History Is Happening: On Edmund de Waal’s “Letters to Camondo”

June 14, 2021   •   By Jake Fuchs

Letters to Camondo

Edmund de Waal

NETSUKE ARE Japanese carvings, commonly in ivory, of a person or animal. They are very small, so small that you could easily carry one in your pocket, as did Edmund de Waal while engaged in the research leading to The Hare with Amber Eyes. That 2010 book was the history of his own extended family, the Ephrussi. Now, a decade later, in Letters to Camondo, he has written about another rich and powerful Jewish clan that made the journey from east to west — in this case, from Constantinople to Paris.

In the earlier book, the hare with amber eyes is a netsuke, and netsuke appear throughout the story. Moreover, de Waal seems to think they enabled him to tell it. “You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.” He may say this because netsuke can stand for what is firm and resistant to breakage, unlike the ceramics de Waal is famous for. They stand for what every writer needs: a secure place from which to look out on a confused and confusing world. The very last sentence in the book is: “The netsuke begin again.” Wasn’t this an assurance of another history?

Now we have Letters to Camondo, a most unusual history consisting of 53 short letters written by de Waal to Moïse de Camondo, who died in Paris in 1935. Here perhaps the letters — paper and ink, and the voice of the writer — are equivalent to the older book’s netsuke.

The first letter to Camondo begins, “Dear friend,” the second and third the same, but the salutation to the next is a blank: “Dear___.” De Waal explains: “I realize that I’m not entirely sure about how to address you, Monsieur le Comte.” He never becomes entirely sure, but alternates among “friend, “dear friend,” “monsieur,” and “Cher Monsieur.” The question that constantly arises for de Waal is what would Camondo think of him and his history (if that’s what it is) of the Camondo family? Would he nod his head, if he were physically present, and say, “Yes, you understand; yes, my friend”? Or would he smile gently and say, “No, monsieur, you have not got it”?

Until the last part of the book, which covers the German occupation of France after Moïse’s death, each letter describes what he, Moïse, did at a particular time as a businessman, family leader, patron and financier of artists, Frenchman, Jew. A typical example:


Everyone here around the Parc Monceau seems to be a cousin. It seems best to assume so.

You do business with X and take a month at Aix-les-Bains with Y and hunt with Z. There is the synagogue for bar mitzvahs and the marriages — arranged — of children, for funerals and the festivals. Your fathers worked together on deals on grain or railroads fifty years ago. Your mothers helped someone’s daughter find the right connection. Why wouldn’t you help place a younger son, put his name up for a club?

As this is Paris, these clans are complex. And yours — ours — are Byzantine, Levantine.

I could begin anywhere, but I’ll start with Louise Cahen d’Anvers …           

Then de Waal focuses on other members of the Camondo family, but Moïse is always at the center. And de Waal, the son of an Anglican priest, stands there with him. In the very last of the letters, he writes, “I am half English and a quarter Dutch and a quarter Austrian.” But he is Jewish, too, and the absence of Jewishness from these fractions says a lot. Without that, he will never be sure of what he is, able to say only, “I think I’m a mongrel.” So, this is one of the purposes of his book: to learn what it is to be a Jew, when you want to be or must be — because of where you are — something else as well. This may be why he chose to imagine this particular correspondent, for Moïse de Camondo gave what he most valued to France and expected something in return for his people, not just himself.

For one thing, he gave his Paris home, which became, on December 21, 1936, the Musée Nissim de Camondo. This possession of the French nation still exists and is often visited by admirers of fine art and architecture. Like some other museums that were originally private homes, it is furnished almost as it was when people lived there. De Waal spent much time in this museum.

The letter that recounts the events of that December day of inauguration begins with “Mon cher Monsieur,” more formal than “friend” or “monsieur” alone. Soon Moïse is nudged aside, as de Waal includes in the letter a French communiqué:

In the presence of Monsieur Francois Carnet, President, and the members of the Conseil d’administration de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs and many leading members of the world of arts, M. Jean Zay, Minister of Education, inaugurated today, at 63 rue de Monceau, the Musée Nissim de Camondo.

As part of formally accepting Camondo’s gift of the house and its contents, Education Minister Zay uncovers a large plaque. It informs museum visitors that le comte Moïse de Camondo has established this museum “EN SOUVENIR DE SON FILS NISSIM DE CAMONDO 1892-1917 LIEUTENANT AU 2eme GROUPE D’AVIATION TOMBE EN COMBAT AERIEN LE 5 SEPTEMBRE 1917.”

In previous letters, de Waal has made clear what kind of man Nissim, so named by Moïse after his own father, had been. “He has courage. He volunteers immediately.” At first he fights the Germans on the ground, then is trained in flying, at which he excels. He takes reconnaissance photos from the air, flies in combat, until they shoot him down. Marcel Proust sends Moïse a letter of condolence.

In Nissim, Moïse has given France a true hero, memorialized in the name of that other great gift, the Musée. Is it too much to ask for something in return, something well deserved? De Waal seems to lack all doubt. He addresses Moïse: “You are French. Your son gave his life for France, and you gave back a perfect hôtel filled with ‘the decorative arts, one of the glories of France during the period which I love above all other.’”

“You are French,” de Waal stoutly insists, but what would old Moïse say to that? That not everyone would agree? Of course. But he might add that French antisemitism, always a force, reached such a pitch in the 1930s that France itself seemed to deny that Jews could ever be French. De Waal lists a few of the signs of this disease. In 1937, the celebrated Jew-hater Louis-Ferdinand Céline had a hit with Bagatelles pour un massacre, which sold 75,000 copies. As de Waal puts it, the pamphlet concerned “the Jews and what should happen to them.” In the following year, a member of the National Assembly said, regarding Jewish Prime Minister Léon Blum, that “it is preferable for this country to be led by a man whose origins belong to his soil […] than by a cunning Talmudist.” How overjoyed this patriot must have been when Blum was snatched from the street by antisemitic thugs and beaten almost to death.

The closing paragraph of this letter chills with its irony: “The Musée Nissim de Camondo is hugely popular. There are little red velvet ropes to prevent visitors touching the furniture. They have to extend the opening hours.”

Then the Germans came. The Camondo family, in all its branches, was dispersed. Everything they had was taken away. Some years later, next to the museum’s plaque celebrating Nissim, was affixed another, smaller plaque, a simple listing of names of Camondo family members, “Déportés en 1943–1944 Sont Morts à Auschwitz.”

That might seem to be that, everything settled. What’s past is past, so why not just move on? Would Moïse accept this conclusion? I’d hate to think so. In any case, de Waal would not accept it: “Why does being told to move on make me so angry?” he asks. The answer, which I think he has given throughout this book, is because it murders history. For “[h]istory is happening. It isn’t the past, it is a continuing unfolding of the present.” The historian must see it that way if his vision is to catch something of the truth, and that “is why objects carry so much.” They support us. They allow us to see and not to forget.

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.


The netsuke begin again.


A former professor of English, Jake Fuchs has written scholarly books and fiction, including two satiric mystery novels, a send-up of academe, and the semi-autobiographical novel Conrad in Beverly Hills (2010).