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The House of Fragile Things

How France betrayed the very Jews who placed their faith and fortunes in its ideals and culture

James McAuley
October 07, 2021
Christophe Lehenaff/Photononstop/Alamy
The Living Room, Musée Nissim de Camondo, ParisChristophe Lehenaff/Photononstop/Alamy

On June 14, 1940, when the German army finally arrived in Paris, Béatrice de Camondo and her husband, Léon Reinach, two wealthy collectors whose families had already left major bequests to France, were still at home in their sprawling apartment on the outskirts of the city.

By then, Paris was largely deserted: shops boarded shut, the streets eerily silent. The collapse of the French Republic happened so quickly that it defied comprehension, even among those who were in the room when it officially expired and who watched France became an authoritarian dictatorship with a show of hands.

Although her conversion to Catholicism would not become official for two more years, from her writings at the time, it remains entirely unclear whether Béatrice still thought of herself as Jewish in any meaningful way at that point, or whether she would have even been aware that the Nazis and their French collaborators would have considered her as such regardless. It was not long before she was made to understand that she had no control over her own identity whatsoever.

Her blindness was hardly unusual. Most French Jews, and especially elites, struggled to understand the enormity of what had transpired in such a short span of time. Many initially saw Vichy’s embrace of antisemitism as a threat to foreign Jews, not to well-established French citizens like themselves. At the beginning, there was even some evidence that this was not a delusion. François Darlan, the French admiral who later became the Vichy’s deputy leader, famously remarked that people like Béatrice should be given preference. “The stateless Jews, who for the past fifteen years have invaded our country, do not interest me,” he said. “But the others, the good old French Jews, are entitled to all the protection we can give them.”

In any case, the Statut des Juifs—anti-Jewish laws enacted by the collaborating Vichy regime—targeted them anyway, and it was a blow that devastated the French-Jewish establishment. But in so many cases, it was still not enough to shake the strength of their convictions. Raymond-Raoul Lambert, who ran the Union General des Israélites de France (UGIF), Vichy’s own Jewish task force, wrote in his diary that he wept when the first decree was signed in October 1940 but that he refused to leave France regardless. “One does not judge one’s mother when she is unjust. One suffers and waits,” he wrote. “So we, the Jews of the France, should bow our heads and suffer.” Lambert was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in December 1943.

In the months and years that followed the Nazi Occupation and the establishment of the Vichy government, the entire social world that a generation of Jewish art collectors had built was quickly and deliberately destroyed with the approval—and even the encouragement—of the same nation they worshiped. On the whole, their collections survived intact: by the time France capitulated to Nazi Germany, they were already state property and thus spared the brunt of the looting that would disperse so many other private collections. But the establishment of the Vichy government and its eagerness to persecute France’s Jewish citizens was the end of the hybrid identity that earlier generation had sought to refine and, ultimately, to display.

‘One does not judge one’s mother when she is unjust. One suffers and waits,’ he wrote. ‘So we, the Jews of the France, should bow our heads and suffer.’ Lambert was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in December 1943.

Their descendants, some of whom had married each other, represented a varied but still intricately entwined elite—some were artists, some were scholars, some were socialites. They had the diversity of Jewish identities to match. By the outbreak of the war, most were still secular Jews, albeit without the earlier generation’s sense of commitment to Jewish communal life. But more than a few had abandoned Judaism and Jewishness altogether. What united an otherwise disparate cast of characters—with each other, but also with their forbears—was an unshakeable faith in Frenchness, in the republic that had allowed their families to prosper and flourish.

They were complex individuals with complex inner lives, but the war was the moment when they were confined into a single identity category that either effaced the multitudes they contained or, in some cases, directly violated how they understood themselves. They were told in no uncertain terms that they no longer belonged and, worse, that in fact they never had. Such was the strength of their attachment to the French Republic and its values that most of them struggled to accept that reality. Some of them never could.

Béatrice and Léon eventually returned from the Atlantic coast to their apartment in Neuilly, where life under German occupation initially seemed to regain a semblance of normalcy until, suddenly, it did not.

Little is known about the couple’s private lives, but among their most prized possessions was Renoir’s 1880 portrait of Béatrice’s mother, Irène Cahen d’Anvers. By the late 1930s, Irène had divorced her second husband and was living alone in the rue Galilée in the sixteenth arrondissement, less than twenty minutes by car from Béatrice. There is no way to know how frequently mother and daughter saw each other, or what the nature of their relationship was at the time. But Béatrice always kept her mother’s portrait. Her Cahen d’Anvers grandparents had apparently hated it ever since Renoir completed it in the 1880s, and her grandmother is believed to have given it to her as a wedding present. Béatrice clearly saw something in the portrait: possibly a vision of the absent mother she still loved, or perhaps the memories of happier times.In any case, she and Léon appear to have been quite proud of the Renoir canvas, lending it in 1933 under their name to a major Renoir exposition held at the Orangerie Museum in the Tuileries gardens. At home in Neuilly, the portrait occupied a place of prominence in their living room, which is precisely what the couple told French authorities after the Nazis requisitioned “La Petite Irène,” and they tried—in vain—to get it back.

The portrait was seized by the Germans on July 7, 1941. Looting Jewish art collections had been a central aim of Nazi leadership since the beginning of the war: the material destruction of Jewish property was a fundamental component of the way the Nazis sought to enact the literal destruction of the Jewish people as a whole. Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi ideologue charged with this mission, reported to Hitler that his task force, the Einsatztsab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), had begun looting Jewish collections in Paris in earnest by October 1940, with the help of France’s own Service de Sûreté.

According to a restitution claim his brother made after the war, Léon had in 1939 entrusted a number of the couple’s paintings and other valuable artworks to the Direction des Musées Nationaux. The Camondo-Reinach pieces were kept with the thousands of other items from the French national museums that were sent to Chambord and many other places for safekeeping during the war. But eventually the Germans arrived at Chambord, and confiscated whichever pieces they liked from private Jewish collections. By August 1941, the Renoir was gone, and Léon and Béatrice had already been informed of its theft.

From the traces that survive, Léon Reinach was something of a dilettante. He was an effete composer whose career had never amounted to much and who had always been overshadowed by the formidable intellect of his father and the massive fortune of his wife. He was essentially a professional son-in-law with a passion for music. But in a moment of crisis, Léon was seized by a compulsion to act. In August 1941, he fought back in the only way he could, in a clear attempt to honor the memory of the previous generation—his father, Théodore, his father-in-law, Moïse, and all the others that had constituted their Jewish world so enamored with the promise of France and so committed to advancing its vaunted ideals. He wrote a long, impassioned letter to Jacques Jaujard, the director of France’s National Museums, who later contradicted the orders of the Vichy government and saved thousands of the nation’s priceless artworks.

Léon’s letter to Jaujard is a testament to his pride, but also to his remarkable conviction, his unshaken faith in a republic that he either did not realize or refused to accept had already ceased to exist. The Vichy government aspired to be the great undoing of the French Revolution, and what remained of the Republic’s vaunted institutions had been coopted by a band of reactionaries who sought nothing less than a complete social transformation entirely designed to exclude people like Léon Reinach. On June 2, 1941, Vichy had passed a new Statut des Juifs, far stricter than the first, which defined Jews as a “race” and banned them from all liberal professions—including composing music. Léon had been told he did not belong, but the message did not seem to compute, at least not quite yet. To him, his family’s material legacy was the essence of their belonging. He was mystified that others did not seem to see it that way.

“I believe I should include this protest, asking you to be good enough to forward it to the Occupation authorities so that they may take note that my family and that of my wife, long established in France, have considerably enriched the artistic legacy of their adopted country,” he wrote to Jaujard. Perhaps in reference to the new Statut des Juifs, which did leave open the possibility of exemptions to Jews“ who have rendered exceptional services to the French state,” Léon then went on to describe each of the collections his extended family had bequeathed to France, and the symbolic value of each. Isaac de Camondo, he wrote, “left to the Louvre Museum a collection of such importance that a special building had to be fitted to contain it.” His own father, Théodore Reinach, considered France as his heir more than he did his own children, Léon suggested: “Although a father of six, he bequeathed a property to the Institut de France, the Villa Kérylos.”

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 'Portrait of Irène Cahen d’Anvers,' ca. 1880
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ‘Portrait of Irène Cahen d’Anvers,’ ca. 1880The Foundation E. G. Bührle Collection/Wikipedia

But it was in describing his father-in-law Moïse de Camondo’s bequest that Léon was most blunt. “This sumptuous donation represented such a considerable amount that my wife could very well have contested its validity as exceeding the available portion of the testator’s fortune,” he wrote. “Of course she did no such thing, out of respect for the memory of her brother and the will of her father, considering that this admirable oeuvre, which he painstakingly built himself, was intended to subsist in its entirety and benefit the entire nation.” Léon then referred directly to Moïse’s will, the founding document of the Musée Camondo: the mansion on the rue de Monceau, he wrote, “is a real reconstruction of an eighteenth century artistic residence filled in particular with the most beautiful specimens of decorative art which was one of the glories of France.”

Léon still believed that collections of that quality and donations of that magnitude would mean to others what they had meant to the families who built them. They were monuments to France and its history by grateful émigrés who had become nothing less than custodians of the Republic and champions of its values. Did these bequests not constitute “exceptional services” to the state?

Two months later, Léon’s brother, the eminent jurist and celebrated translator Julien Reinach, made the same argument in defense of his family’s intellectual and artistic contributions to the state. On October 21, 1941, he wrote to Vichy’s own branch of the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives, protesting at a host of fines that, in his view, only applied to Jews living in occupied France, not those living in the “free” zone. Writing from the Villa Kérylos, the house their father had built and had left to the state, Julien essentially put into words the same argument that Théodore had made with that house a generation before. His life, his work, and, most importantly, his family were all vehicles that had contributed to the cultural life of the French nation, Julien wrote.

What he provided was essentially a curriculum vitae, an accounting of the Reinach family’s contributions to the French academic and political life. To make his case, Julien deliberately played with the logic of the Vichy regime, emphasizing in his own underlining the ways in which he personified the regime’s principles of“travail, famille, patrie”—work, family, fatherland:

I divided my life between the service of the fatherland, the foundation of a family and a constant work in a number of scientific and literary domains. (I am a member of the administrative council of the Society of Comparative Legislation, the Society of Former Students of the School of Oriental Languages, bursar of the Institute of Slavic Studies, and a member of societies of linguistics, legal history, modern history, of authors, of playwrights, etc…). Poems of mine have been recited in the Sorbonne (translated from the Russian and the Hungarian); a play translated from the German was performed in Rouen under the auspices of the Archbishop. I have actively contributed to any number of legal and literary publications, notably the Vicennial Table of Judgments of the Conseil d’État, which had proposed me for the grade of State Councilor on the eve of the law that you now enforce.

Julien was arrested in September 1943; he was sent first to Drancy outside Paris, then to Bergen-Belsen. Unlike his brother and sister-and-law, he ultimately survived, although the injuries he sustained in the camp stayed with him until his death in 1962. If the Villa Kérylos represented the breadth of Théodore Reinach’s academic endeavors—and their adherence to particular vision of Republican France—after the war it came to represent the brutalization of that image. After all, it was at Kérylos that Julien was arrested. Dismissed from the Conseil d’État after Vichy’s 1941 update to the Statut des Juifs, Julien had retreated to Kérylos to immerse himself in work that could not be taken away from him. When he was arrested, he had been in Théodore’s library, laboring over a new translation of The Institutes of Gaius.

Despite the chaos and the rupture of the Occupation, Béatrice and Léon decided to divorce. There is a record of the divorce agreement in the Archives de Paris, a short document that clearly states that the reason was Léon’s infidelity: it was Béatrice who had requested the divorce, and it was in her favor the judge had ruled. She was also given custody of Bertrand, who was still a minor at the time.

If the divorce agreement is accurate, the identity of Léon’s lover remains unclear, as does the way in which Béatrice discovered the affair. But beyond the affair, it also appears as though the couple had reached a point of irreconcilable differences beforehand. A few short months after he had appealed to the values of the French Republic that the Reinach men had long embraced with an almost religious fervor, Léon reached a point where he no longer saw any future in France. Exactly what the deciding factor was remains unclear; perhaps it was the realization that the legacy of his forbears turned out to be worthless. For Léon—the son of one of the great architects of Liberal Judaism in France—his wife’s conversion was likely a step too far he could not forgive.

There are so many questions that remain. Perhaps Léon saw his wife and her newfound faith as delusional; perhaps he pitied her. After all, by the time he left, the authorities had already confiscated all of Béatrice’s bank accounts, and she had to haggle with the Commissariat Général aux Questions Juives to allow the bank to keep transferring funds to pay the family’s various employees. Béatrice was even forced to use the antisemitic framework imposed by the Nazi regime and its Vichy acolytes to make her case, which was ultimately successful. In a 1942 letter to the Commissariat Général, she counted out which of her employees were “Aryan” and which were not: “To my knowledge, all these people are Aryans, except Madame Tedeschi, who has a blocked account, and Mme. Danon,” she wrote. But even after writing those words, it still did not occur to Béatrice to attempt any kind of escape. France was her home, and “God and the Virgin” would protect her—of this she appears to have been absolutely certain.

Her conversion to Catholicism in the summer of 1942 was genuine; this, too, may have mystified Léon, who never converted even as a security measure. As Béatrice wrote to a childhood friend in September 1942: “I am certain that I am miraculously protected,” underling the word “certain.” She continued, “I’ve sensed it for years but only in this last year have I understood from where all this good fortune has come to me. Will I have the years necessary to thank God and the Virgin enough for their protection? I am so little and so low, so unworthy.” In the same letter, she also reveals that she has apparently made progress in convincing her son, Bertrand, to consider conversion as well.

As it turned out, she would not have the years she wanted to thank God and the Virgin for their “protection,” a period that would last only for three more months to the day after she wrote this letter. She and her daughter Fanny were arrested in Neuilly on the night of December 5, 1942, taken to a police depot in the sixteenth arrondissement, and then to the Drancy internment camp outside Paris at three o’clock the following afternoon, police records show. By coincidence, Léon and Bertrand were arrested the following week in an unrelated raid, on December 12, 1942, near Ariège, still trying to escape into Spain. Father and son were taken to a separate internment camp, in Merignac, before their eventual transfer to Drancy two months later, on February 3, 1943. Broken in the midst of the Occupation, the Camondo-Reinach family was reunited once more, this time in an antechamber to Auschwitz.

One wonders if Béatrice ever questioned her faith inside the camp, whether she felt that God and the Virgin had abandoned her. Only one surviving letter details her actions after she entered the camp. On December 3, 1943—after nearly a year of imprisonment and forced labor—her lawyer wrote to the Commissariat in Paris on her behalf. “Our client, Madame Léon REINACH, currently interned in the Drancy camp, has just charged us with asking you to renew the provision…permitting the payments of the pensions guaranteed by Madame Léon REINACH.” She had debts to pay, and she did not forget them.

Drancy is technically the name of a town, a working-class suburb northeast of Paris, but it has become a synonym for betrayal. It was here—in a drab social housing project from the 1930s, known as la cité de la Muette, the city of the deaf—where what remained of the French Republic handed over Jewish citizens to Nazi authorities for deportation and death.

In the words of one survivor, Drancy was an “antechamber to Auschwitz,” and this was undeniably the case: approximately 67,000 of the 75,000 Jews deported from France passed through the makeshift camp. Historians have long debated the fact that most of the victims deported were foreign Jews and not French citizens, examining whether the Vichy government may have tried to protect its own nationals where possible. But a human life is a human life, and in the aftermath of the Holocaust, that debate often seems beside the point. In any case, French citizens were still deported from “the city of the silent,” a cruel reality that would have been especially devastating to those who were. Some of those citizens struggled to accept what was happening even in that inferno; some still sang “La Marseillaise” as their convoys departed for Auschwitz.

Béatrice de Camondo arrived in the camp with her daughter, Fanny, sometime in the afternoon of December 6, 1942. Soon thereafter, the world of the collectors partially reconstituted, crammed into the squalor of overcrowded stairwells. Shattered in the midst of the Occupation, the Camondo-Reinach family was reunited once more in the hell that was Drancy. Léon and Bertrand arrived in the camp on February 3, 1943, after their failed attempt to cross the Spanish border. Beatrice’s cousin, Colette Cahen d’Anvers, and her brother-in-law, Julien Reinach, arrived with his wife, Rita Lopez Silva di Bajona, later in 1943. Her aunt Élisabeth Cahen d’Anvers arrived from the Sarthe in February 1944 before her deportation in March of that year.

They were an elite immediately recognized by the other Jews in the camp, many of whom knew their names and the collections their families had amassed. One inmate remembered Fanny Reinach, then 23, as particularly beguiling. “She was seductive, cheerful, attractive,” the woman remembered. But Fanny apparently never let anyone forget who she was. “Fanny had so much energy, and she would say, ‘I was born in a museum.’” A young Simone Veil, who would later become France’s health minister and oversee the legalization of abortion in the mid-1970s, was also interned in Drancy before her own deportation to Auschwitz. Then Simone Jacob, she had grown up in Nice and vaguely knew the Reinachs, whom she called “our friends from the Villa Kérylos.” In her memoir, Veil recalls the moment she saw Julien and Rita Reinach in the camp for the first time. “Mrs. Reinach, always dynamic, was supervising one of the camp’s kitchen services. I went up to her and had the joy to tell her: ‘I got a letter last week from your daughter Violaine. All your family is fine and is not at risk.’”

Some of those citizens struggled to accept what was happening even in that inferno; some still sang ‘La Marseillaise’ as their convoys departed for Auschwitz.

What Béatrice would have seen immediately upon her arrival was a camp whose existence may have been ordered by the Nazis but whose management was then entirely staffed by French authorities. Personnel from Vichy’s Commissariat Général aux Question Juives prepared prisoners for deportation; three French police officials served as head commandant before Alois Brunner took over in July 1943. Even the Nazis were reportedly taken aback by the quality of the conditions at Drancy, where dysentery was rampant, many prisoners suffered from starvation, and approximately 950 deaths were recorded in the first ten months of the camp’s existence. “Those who have not with their own eyes seen some of these released from Drancy can only have a faint idea of the wretched state of internees in this camp which is unique in history,” read a French intelligence report from December 1941. “It is said that the notorious camp of Dachau is nothing in comparison with Drancy.”

Drancy was a world unto itself, complete with its own laws and social hierarchy. When Brunner did assume full control of the camp, he essentially copied the Nazi system already tested in Berlin and Vienna: implicating the Jews in their own destruction. He created a Jewish administration within the camp charged with managing every aspect of Drancy’s internal life—food, medicine, the post, showers, and even the small épicerie in the housing project quadrangle. France’s own Union Général des Israélites de France (UGIF) supplied the prisoners with all their material needs, and it was Brunner’s Jewish administration that would transmit orders to the other prisoners. Any resistance would immediately result in shootings or deportation, and the camp’s Jewish administration was thus incentivized to report fellow prisoners to Nazi authorities if they broke any rule. This was the cruelty of that system: more than a year after the Nazis had decided on the “Final Solution,” or the total extermination of European Jewry, Brunner still convinced Drancy’s Jewish leaders that enforcing Nazi directives would protect the entire community of prisoners. Béatrice de Camondo was among them.

In the archives of the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, a flowchart survives that depicts the chain of command of Drancy’s Jewish administration. Dated 23 July 1942, it shows that Béatrice served in the medical division, in charge of the camp’s infant nursing facilities along with Dominique Schwab. This was an elite, coveted position to occupy, and being in the camp’s Jewish administration entailed significant privileges: living in bloc III, the most comfortable quarters available to prisoners, the ability to receive packages more frequently than others, and the right, in certain cases, to go into Paris for the day on supervised visits.

Béatrice with her brother Nissim de Camondo (who was killed in action in 1917), 1916
Béatrice with her brother Nissim de Camondo (who was killed in action in 1917), 1916Wikipedia

Nazi officials classified prisoners in one of six categories denoted with letters: A for “Aryans,” their spouses, or half Jews; C1 for camp leaders; C2 for those of protected foreign nationalities; C3 for the wives of prisoners of war; C4 for those awaiting the arrival of their families who were still free. But the vast majority of prisoners were classified as “B,” those with no protection who could be deported at any time. Violating the rules or attempting to escape would immediately result in a demotion to category “B,” which typically implied deportation. From the moment of her arrival in the camp, Béatrice was C1, a distinction scrawled in thick red ink over her camp identity card. So were the rest of her family and the other members of their circle.

How she secured this status is unclear. Georges Wellers, who survived Drancy and who likewise served with Béatrice in the medical division of the camp’s Jewish administration, albeit in the hygiene department, later recalled that C1 selection was entirely arbitrary, based on an examination by Nazi authorities that could change at any time: “The definitive classification remained Brunner’s prerogative,” he wrote. In any case, Béatrice appears to have charmed her fellow inmates and to have taken her work seriously.

Doda Conrad, the Polish-born opera singer, was interned in Drancy along with his mother, the soprano Marya Freund. Doda was housed in the same stairwell as Béatrice. Knowing the Camondo collection quite well, he was struck by the way in which a woman whose entire existence had been embellished with ornate objects could instantly adapt to a prison. “The uselessness of hanging onto objects!” he wrote in his memoirs. “Mme de Camondo, not long ago, had the support of fourteen maids. She was 48 years old, but here she did chores. She would go to the peeling station where, for three or four hours she would peel vegetables for the soup of thousands of poor people. She would sweep and wash the floor, make her bed, clean the casseroles and the dishes after the meals, anything and everything.”

Béatrice lasted quite a remarkably long time in the squalor of Drancy—from December 1942 to March 1944, almost exactly fifteen months to the day. How she survived that long remains unclear, but the strength of her character seems to have been sustaining. In the course of my research, I came across another rare letter of Béatrice’s—written to her niece, Nadine Anspach, sometime during her imprisonment in Drancy, although the precise date remains unknown. Shared with me by her cousin’s granddaughter, Béatrice’s letter reveals that Nadine Anspach had likewise recently decided to convert, albeit to Protestantism, not Catholicism. Her aunt had the following to say:

Your mother may have committed a slight indiscretion, but here I am in the know and happy for you. I hope you will find the calm, inner happiness and strength that will allow you to go through current trials with serenity. My experience is recent but I hope you will find as much good in it as I do. This little book will help you and I will bring it on Sunday.

Although the details of the two women meeting remain unclear, the book Béatrice mentioned was L’Imitation de Jésus-Christ by the Abbé F. de Lamennais, a small, pocket-sized leatherbound volume. Until the very end, it seems that she believed that “God and the Virgin” would save her still.

Béatrice’s ex-husband and her children did not share her certainty. There are so many questions that remain about the family in Drancy, namely the relations between Béatrice and Léon. But the same issue that apparently divided them before their divorce seems to have divided them in the camp even more so. Béatrice had her newfound faith; Léon had a sense of foreboding. Just as he had before his arrest, he fought back again in Drancy. Once again, tried to escape.

In the autumn 1943, Léon and Bertrand were part of the attempt to build a tunnel out of the camp and into safety. The idea for the tunnel began in September 1943, after the Nazis had fully assumed control of Drancy. It was meant to be 2 kilometers: from the storage units on the southern edge of the camp, underneath a roundabout, and parallel to the avenue Jean Jaurès on the other side to an exit that an ally in the defense forces had agreed to open when the time was right. The tunnel was about one meter and 20 centimeters tall, and it was one and a half meters below ground. Digging it was a massive undertaking: Georges Wellers, the survivor, remembered that three separate teams of twenty men each were involved in plowing through the hard dirt and limestone underground. They worked day and night, and there was always a separate squadron on duty to keep watch in the event of a surprise German inspection.

The camp’s Jewish administration was more than aware: at least a quarter of them were volunteers or involved in some way. As a member of that administration, Béatrice was almost certainly aware of the project, although there is no evidence of her involvement. In any case, the men who spearheaded the project were hardly Léon’s type. One of the leaders, Roger Schandalow, was a 28-year-old black marketeer who had been sentenced to six months in prison before his internment in Drancy; two of the others were the brothers Georges and Roger Gerschel, were accomplished rugby players in their 30s brought onto the project because of their muscle power. This kind of masculine showmanship likely appealed to Bertrand, 20 years old at the time, who was a woodworker and liked to work with his hands in a way that few of the other men in his family, including his father, ever had. But Léon was on the project nevertheless.

By November 9, 1943, the tunnel had reached about 36 meters in length. Three German guards came into the camp and began an impromptu inspection of the storage areas. The watchmen quickly alerted those in the tunnel, and the group quickly and quietly dispersed, hiding the entry to the tunnel as well. But one of the men, an internee named Henri Schwartz, had left a piece of clothing at the site that had his identification number on it. The Germans quickly detained Schwartz and furiously tortured him; three days later, he gave them the names of 13 other men in the plot. Eventually, they learned all the names.

On November 20, the Germans enacted their revenge. They instantly reclassified 65 elite status “C” class inmates who had been involved in the tunnel project to status “B,” which paved the way for their deportation. Léon, Bertrand, and Fanny were among those reclassified, as was the head of the camp’s administration: their Drancy identity cards show the letter “C” replaced with “B” on that date. But Béatrice was not, an unusual decision given that the family members of the other tunnel participants were also deported as a reprisal. Somehow she was allowed to stay; perhaps that was the punishment. Béatrice would have seen her family leave the camp by bus for the Gare de Bobigny that day. After nearly a year in the camp, she would have known she was unlikely to see them again, and they would have known they were unlikely to return.

Convoy 62 left the Gare de Bobigny at 12:10 p.m. on November 20, a Saturday, and arrived in Auschwitz three days later, between four and five a.m. It carried 1,200 passengers, including other descendants of the world that the collectors had built. Madeleine Lévy, the granddaughter of Alfred Dreyfus and a relation of the Reinachs by marriage, was on board the train. So was the doctor Léon Zadoc-Kahn, the grandson of the rabbi who had been the spiritual counselor to the older generation in the milieu, conducting their weddings, overseeing their sons’ bar mitzvahs, and extolling their virtues as custodians of the community. Jacques Helbronner, who had been the wartime president of the Consistoire central israélite de France and a close friend of Philippe Pétain’s who had hoped that the Maréchal would spare French Jews, was also among the passengers. All of them were murdered.

Béatrice remained in Drancy for another four months, until March 7, 1944. Exactly why she was deported remains unclear, but she was among the passengers on Convoy 69, who had been isolated in the camp three days before their departure. It was an unusually large transport. Guy Kohn, a passenger on that convoy who survived Auschwitz, recalled that passengers on the train were given food for three days and then loaded into cattle cars at the Gare de Bobigny, about 60 people in each.

None of the Reinachs were selected for extermination upon arrival. Léon and Bertrand were sent to work in “Buna,” or the Monowitz labor camp division of the complex. Fanny was the first to die, on New Year’s Eve, 1943, three months before her mother arrived. Women and men from the same countries tended to be housed together in the same barracks, so Béatrice would likely have been informed of her daughter’s death immediately after she encountered other French women. Four days after her arrival, the camp’s archives show that Bertrand was admitted to the Auschwitz hospital, on March 14, 1944. The hospital was a notorious cesspool, filled with fleas and lice and rats, and Bertrand died there on March 22. Léon died on May 12, although Béatrice would likely not have known about either her ex-husband or her son. As she had in Drancy, she lasted quite a while in Auschwitz—nearly 10 months. She was killed on January 4, 1945, a little more than two weeks before the Soviets liberated the camp.

The Nazis were no longer operating the gas chambers by then, and they had not yet ordered the Death March that followed the evacuation of the camp. How, exactly, Béatrice de Camondo died remains unknown, but with her an entire world was extinguished.

From The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France by James McAuley. Published by Yale University Press in May 2021. Reproduced by permission.

James McAuley is a Global Opinions contributing columnist for The Washington Post, where he previously served as Paris correspondent. He holds a Ph.D. in French history from the University of Oxford, and is the author of The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France (Yale University Press, 2021).

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