The Camondo family: Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire

More than a century after his death, the legacy of the Sephardic Camondo family invites a different understanding of Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire.

Abraham Salomon Camondo (1781- March 30 1873) was born into a family who found themselves uprooted from Spain when the country expelled its Jewish population in 1492. Three hundred years later, and the Camondo family, including his older brother Isaac, resided in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople.

In 1802, Isaac Camondo established the banking institute Camondo & Cie. In Istanbul. During the Crimean Wars of the 1850s, the Camondo’s provided the necessary finances for the Ottoman war effort. Abraham Camondo also worked as a financial advisor to the Italian and Austrian governments.

Enormous wealth and their sustained involvement in Jewish communal life earned the family the nickname “Rothschilds of the East”. The Ottoman Capitulation treaties coincided with Western interests, foreign protection and citizenship offered non-Muslim merchant and traders a means to do business without falling foul of Ottoman laws on trade and taxation. Due to the family’s Venetian ties, the Camondo’s enjoyed the privilege of consular protection of both Italy and Austria, their protected status as foreigners extended into other Ottoman realms.

Following the demise of Istanbul’s Jewish leadership in the aftermath of the suppression of the Janissaries in 1826, and the death of his older brother Isaac, meant Abraham became one the most important Jewish voice in the empire’s capital. A role that allowed him to sit as patron of several yeshivot and invest in local community projects.

Abraham Camondo also exercised a measure of influence at the courts of Sultans Abdulmecid (1839-1861) and Abdulaziz (1861-1876) thanks to his role as intermediary (shtadlan) who interceded on behalf of the Jewish community before imperial authorities.

Another example of modernising Turkey’s Jewish community was in 1858 – when he established the Institution Camondo, a school for many of Istanbul’s Jews who lived in the poverty-stricken Peri Pasha quarter. Schools did not function simply as religious institutions, it taught Jews who had a command of French and Turkish, a range of topics, and a number of students then went onto government jobs (later in life).

Assimilation, as a product of modernisation, did not sit well with some rabbis in Constantinople, and some sought to excommunicate Camondo. But a sultan’s intervention prevented it.

By 1870, an elderly Camondo relocated to Paris to be alongside family members and the centrality of their banking business. Just three years later and the elderly Camondo passed away. His funeral arrangements brought him home to Constantinople.

As the passing days turned into another century, the remaining members of the Camondo family pursued the family’s philanthropic traditions. Isaac (1851-1911) and Moïse Camondo (1860-1935), donated their extensive art and decorative collections to French cultural institutions, including the Louvre and the French institute, which presently exists in the Nissim de Camondo Museum in Paris.

A double staircase built in 1860 by Camondo highlights the family’s endearing legacy in Istanbul.

Shortly after turning 30, Moïse married and his wife son bore a son, Nissim, and a daughter, Béatrice. Yet, there is a tragic footnote to the story of certain members of the Camondo family.

In the decaying twilight of World War I, Nissim, who volunteered to fight for France, died in aerial combat in 1917. The death of his only son left an unshakeable and lingering sorrow over Moïse. Upon his death in 1935, he left the mansion and art collection to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs under the condition that the building was maintained as a museum and named after his son.

Béatrice married a musician and converted to Catholicism. During the outbreak of the Second World War, she hoped her new faith and wealth afforded a measure of protection in Nazi-occupied Paris. But no amount of wealth necessarily afforded escape from the unimaginable tyranny of Nazism.

A plaque at the Musée Nissim de Camondo reads: ”Mme. Léon Reinach, born Béatrice de Camondo, her children, Fanny and Bertrand, the last descendants of the founder, and M. Léon Reinach, deported by the Germans in 1943-44, died at Auschwitz.”