art collecting & anti-semitism in paris: edmund de waal’s the hare with amber eyes

“It wasn’t just Renoir who disliked the Jews . . .”

Chapter 10     My Small Profits

It wasn’t just Renoir who disliked the Jews. A string of financial scandals throughout the 1880s were laid at the door of the new Jewish financiers, and the Ephrussi family was a particular target: ‘Jewish machinations’ were supposed to be behind the collapse in 1882 of the Union Générale, a Catholic bank that had strong ties to the Church, with many small Catholic depositors. The popular demagogue Edouard Drumont wrote in La France juive:

The audacity with which these men treat these enormous operations, which for them are just simple game parties, is incredible. In one session, Michel Ephrussi buys or sells oil or wheat worth ten or fifteen million. No trouble; seated for two hours near a column at the Stock Exchange and phlegmatically holding his beard in his left hand, he distributes orders to thirty courtiers who crowd around him with their pencils extended.

Courtiers come and whisper in Michel’s ear the day’s news. Money is seen to be a bagatelle to these Jewish money-men, implies Drumont, a plaything. It has no connection to the savings carefully taken into the bank on market day, or hidden in the coffee pot on the mantelpiece.

It is a vivid image of covert power, of plotting. It has the intensity of Degas’s painting At the Bourse of a whispered conversation between hook-nosed, red-bearded financiers amongst the pillars. The Bourse and its players segue into the Temple and the money-changers.

‘Who shall stop these men from living then, who shall soon make France look like a wasteland then?…it is the speculator in foreign wheat, it is the Jew, the friend of the Count of Paris…the favourite of all the salons of the aristocratic quarter; it is Ephrussi, the chief of the Jewish band who speculate on wheat.’ Speculation, the making of money out of money, is seen as a particular Jewish sin. Even Theodor Herzl, the apologist of Zionism, always eager to raise money for the cause from wealthy Jewry, is rude in a letter about ‘the Ephrussi, spekulant’.

Ephrussi et Cie did wield extraordinary power. The absence of the brothers from the Bourse was noted with panic during one crisis. Their threat to flood the markets with grain in response to Russian pogroms was taken seriously in an excited report in a newspaper during another crisis. ‘[The Jews]…have learned the potency of this weapon when they made Russia hold her hand in the last Jewish persecution…by reducing Russian securities twenty-four points in thirteen days. “Touch another of our people and not another ruble you shall have, to save your empire,” said Michel Ephrussi, head of the great house at Odessa, the largest grain dealers in the world.’ The Ephrussi were, in short, very rich, very visible and very partisan.

Drumont, the editor of a daily anti-Semitic newspaper, acted as the marshaller of opinion into print. He told the French how to spot a Jew – one hand is larger than another – and how to counter the threat that this race posed to France. His La France juive sold 100,000 copies in its first year of publication in 1886. By 1914 it had gone into 200 editions. Drumont argued that Jews, because they were inherently nomadic, felt they owed nothing to the State. Charles and his brothers, Russian citizens from Odessa and Vienna and God knows where, looked after themselves – whilst leaching the life-blood of France by speculating with real French money.

The Ephrussi family certainly thought they belonged in Paris. Drumont certainly thought not: ‘Jews, vomited from all the ghettos of Europe, are now installed as the masters in historic houses that evoke the most glorious memories of ancient France…the Rothschilds everywhere: at Ferrières and at Les Vaux-de-Cernay…Ephrussi, at Fontainebleau, in the palace of Francis I…’ Drumont’s ridicule of the speed in which this family has moved from being ‘penniless adventurers’ to this ascent into society, their attempts at hunting, their recently commissioned coats of arms, became vicious anger when he thought of his patrimony soiled by the Ephrussi and their friends.

I force myself to read this stuff: Drumont’s books, newspaper, the endless pamphlets in numerous editions, the English versions. Someone has annotated a book on the Jews of Paris in my London library. Written very carefully and approvingly next to Ephrussi is the word venal pencilled in capitals.

There are quantities and quantities of this stuff, swinging wildly between hectoring generalities and splenetic detail. The Ephrussi family comes up again and again. It is as if a vitrine is opened and each of them is taken out and held up for abuse. I knew in a very general way about French anti-Semitism, but it is this particularity that makes me feel nauseated. It is a daily anatomising of their lives.

Charles is pilloried as someone ‘who operates…in the world of literature and the arts’. He is abused as someone who has power in French art, but treats art as commerce. Everything Charles does comes back to gold, say the writers in La France juive. Meltable, transportable, mutable gold to be carried, bought and sold by Jews who do not understand land or country. Even his book on Dürer is scrutinised for Semitic tendencies. How can Charles understand this great German artist, writes one angry art historian, for he is only a ‘Landesmann aus dem Osten’, an oriental.

His brothers and uncles are excoriated and his aunts, now married into the French aristocracy, are savagely parodied. All the Jewish finance houses of France are anathematised by rote: ‘Les Rothschilds, Erlanger, Hirsch, Ephrussi, Bamberger, Camondo, Stern, Cahen d’Anvers…Membres de la finance internationale’. The complex intermarriage between the clans is repeated endlessly to build up a picture of one terrible spider’s web of intrigue, a web even more tightly bound when Maurice Ephrussi marries Béatrice, the daughter of the head of the French Rothschilds, Alphonse de Rothschild. These two families now count as one.

The anti-Semites need to pull these Jews back to where they came from, to strip them of their sophisticated Parisian life. One anti-Semitic pamphlet, Ces bons Juifs, describes an imagined conversation between Maurice Ephrussi and a friend:

– Is it true that you soon have to leave for Russia?

– Within 2 or 3 days, said M. de K…

Well! Maurice Ephrussi replied, if you are going to Odessa, go to the stock exchange to tell my father some news of me.

M. de K promises, and after having finished his business work in Odessa, goes to the stock exchange and asks for Ephrussi the father.

– You know, he is told, if you want it to be done, it is the Jews you need.

Ephrussi the father arrives, an awful-looking Hebrew with long and dirty hair, wearing a pelisse which is completely covered with grease stains.

M. de K…delivers the message to the old man and wants to leave, when he suddenly feels pulled by his clothing, and hears the Ephrussi father who tells him:

– You forgot my small profits.

– What do you mean by your small profits? exclaimed M. de K…

You understood perfectly well, dear Sir, replies the father of Rothschild’s son in law, while bowing to the ground, I am one of the curiosities of the Odessa stock exchange; when strangers come to see me without doing any business they always give me a small present. My sons thus send me over 1000 visitors a year and this helps me to make ends meet.

And with a large smile, the noble patriarch adds: they know well that they will one day be rewarded…my sons!

The Ephrussi, les rois du blé, are simultaneously loathed as upstarts and fêted as patrons. One minute they are to be reminded of the Odessan grain merchant, a patriarch with his grease-stained coat and his outstretched hand. The next, Béatrice is at a society ball wearing her tiara of hundreds of slender ears of trembling golden corn. Maurice, the owner of a vast chateau at Fontainebleau, put himself down on his marriage certificate to Béatrice de Rothschild as ‘landowner’, rather than banker. This was no slip. For Jews, owning land was still a comparatively new experience: it was only since the Revolution that Jews had full citizenship, a mistake – according to some commentators – as Jews were not capable adults. Just look at how the Ephrussi lived, suggested one screed, The Original Mr Jacobs, ‘the love of bric-a-brac, of all odds and ends, or rather the Jews’ passion for possession, is often carried to childishness’.

I wonder how these brothers lived their lives in these conditions. Did they shrug their shoulders, or did it get to them, this incessant hum of vilification, mutterings about venality, the sort of constant, bubbling animosity that the narrator in Proust’s novels remembers of his grandfather: ‘Whenever I brought a new friend home my grandfather seldom failed to start humming “O, God of our fathers” from La Juive, or else “Israel, break thy chains”…The old man would call out “On guard! On guard!” upon hearing the name of any new friend and if the victim had admitted his origins, ‘then my grandfather…would look at us, humming under his breath the air of “What! Do you hither guide the feet of this timid Israelite?”’

There were duels. Though outlawed, duels were nonetheless popular amongst young aristocrats, members of the Jockey Club and army officers. Many of the quarrels were inconsequential, issues of territoriality amongst young men. A disparaging reference to an Ephrussi-owned horse in an article in Le sportstarted a quarrel with the journalist, ‘which led to an altercation and then a hostile meeting’ with Michel Ephrussi.

But some of the disputes reveal the growing, alarming fissures within Parisian society. Ignace was an accomplished dueller, but choosing not to fight was regarded as a particularly Jewish failing. A gloating report tells of one example of this when a business deal between Michel and Count Gaston de Breteuil had ended with substantial losses on the part of the count. Michel, a man of business, did not see it as a matter for a duel and failed to give satisfaction by fighting. When the count returned to Paris after the refused invitation, ‘according to the story current in club circles…he encountered Ephrussi…and twisted the latter’s nose with the bank notes representing the balance, the pin with which they were fastened together severely scratching the proboscis of the great wheat operator. He resigned from the Rue Royale Club and gave a million francs to be distributed amongst the poor of Paris…’ This is recounted as a comedy – rich Jews, gross and without honour, and their noses.

They are not above reproach: Jews just don’t know how to behave.

Michel did fight a bitter run of duels with the Comte de Lubersac on behalf of a Rothschild cousin whose honour had been impugned, and who was too young to stand up for himself. One took place on the island of the Grande Jatte, in the River Seine. ‘At the fourth onslaught, Ephrussi was wounded in the breast, the count’s sword striking a rib…The count attacked vigorously from the outset, and the combatants parted at the finish without the customary handshake. The count left the scene in a landau, and was greeted with cries of “À bas les juifs!” and “Vive l’Armée!”’

Protecting your name and your family’s honour was increasingly difficult as a Jew in Paris.

—from Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Centurty of Art and Loss, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2010)

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