Constantinople-Paris: The triumph and tragedy of the Camondo family

Two flights of stairs, seemingly unrelated.

The first twists up from Istanbul’s Bankalar Caddesi (Banks Street) in the most beautifully serpentine fashion, helping hurried tourists and locals up the steep incline towards the Galata Tower.

Camondo Steps, heading to Galata Tower, Istanbul

The second takes visitors up from a beautiful entrance hall to the upper floors in a beautiful fin-de-siècle Parisian mansion, located in possibly the most gorgeous part of the French capital, just behind the luxuriant Parc Monceau.

The connection? Both were built by the Camondo family, a wealthy Jewish banking dynasty that for centuries was settled in the Ottoman capital Constantinople and then moved to Paris. Their story is one of triumph in the early days of globalisation, generosity that crossed cultures and then indescribable tragedy, with the entire lineage extinguished.

The great dynasty was founded by Abraham-Salomon Camondo who inherited the bank Isaac Camondo et Cie created by his brother. Enjoying excellent commercial relations with the Ottoman rulers, the banking business grew impressively under his stewardship. In return, Camondo also championed a succession of building projects to ease life in the city, including the famous stairs known to this day as the Camondo Steps.

A historic photograph shows Abraham Salomon captured by the most fashionable Ottoman photographers du jour, Abdullah Frères, looking wistfully but confidently into the camera. The family is a prominent part of Constantinople life. Summers are spent outside of the centre, in a beautiful yalı waterside mansion on the shores of the Bosphorus in the village of Yeniköy.

His grandsons Nissim and Abraham-Behor are both born in Constantinople but gradually shift the focus of their business and their lives to Paris from the Ottoman capital. They buy the property on Rue de Monceau that will eventually be the location of the great family home.

After his death, Nissim’s son Moïse, born in Constantinople in 1860, takes over the family business. A passionate art collector, he forms a world class collection of paintings housed in the newly built mansion on the Rue de Monceau which becomes one of the most sought after meeting places in the city.

Interior of Camondo Museum, Paris

The darkness descends with the onset of world war. Like many patriotic Frenchmen of all origins, Moïse’s only son and heir Nissim signs up, eventually becoming a successful pilot and providing key photographic intelligence during the battles of Verdun and Somme. But he dies when shot down during a reconnaissance mission on September 5, 1917. His father is plunged into grief.

Nissim Camondo

The famous banking business is closed and the great mansion on Rue de Monceau no longer is a lively meeting place for the great and the good in Paris. But with the style and generosity that had marked the dynasty, Moise hands over the mansion and the great collections to the nation in memory of his son in 1935. The museum is opened shortly afterwards. He dies in 1935, having seen the trouble from early signs of Nazi rule in neighbouring Germany but spared the horror of what was to come.

What remains of family — Moïse’s daughter Beatrice, her husband Leon Reinach and their sons Fanny and Bertrand — are initially relaxed over their fate as Paris falls to the Nazis. Life carries on as normal, even equestrian sports for Beatrice, a lifelong impassioned horsewoman who still rides through the Bois de Boulogne and takes part in competitions. But all four are apprehended in 1942 and taken to the notorious holding camp of Drancy just outside Paris. Leon, Fanny and Bertrand are taken to Auschwitz in November 1943, Beatrice in 1944. They never come back.

Moïse Camondo gave everything to France, including his son and then the house and entire collection built up so painstakingly. But this could not protect his daughter, son-in-law and their children, despite their initial confidence from the horror.

La famille Camondo est désormais éteinte”,” says the video in the museum. “The Camondo family is now extinguished.”

But not in memory. Moïse Camondo’s vision meant that, possibly before it was too late, the house and collection was bequeathed into safe hands. Hundreds of visitors roam daily around the gorgeous interiors and admiring artworks by the likes of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Outside the birds sing, lovers take clandestine strolls and young parents walk their children in the Parc Monceau. It’s a long way from the hubbub of Ottoman Constantinople or modern Istanbul. Let alone the horror of the Holocaust which remains remote until visitors sit in stunned silence in front of the video that explains what happened to the family.

Sign prompting Camondo Museum in Parc Monceau

Meanwhile, a constant flow of people hurries up the gorgeous Camondo Steps in Istanbul. A small plaque does mark the origin of the stairs, but it’s easy to miss in the press and drive of the city. But this is no ordinary staircase — the steps do not just functionally go directly up the hill, but rather two sets curve round and then overlap with Chagall-like flair. There is something fantastic, even surrealist about their shape.

Camondo Steps, Istanbul

Mounting the steps, I imagine not walking towards the Galata Tower but being magically transported hundreds of kilometres West into the great mansion on the Rue de Monceau in pre-World War I Paris, as music plays and food is served and guests gasp with admiration over Moïse Camondo’s art collection.

Plaque remembering donation of museum, death of Nissim in World War I and family in Auschwitz

Foreign correspondent and voyager. Worked and lived in Iran, Russia and Turkey. At home in Istanbul but always moving.