Art, families and the Holocaust: An evening learning from Tomi Reichental – The Irish Times

Posted By on November 14, 2021

At the National Gallery last Monday, in an event to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht (November 9th-10th, 1938), the great Tomi Reichental recalled again the horrors of being a child in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and of losing 35 members of his extended family to the Holocaust.

Joining him on stage was Oliver Sears who, as interviewed by Sarah Carey, also spoke movingly about the inherited legacies of that time, in his case as the son of a survivor, who first learned about it from a book when he was six years-old.

Sears is the founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland, but his day job is being owner of a well-known Dublin art gallery (recently relocated to Fitzwilliam Street). And while I was chatting to him about both subjects afterwards, he remarked that the two collided more often that one might expect.

A couple of days later, as if to embellish his point, I chanced upon a review of a book about the Camondo family, formerly of Paris, and now commemorated in one of that citys lesser-known museums. The piece in a months-old issue of the Literary Review magazine caught my eye only because I had visited the museum once, some years ago, and it left a deep impression.

The Camondos were Turkish Jews originally, their success as bankers in Constantinople earning them the nickname Rothschilds of the east. In 1867, however, growing unease about life under the Ottomans persuaded them to move to Paris, where they plunged enthusiastically into French culture and customs and thrived for a time, helping finance the belle poque that rose from the ruins of the Franco-Prussian war.

The best known of them then was Isaac de Camondo who, banking aside, was also a bad amateur composer and a much better art connoisseur, buying the impressionists at an early stage and amassing a collection he would eventually bequeath to the Louvre.

His younger cousin Mose de Camondo went one further by actually marrying a work of art. Or at least he married a woman named Irne Cahen dAnvers, who, as an eight-year-old, had been painted by Renoir, in a picture called La Petite Irne.

The marriage was an arranged one, but badly arranged it seems, because it lasted only six years before Irene had an affair with the stable master and married him instead.

Moses main interest as a collector, meanwhile, was 18th-century French furniture and objets dart, with which he gradually filled the familys townhouse. This and the business were both meant to be left in time to his son Nissim, one of two children (along with Batrice) from the short-lived marriage.

But the first World War put paid to that. Nissim joined the French airforce and died a hero when his plane was shot down in 1917. Thereafter his heart-broken father withdrew from business and public life while continuing to build up the collection, which was now to become the Muse Nissim de Camondo, in memory of his beloved son.

It has been suggested that Moses decision to concentrate on collecting work from before the French revolution began as a strategy for integration among the French Catholic upper classes, for whom that period had become fashionable. If so, his daughter Batrice continued the process.

After Mose died in 1935, she converted to Catholicism, having separated from her Jewish husband. And she must have thought that this, as well as being the sister of a French war hero, with some powerful friends, made her immune from the looming catastrophe.

In any case, she ignored her estranged husbands warnings to leave France and she paid for it with her life. In 1942 they were both arrested, along with their two children. All died in Auschwitz.

The new book the one whose review I read is Letters to Camondo, by Edmund de Waal. It takes the form of an imaginary correspondence with the dead Moise, written from his former house, now the museum. That, by the way, is near Parc Monceau, not quite on the Parisian tourist trail although only a short walk from the Arc de Triomphe. If youre ever in Paris, its well worth the detour.

As for La Petite Irne, you have to go to Zurich to see that. Like so much Jewish-owned art, it was looted by the Nazis and spent time in Hermann Goerings personal collection before being recaptured in 1946. The model herself had been lucky, somehow. Already immortalised by Renoir, she also survived the war and lived to be 91.

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Art, families and the Holocaust: An evening learning from Tomi Reichental - The Irish Times

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