The House of Frag­ile Things: Jew­ish Art Col­lec­tors and the Fall of France

By – September 21, 2021

The superbly craft­ed, well-researched book The House of Frag­ile Things swirls around the themes of entan­gle­ments and attach­ments. Author James McAuley focus­es on four Jew­ish fam­i­lies who belonged to the French grand bour­geoisie in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. They were deeply entwined with one anoth­er, through the bonds of mar­riage, through the exclu­sive­ness of a Right Bank neigh­bor­hood, and through the full cal­en­dar of their social lives. The Camon­dos, the Cahens d’Anvers, the Reinachs, and the Roth­schilds all also felt a deep attach­ment to the Third Repub­lic; its ide­al of civic equal­i­ty, tran­scend­ing dif­fer­ences of reli­gion and race, inspired feel­ings of intense and unwa­ver­ing loy­al­ty. Until the mil­i­tary defeat in 1940, the patri­o­tism of these priv­i­leged cit­i­zens seemed to be rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed. They were blessed with unim­ped­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties to acquire and trans­fer wealth, and they could adopt with almost no ridicule the habits and prac­tices of the nation’s most ven­er­a­ble Catholic grandees. This social suc­cess was achieved despite the sting of anti­se­mit­ic attacks from the scur­rilous press, and despite the erup­tion of the Drey­fus affair.

Thus the mem­bers of the Jew­ish upper caste could sur­round them­selves with ele­gant fur­nish­ings and could devote them­selves to the col­lec­tion of works of art. None oth­er than Renoir could be hired as a por­traitist. His paint­ing of Mlle Irène Cahen d’Anvers (1880), which is repro­duced as a col­or plate and on the dust jack­et of McAuley’s book, is as riv­et­ing as its fate. After the fall of France, the col­lec­tor who briefly seized the por­trait was Her­mann Göring. When the sit­ter man­aged to sur­vive the war, she got the paint­ing back, but then she sold it to a Ger­man-born Swiss arms man­u­fac­tur­er who had col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Nazis. The paint­ing now hangs in Zurich. A pho­to­graph of la petite Irène,” tak­en in 1958, five years before her death, serves to illus­trate this book. A paint­ing from child­hood and a pho­to tak­en in old age dev­as­tates in their rev­e­la­tion of the rav­ages of time. Fragili­ty indeed.

Across about three-quar­ters of a cen­tu­ry, McAuley deft­ly tracks the genealog­i­cal links, the shel­tered lives, and the aes­thet­ic indul­gences that great wealth per­mit­ted. These fam­i­lies rel­ished the thick­ness of mate­r­i­al belong­ings, but were far less prey to spir­i­tu­al long­ings. Their ded­i­ca­tion to Judaism was usu­al­ly mod­est — rarely explic­it­ly repu­di­at­ed, but not cul­ti­vat­ed either. The hap­py end­ings were very few; Nis­sim de Camon­do, the beloved son of the patri­arch Moïse de Camon­do, was killed fight­ing in the First World War. His sis­ter, who was mar­ried to Léon Reinach, died in Auschwitz three decades lat­er. The death cer­tifi­cate that McAuley found for Louise Béa­trice de Camon­do notes: Mort pour la France.” She did not die for France how­ev­er, the author insists. If any­thing, she died because of France, and specif­i­cal­ly because she had been Jew­ish in France.” Such attach­ments proved to be lethal.

Stephen Whit­field is Pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Stud­ies (Emer­i­tus) at Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty. He is the author of Learn­ing on the Left: Polit­i­cal Pro­files of Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty (2020).

Discussion Questions

The House of Frag­ile Things: Jew­ish Art Col­lec­tors and the Fall of France by James McAuley offers a unique and deeply affect­ing glimpse into a rich and under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed aspect of the Holo­caust. The author, who is both a his­to­ri­an and a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, reveals how the Nazi occu­piers of France sought not only to destroy its Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion but also to plun­der the trea­sures of West­ern art that sev­er­al notable men and women had man­aged to col­lect. Their wealth and priv­i­lege, as we learn, did not spare them from the gas cham­bers. This,” the author explains, is only how the sto­ry ends.” His book is devot­ed to explor­ing their lives, their pas­sions, their pain, and the role they played in his­to­ry, all with an eye for the telling and some­times heart­break­ing detail. McAuley self-effac­ing­ly refers to his work as a micro-his­to­ry,” if only because he focus­es so inti­mate­ly on a small num­ber of fam­i­lies — the Camon­dos, the Reinachs, the Cahens d’Anvers, and the Roth­schilds — who were among the mil­lions of vic­tims of Nazi Ger­many. But The House of Frag­ile Things is per­haps best described as a work of vast moral grandeur that hon­ors the lives that these impor­tant col­lec­tors led and the art­work they preserved.