Covers of "The House of Fragile Things" by James McAuley and "The Vanished Collection" by Pauline Baer de Perignon

New books: Two portraits of French Jewish art collectors and their wartime travails

Although few of us can relate to the rarefied worlds of wealthy Jewish art collectors during the French Third Republic, two recent books reinforce some profound lessons there are to learn from their experiences.

In “The Vanished Collection,” Pauline Baer de Perignon records her investigation into the legacy of her Frankfurt-born great-grandfather, Jules Strauss, who moved to Paris in 1881 and became a notable figure in the art world. The book is translated from French by Natasha Lehrer.

Strauss, in addition to being an early collector of the impressionists, left his own impression by donating frames to the Louvre that he felt were more appropriate for the paintings there — frames that dated from the era of each painting’s creation. In doing so, he provoked a lasting change in how the museum frames its works.

Cover of "The Vanished Collection" by Pauline Baer de PerignonDe Perignon knew little about Strauss, but her interest was piqued when a cousin mentioned that their great-grandfather was likely forced to sell his art collection in 1942, lest the paintings be stolen outright by the Germans. Hooked on the mystery of it (as well as the question of why her Jewish great-grandparents were able to remain in Nazi-occupied Paris without being rounded up), de Perignon embarked on an obsessive quest for the truth.

What is striking is how quickly the trail had become cold within her family. There was little curiosity about the fate of the Strauss collection, which included paintings by Renoir, Monet, and Degas, and the oldest living member of the family doubted any foul play. It was only through a search of the German Federal Archives that de Perignon discovered that her widowed great-grandmother had pursued an unsuccessful 16-year quest for restitution of some of the works that had been wrongly taken from her husband.

It is not clear why the family had buried this knowledge. One possible factor could be their ambivalence toward their Jewish past, as a number of Strauss’ descendants converted to Catholicism. It was only as a consequence of her investigation that de Perignon, who was baptized as a child, came to wonder “how and why we as a family had almost entirely erased that part of our identity.”

These stories lack happy endings, but, whereas her great-grandmother’s pursuit of restitution failed for lack of evidence, de Perignon’s dogged detective work succeeded in uncovering proof that Strauss’ paintings came into German possession against his will. A Dresden museum that initially tried to brush off de Perignon’s efforts ended up ceding its Strauss-owned painting. But perhaps a more meaningful ending is in the rekindling of memory and forging a new connection to the past.

RELATED: Investigation — San Francisco museums may hold Nazi-looted art

Strauss’ collection was tiny when compared to the fine art and furnishings collected by the Ephrussis, Camondos, Reinachs, Rothschilds and other Jewish banking families living in Paris in the late 19th century. In “The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France,” James McAuley offers vivid portraits of these families and looks for meaning in their fallen fortunes.

Cover of "The House of Fragile Things" by James McAuleyThese families, most of whom had roots in other countries, were remarkable not only for developing these extraordinary collections, but for donating them, along with their stunning estates, to the French public prior to World War II. McAuley notes that “the collections they left behind are testimonies to the specific people they were, but also to the proud identity this milieu sought to build — Jewish and French, particular and universal.” And their gifts reflected their love of a nation whose promise they believed in.

Alas, the feeling wasn’t always mutual. These prominent Jews were watched closely (and they furnished their critics with more than their share of scandals), and their art collections were subjected to scrutiny. Of particular offense was their interest in objects from earlier eras in French history, which bigots saw as purchasing a cultural legacy that rightfully belonged to the Catholic elite. In the eyes of antisemites, Jews could not be truly French and were “doomed to a mimetic parroting of a national identity that could never be theirs.”

McAuley explores the families in depth, with attention to both their collecting and their private lives. As with Jules Strauss’ descendants, these families generally witnessed distancing from their Jewish heritage over generations, and especially among the younger women. For these women, struggling “to reconcile their autonomy with the subordinate roles they were assigned in their respective families,” McAuley holds that “leaving the faith was a quiet rebellion, an attempt at taking back whatever control they could grasp.”

But turning one’s back to Judaism was immaterial to the racial policies of the Nazi era, and the descendants of these illustrious families who remained in France during World War II endured fates resembling those of their fellow Jews, including betrayal by their fellow French citizens. McAuley reminds us that, while Auschwitz may have been a German project, nearly 90 percent of the French Jews who were deported there were first brought to Drancy, the notorious concentration camp on the outskirts of Paris that was “entirely staffed by French authorities.”

He devotes particular attention to Béatrice de Camondo, who converted to Catholicism in 1942 and who believed that her social status would protect her. She would nevertheless die in Auschwitz, like her children and estranged husband, Léon Reinach, ending the Camondo line for eternity.

But McAuley’s intention is not to offer portraits in misguided faith. Rather, he is unabashed in his admiration for these families and their commitment to their country’s possibilities. He notes affectingly in an epilogue that “each in its own way, the collections — and now museums — that this Jewish elite left behind were attempts to create something beautiful in an increasingly hostile environment,” but that “the true beauty these collectors achieved is in their respective visions of the Franco-Jewish encounter, a passionate embrace by a cast of outsiders of a place where they came to see themselves as insiders.”

“The Vanished Collection” by Pauline Baer de Perignon (New Vessel Press, 256 pages)

“The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France” by James McAuley (Yale University Press, 320 pages)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.