I first learned of Edmund de Waal, author and renowned ceramicist, when a friend gave me his book “The Hare with Amber Eyes” years ago. In that (nonfiction) book, we learned of de Waal’s astonishing family history.  He’d inherited a large number of rare Japanese netski (small ivory carvings) and was curious to learn where they’d come from in his family and under what circumstances.

De Waal comes from one of the most famous Jewish banking families in Europe, it turns out, the Dephrussi family, originally from Odessa, Russia, and his branch of the family was in Vienna (as were the then fledgling, Polish-born Rothschilds).  The famous Ringstrasse, which was built just outside the downtown area of Vienna, was where these very rich Jewish banking families lived, including de Waal’s own family. But with the advent of anti-Semitism in Austria and the German takeover of that country leading up to World War II, virtually everything that the de Waal’s owned was trashed, ruined or stolen by the Nazis or their Austrian sympathizers.  The netskis, which had been a gift to a French cousin of de Waal’s, were saved by a loyal and loving housekeeper to the de Waal’s, and they later came to belong to this man, who moved to Japan after the War, and had a long and beautiful life there , so that the netskis rather ended up where they came from (though de Waal has donated them to a museum of Jewish culture in Austria).

The reason that my good friend gave me the book in the first place is because my great-grandparents had a competing investment bank in Odessa, a small part of their financial empire, and it’s highly likely that the Ephrussis may be cousins of mine, but I’ve been too lazy to do the research to find out more specifics.  And, in one of those great twists of fortune, the lead character of Charles Swann, in Marcel Proust’s masterpiece “In Search of Lost Time”, my absolute favorite novel of all time, is based upon a cousin of de Waal’s, and , thus, may be a cousin of mine.

“Letters to Camondo” is Edmund de Waal’s latest (nonfiction) book, and it’s an amazing read, a cautionary tale, and a fascinating period piece of sorts.  The Camondo family, who came from Turkey, had established themselves in Paris in around l860 as one of the most prominent and riches families in Europe; they were Jewish bankers, as well, and their neighbors included most of the great Jewish banking families of Europe, though almost none was French born.  (The life and times of these families, focusing mainly on the Camondos, is the core of the book, in a series of invented letters from de Waal, a cousin of the Camondos through marriage, to Camondo the elder).   These famous banking families built their mansions/hotels on the Parc Manceau, and Proust himself lived around the corner, documenting the lives, parties, comings and goings of these families for his novel.

De Waal, as a family member, was given access to all parts of the Camondo house, which was donated by that family to the people of France after Camondo’s only son was killed , heroically, in World War I. The Camondos were trying to prove their great loyalty to the French people, although the infamous anti-Semitic Dreyfus case was just around the corner, historically, and French anti-Semitism reached its heyday during Proust’s era and into the viscous Vichy  government that collaborated with the Nazis after France fell to Germany.  The letters de Waal writes to his dead cousin  not only detail the elegance and taste of the Camondos (and, in essence, their friends and competitors), but take us through several generations of Camondo’s heirs/children/grandchildren. I’m told that this house museum is spectacular, and the Camondo taste exquisite, by those friends of mine who’ve been in it as a museum.  The best  known/last of these banking families, the Rothschilds, are the only remaining such family in France: the Camondo heirs and their cousins and those with whom they intermarried almost all end up dead at Auschwitz, for all their money and connections and belief in their assimilation as French citizens. De Waal, of course, knows better, as he saw the very same thing happen to his own family in Vienna, though he and his sister did survive along with a few other relatives; de Waals ended up living in The Netherlands.

So the great period of these  houses, the elaborate entertaining, the intermingling with French aristocracy, began and ended in just about an 80 year period; most of these Jewish banking families also donated great houses and the furnishings/paintings etc. to the people of France as house museums; one, in The South of France, became the headquarters of the Gestapo for awhile during WWII.

The core aesthetic of Japanese art is transience.  In Japanese painting, in the fabrics that became kimonos, in the poetry of the Heian and Momoyama periods and in Japan’s greatest novel, “The Tale of Genji”, written in the fourteenth century by Lady Muraski Shikibu, a member of the Japanese court and probably the first novelist in the world, are all built around the buds and blossoms of earliest spring and the last colored leaves of late fall, as the idea of transience became the core aesthetic of Japanese art. De Waal, then, the inheritor of the netskis, cannot help but see the Camondos and others families as little more than the falling leaves of late fall, bursting with that last blast of color, before the death camps of Auschwitz got them in the end.

–Daniel Brown

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