Cover Image: Letters to Camondo

Letters to Camondo

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In his bestselling 2010 nonfiction book “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal immersed himself in the tragic history of his ancestral Ephrussi family. In his latest work, “Letters to Camondo,” he returns to the same territory. At its center is the Constantinople-born banker and art collector Count Moïse de Camondo, who lived just down the block from the Ephrussis in Paris.

The Camondo and Ephrussi families both arrived in France in 1869, and both built elegant mansions on the newly created Rue de Monceau. They and their wealthy Jewish neighbors embraced a future in “secular, republican, tolerant, civilised Paris” that would soon be tested by the heightened antisemitism that accompanied the Dreyfus affair.

De Waal’s richly illustrated book takes the form of 58 brief letters written in the present day to the long-deceased Moïse de Camondo, featuring a wide range of deeply felt reflections on the home, its ornate furnishings and works of art, and its archive of the family’s papers.

Following Moïse’s death in 1935, the mansion was bequeathed to serve as a museum, named in honor of Moïse’s only son, Nissim, who had been expected to succeed his father in heading the family’s business but was killed in action in World War I.

However, de Waal reminds us that the “perfectly curated ending” in this gesture is illusory, for the great gifts bestowed by illustrious Jews to France did little to secure their status as citizens. Their journey from opulence to annihilation was quick, as represented by the deportation of Moïse’s daughter Béatrice and her entire family to Auschwitz, where the Camondo line was forever extinguished.

In the 52nd letter, de Waal writes chillingly: “You didn’t see it coming. You didn’t understand the fragility of this stuff, this vast building with its endless rooms of possessions and collections, the portraits and emblems … How could you not leave? How you could sit in Vienna and not know that your life was built on this delicate hope, this slow and steady becoming the person you wanted to be, this bet on assimilation.”

Without warning, de Waal has, at this point, momentarily shifted to addressing his great-grandfather, the banker Viktor Ephrussi, who, with his wife recently dead by suicide and his mansion and belongings in the hands of the Nazis, arrived in England from Vienna as a stateless refugee with little more than a suitcase. The moment evidences how strongly de Waal identifies with the Camondos’ story, so close to his own family’s.
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Thanks to Netgalley and FSG for the ebook. When the author, an artist, was making an exhibit at Musee Nissim de Campondo, he decided to write a series of letters across time to Moise de Campondo regarding the house, the extraordinary art he collected that is now on view. This house, and a series of houses nearby, are great houses built by Jewish families that have come from all over, including Constantinople, where Moise was born, and the Ukraine, where the author’s family comes from (these two families will marry, making the letters that much more personal). And in this corner of Paris, these families amass great wealth, collect the great art of the day and give back to France in a number of ways. Suffering from some antisemitism, the families still felt that they had found a new home for themselves, until the Second World War comes and shatters everything. And yet this museum remains and it, and this particular family history, haunts the author.
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At 63 rue de Monceau lies the Musée de Nissim de Camondo, originally the home of Jewish art collector Moise de Camondo, who left the house and its priceless collection to France after his death in memory of his son who had been killed in WW!. In spite of this generous gift, the Camondo family, as well as many other wealthy Jewish collectors, were betrayed by the nation that they felt they belonged to and many of them perished in the Holocaust. Edmond de Waal’s own family were caught up in this betrayal and he has written previously about this in his book The Hare with Amber Eyes. In this his latest book he writes a series of letters to Moise de Camondo, a result of his research into the house, the family and the collection during which he found himself frequently talking aloud to Moise. It’s a tragic story and de Waal’s book is a moving tribute to Camondo, to whom he feels a deep connection. It’s a delightful read, full of wonderful illustrations, and a compelling insight into the family’s world and the lost world of Jewish art collecting.
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Edmund de Waal is truly one of a kind. His style is beautiful, moving and original. I remember how much I loved “The Hare with Amber Eyes”, his book from 2010. “Letters to Camondo” is a loose sequel, diving even deeper into the complicated history of not only the author's ancestors but the whole vanished world of Jewish European elite. It is a strange, intimate book, full of digressions, descriptions of various pieces of art, not finished thoughts - but as a whole it is a masterpiece.

It was very disturbing to see the similarities between the anti-Semitic rhetoric from the beginning of the 20th century and anti-immigration one from our times. Why the history has to repeat itself?

Thanks to the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and NetGalley for the advance copy of this book.
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I just love everything Edmund de Waal writes about. His first novel ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’ is one of my favorite books and ‘Letters to Camondo‘’ is just as good. De Waal is a Master in writing about the world of decorative arts and their collectors. It’s a fascinating weave of stories, with the most interesting people and the stories the works tell. This novel is told in letters and I loved the very descriptive style. I will probably read this book more than once and I highly recommend it.
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Edmund de Waal first came to literary prominence in 2011 with the autobiographical journey of his family history in The Hare With The Amber Eyes. This book could be considered a companion text as again de Waal breathes new perspectives into his forebears - the Ephrussi-as neighbours of the Count Moïse de Camondo.

This book explores the life of the de Camondo family through a series of letters written to the Count from de Waal as he explores the archive of the Count’s life and  family.The letters are beautiful - poetic in many ways. As the reader we are given a tour of the house ( which was bequeathed to the French state  as a museum). The beauty and melancholia pervading through the building is evident as the description of the rooms, furniture and family belongings ( still as they were in 1935)capture the life of the inhabitants over a number of years. Camondo created a memorial to his ancestors and Parisian life.

The letter writing approach to describing the life of the Count and the house is beautifully structured and the manner through which de Waal questions the Count is poignant and sensitive. The story of the family is tragic and again highlights the brutality of the human and anti-semitism. As de Waal explores each room and its contents and those who lived there he draws together his thoughts ,”History is happening. It isn’t the past, it is a continuing unfolding of the moment. It unfolds in our hands.”

And this book highlights how we are all part of an intricate web of living, dying, hoping and loving leaving a legacy of our belongings but ultimately the relationships within our lives- past,present and those in the future ).

This is another exquisitely researched book that opens a window into the life of an extraordinary family.
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