts with growing up established in French society and ends with the genocide against the Jews, but assimilation applies to many people. Should people who come from other countries not try to assimilate so much? 

I trace the language that’s used around assimilation in France, back before the Dreyfus affair, deep into the 19th century. The language of the anti-Semitic activist Édouard Drumont, who talks about how only some kinds of people are authentically French and how the Jewish communities are poisoning or polluting Frenchness. That kind of language ends up horrifically in the Shoah. It ends up at Drancy, the French staging post for transportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The language of otherness tells people that they do not belong, or that they are not worthy of being in a country. I work with refugee groups, and I have a strong, passionate interest in supporting refugees and asylum seekers, because I see parallels with my father’s story.

Why did you decide to write your book in the form of letters to Count Moïse de Camondo, living in his house that will become the museum he dedicated to his son Nissim de Camondo who died during the First War as an aviator fighting for France?

A year ago, in the first Covid lockdown, I was in my studio, completely alone. I was supposed to be in Paris, in the Musée Nissim de Camondo, doing an exhibition in that house of my work. Walking around my studio I found myself talking aloud to Moïse de Camondo, and that talking started to become letters, a very natural way of me asking him questions. He obviously doesn’t write back to me, but I ask about things that matter, about assimilation, about why he wanted to make that house, about being a collector, about a family, about Montaigne, about essays, about porcelain, about Chardin, about Proust. It was a way of me engaging with the utter strangeness of that perfect house in the Rue de Monceau, much more beautiful than the Wallace Collection, and the memorial for his son. And the dreadful story which he could not have guessed, that it’s also a memorial for his daughter and his grandchildren.

Knowing that they were not entirely accepted, Jewish families tried slowly to cancel all roots and to become real Frenchmen. How did they reinforce this? 

They all give incredible legacies to France: Camondo giving his house to France; Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild giving her villa on the French Riviera to the Institut de France and the Reinach family giving their Villa Kérylos. Everyone very publicly gives to France. This is very painful, because you very publicly give all this stuff to France to say I’m grateful for having been accepted as French, and then ten years later it’s held against you.

Didn’t the Reinach family seek assimilation so much that they wanted to create a kind of reformed Jewish French world and calling themselves Israelites, a word which is not used any longer? 

They’re a fascinating family with intellectual strength of mind, and powerful polemicists for this contemporary Jewish life where Jewish thought and French democratic ideals would come together. It’s an extraordinary utopian idea about why the French would accept contemporary Jewish life, and why contemporary Jews should become French. They’re very anti-Zionist. They really want France to work for Jews.

Like Muslims, Jews are not allowed to paint images so there is no tradition of family portraits. In another sign of assimilation the Ephrussi are all portrayed by Renoir, whose very famous portrait of Irène Cahen d’Anvers, later the wife of Moïse de Camondo, fell for a while into the hands of Goering. How odd that it then went backwards and forwards until being sold by the last heir of the Camondos, Irène herself, to a Swiss Nazi.  

It’s a story worthy of a film. Extraordinary. You are nouveau riche in Paris and you need to get your ancestors on the walls quickly, so you ask Renoir, or Carolus-Duran, or any of the other society portrait painters. The enchanting Renoir painting of Irène looks like a pretty little gentile girl. Desirable as a Renoir, its passage through the war into Goering’s hands and then the restitution is an incredibly painful story, because the end of the story is not a resolution. Irène survives the war, but her children don’t and she sells the picture to this seller of Nazi armaments. Now it is dissociated from the family, in a museum in Switzerland.

“Why couldn’t they see what was happening around them?”

Edmund de Waal, Moïse de Camondo was only 37 when his wife Irène left him. Were there other women important in his life? 

Other women or not is not the important thing. He spends his whole life from 1917, when Nissim is killed, in grief. He does not get over the death of his son. The important moment of complete change in his life is hearing that his son has died. After that every single thing he does goes into trying to create this perfect, everlasting, eternal, do not touch, do not change anything memorial for Nissim.

You give this sense of loneliness in the book. He eats alone in his lavish dining room facing the Parc, and even if Hitler is already in power in Germany there’s no sense of change and no fear about the future?

In this perfect environment, with its great gates into the Parc and the rue de Monceau, he is trying to protect himself emotionally and protect this perfect luxurious memorial. The complex fissile mess of Paris in the early 1930s doesn’t seem to intrude on his life at all.

Moïse gives the Museum to the French State on his death in November 1935. His daughter Béatrice and her husband, the composer Léon Reinach, and their children Fanny and Bertrand go to the ceremony, very proud and happy. Then in 1940 the Nazis occupy Paris and in due course the Vichy government and the Milice, the French Nazi police, take over number 61, the house of his uncle. How come his house, number 63, the museum, was never touched, and today is still the same museum that we can visit?

I don’t know the answer.  Perhaps it was all kept together because it was assumed that the house was going to become the private house of a Nazi functionary like Goering. Or perhaps it is because there is not a touch of Jewishness about anything in that house, and every connection to Constantinople and to Semitic life is purged, and his house is already an Aryanite house. Perhaps the ironic thing is that it’s so perfectly assimilated that it doesn’t need to be taken over and looted, because it is already perfectly French.

Why on earth did his daughter and grandchildren think they were safe in Vichy France and not go to America or England as others did?

This is the heart of the book. It is the same conversation I still have in my head with my grandparents: “Why?” “Why in 1938 did you think you were still safe in Vienna?”  It is absolutely unanswerable. People screw up, and leave things too late. Maybe the Camondos felt protected because they’d so generously given the house and collections to France, shown themselves to be so perfectly French. Why would you touch a family that had made this extraordinary gift to the patrimony of your country?

Edmund de Waal, do you want to teach a lesson that they thought they were above the law, superior, and that whoever you are, if they punish your people, you are all punished and there’s no exceptions?

I don’t believe in lessons. I’m not moralizing. Each specific tragedy holds its own place in the world. I’m not being didactic. I am intensely mystified and angry and frustrated that they think that they are safe. Why couldn’t they see what was happening around them?

Edmund de Waal

View of the carriage porch entrance of the Musée Nissim de Camondo towards the courtyard © MAD Paris / Photo: Jean-Marie del Moral

Edmund de Waal

Nissim de Camondo © MAD Paris / Photo: Jean-Marie del Moral

Edmund de Waal

The grand staircase © MAD Paris / Photo: Laszlo Horvath

Edmund de Waal

Le salon des Huet © MAD Paris / Photo: Laszlo Horvath

Edmund de Waal

Moïse and Nissim de Camondo © MAD Paris / Photo: Jean-Marie del Moral

Edmund de Waal

Courtyard and garden of the Musée Nissim de Camondo © MAD Paris / Photo: Jean-Marie del Moral

“I hope the book makes the story of that house completely different”

Edmund de Waal, I recently interviewed Ronald Lauder who is a great fighter against anti-Semitism, which he says is coming back all over the world, and particularly in Europe, because there is no memory of the past in young people. Yet there are still many assimilated Jews in one country or another?  

Speaking as someone who is profoundly assimilated, I deeply think and feel that you have to be absolutely hyper-conscious of the possibility of the return of anti-Semitism. How on earth can it be possible that the UK Labour Party – one of the two major political parties in an assimilated, civilized country – can be led by someone who doesn’t believe that anti-Semitism is a threat and is perfectly able to dismiss all reports of anti-Semitism? So, look at the public realm. Look at the private realm. Always go back to language, to how people are talking about things, to how they’re framing the discourse around people, around Jews, around the otherness of different cultures.

The end of these people is tragic. Béatrice, the only daughter of Moïse, her husband Léon Reinach, her daughter Fanny and her son Bertrand, are all deported to Auschwitz where they all die. The original Camondo family is cancelled. By writing your book are you in some way recovering their memory?

What I absolutely care about is that this isn’t just the story of a beautiful little-visited museum in Paris. This is a story about a real family and what happened. It’s an attempt at empathetic recreation; to be there with them, to have the gravity that makes you believe in them as real people. I write letters, and they don’t write back. That is a structure which I hope has a powerful resonance. I hope the book makes the story of that house completely different, that people will not be able to go there in the way that they went before, just going to a museum and looking at the furniture and thinking what a lot of Sèvres. That’s my plan. They can’t just go. They have to be able to go and feel that story.

You wrote The Hare with Amber Eyes and now Letters to Camondo. They say that a writer cannot write about something he doesn’t feel or know very well. Is this problem of assimilation something that you are dealing with since your childhood?

I grow up in cathedrals, with a father with a strong Austrian accent who comes here aged 10 or 11 in 1939 and wants to become completely English. He becomes the Dean of Canterbury. And I have a Jewish grandmother who is Viennese to the ends of her fingers. I grow up confused. I go to public school, I go to Cambridge and I speak like Prince Charles, but I’m confused and I try and work out where I belong. I feel like a mongrel. That’s not a bad thing to be, it’s just how I feel, and I feel that things skip generations. They get unresolved. They tumble around, and if you’re a writer or an artist you have to deal with the material you’ve got. In my case, it’s a muddle. So what do I do with the muddle? I make stuff and I write books.

You are both a complete writer and also a complete artist, showing your pottery in the most important museums and galleries. As soon as this pandemic ends will you have new shows? 

I will have an exhibition at the Musée de Camondo in the end of the year, and another at the Jewish Museum in New York which is about The Hare with Amber Eyes, using all the family collections from museums.

How do you combine these two gifts you have, for writing and for pottery?

Both work for me in a deeply intertwined way. I think of writing as a kind of facture, and with all those pots I make I’m trying to make a kind of poetry. There is a real connection in some weird bit of my brain between making objects and writing. I am not on two different parallel paths. It’s one thing and sometimes it becomes a sculpture and sometimes it’s a book, but actually it’s really trying to do the same thing, trying to sort something out about myself.

Edmund de Waal, thank you very much for your time for this interview.

Portrait of Edmund de Waal by Tom Jamieson