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The Uncivil Servant: In Istanbul and Paris, Traces of the Camondos

Mitchell Abidor
May 5, 2013
camondo stairsabidorby Mitchell Abidor In Istanbul, as you descend from Beyoğlu through the streets of formerly Genoese and Jewish Galata, just before you leave the winding streets and come out onto Karaköy Square and Galata Bridge and the Bosporus, is an eccentric white staircase, perhaps the strangest monument to a lost world, the destroyed world of European Jewry and the faded world of Ottoman Jewry: the Camondo Stairs. Described in tour guides as “Mannerist,” the two levels of stairs make a path between two streets (one of them Banker Street) and were built by the Camondo family to ease the trip between two of their buildings — the Camondos (Kamondo in Turkish) whose travels and banking business led them over the centuries from Spain to Venice to Istanbul where, already wealthy, they became fabulously wealthy, earning the name of “Rothschilds of the East.” By the mid-nineteenth century the family head, Abraham Salomon Kamondo, was the wealthiest of the 800,000 Jews of the Ottoman Empire. It was Abraham who was the banker of the Ottoman state, who helped finance the Crimean War. It was Abraham who intervened whenever Jews anywhere in the empire faced difficulties, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Serbia. And in the fissiparous Jewish community of Istanbul, with Jews from Spain, Italy, the Levant, and Germany, all with different styles of prayer, different lifestyles, and even different languages (still today the community newspaper, Şalom, is printed partially in Judeo-Español), Abraham was an active participant in both community affairs and in Judeo-Jewish civil wars. He even used his influence with the court to have arrested a rabbi whom he opposed. As engrained in Turkish life as Abraham and the Camondos were, however, they were officially Italian citizens, and in 1867 “Signor Camondo Abramo Salomone” was made a count of that country, by decree of King Victor Emmanuel II. Abraham was already 86 by then, and the next generation of the family decided that Paris, the center of the world, would be a more fitting home to expand their fortunes, and so there they moved their family and bank in the late 1860’s. They immediately joined the ranks of the Jewish aristocracy, alongside the Rothschilds, the Ephrussis, the Reinachs, and the Perreires. But when Abraham died in 1873, his wish was to be buried in his beloved Istanbul, in the cemetery in Hasköy he had helped finance, in a fabulous mausoleum that would serve as his memorial for all time. In Paris, the Camondo wealth grew and grew, and three generations after Abraham, Moïse and Isaac Camondo were among the wealthiest men in France, as well as famous collectors and supporters of the arts. Moïse had had constructed on the Monceau plain, in the heart of the wealthiest part of Paris, an hotel particulier stocked with the finest of 18th century French art, his homage to the land that had welcomed the family, that gave what seemed to be a dynasty a solid base. His brother Isaac died a childless bachelor, and Nissim, Moïse’s only son, died as a pilot in 1917, shot down over German lines. Only one Camondo child remained, a daughter, Beatrice. The Camondo name was approaching extinction. When Moïse died in 1935, he left his house and everything in it to the French state, art and furniture worth millions of francs, on condition that everything in the house, everything, be left exactly as it was at the time of his death; nothing moved, nothing added, nothing subtracted. And to ensure that damage to the house be minimized, one of his conditions was that there always be an admission charge to the museum, thus restricting the flow of people through the collection. The house was closed at the time of the German Occupation, and survived the war intact. The same could not be said of the family whose name it bore. Beatrice, the final surviving Camondo, died in Auschwitz in 1943, along with her husband — one of the famous Reinach family that had played such an important part in the Dreyfus Affair — and her two children. They had incorrectly thought their wealth and connections and the sacrifice of their nephew Nissim during World War I would save them, and that Beatrice’s life in the horsey set made them immune to what was happening around them. After the war, the Musée Nissim Camondo re-opened, with one addition: a prayer book that had once belonged to the family in Istanbul. It was able to be added to the museum, alongside family effects and photos, despite the condition that nothing more join the collection, thanks to a bit of Talmudic logic-twisting: the book wasn’t really an addition; since it was once in the family, it was merely being returned to where it had always belonged. Now all that is left of the Camondos, of their wealth, influence, and taste, are a staircase in Istanbul and a museum on a quiet side street in Paris. Abraham’s magnificent mausoleum in Istanbul stands stranded alongside a highway, anything of value stripped from it, and, in photos of it displayed in the city’s Jewish museum just below the Camondo stairs, the visitor can see that it is covered with graffiti. Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. He is author of Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.