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Jewish Thinking

The Ephrussi Family Story: Wealth, Assimilation and Annihilation…

Published on Tuesday June 8th, 2021

A book on the Ephrussi family was published recently. The story describes the lavish lifestyle of Ephrussi family members, scattered around Europe’s largest capitals.

The Ephrussi were a wealthy Jewish family from Odessa. The grandfather, Joachim, made a fortune in the wheat trade. His two sons opened banks and increased their assets tenfold.

In Vienna, in 1890, they built a sumptuous palace on the Ring, the capital’s main square. In Paris, they owned a mansion on rue Monceau, next to the Rothschilds, Camondos, Pereira, and Cahens from Antwerp.

Charles Ephrussi, the patriarch’s grandson was a renowned art critic and art collector which served as Marcel Proust's model for Swann's character in his book In Search of Lost Time.

Their lifestyle is breathtaking

The ladies, accompanied by their chambermaid, changed their outfits three times a day, choosing from a wardrobe of dozens of lavish designer outfits, one more expensive than the other.

Each piece of furniture was a museum piece and the walls were decorated with works of art by the great masters of the 18th century and Renaissance schools.

Holidays punctuated the family’s lives. They owned a sumptuous chalet in Switzerland near Lucerne for winter vacations, and in the summer they flocked to their property by a lake in Czechoslovakia.

Tens of Servants

The coachman and horses waited in the courtyard of the palace to take family members to the Opera House, the Prater (a large amusement park in the heart of Vienna), or on walks in nature.

Refinement was at its height. They rubbed shoulders with artistic, cultural and political members of upscale society.  

Amid the whirlwind of the brilliant 19th century Vienna, rocked by the waltzes of Strauss and Opera performances, the Ephrussi forgot themselves and forgot their roots ...

Meteoric material and social success come with a price tag: assimilation. Slowly, Jewish traditions are left behind and forgotten. Our Sages claim: "The test of wealth is more difficult than that of poverty."

The meteorite success of the Ephrussi family is proportional to the abandonment of Jewish tradition.

The desire to look like a non-Jew, to adopt his "Kultur", his way of thinking, his clothing and fashion is all-encompassing. It holds true for other opulent Jewish families other than the Ephrussi. In one generation, the remnants of Judaism disappear. The customs of non-Jews are adopted at all levels, including doing away with the sanctity of family purity. Likewise, the principles of marital fidelity come crumbling down.

When one observes the history and destiny of this family, it brings our attention to the drama of Jews seduced by money, honors and pleasures, three points designated by our Sages as factors leading to the abandonment of the Mitzvot and which, in their language, "remove" a man from the world, i.e. from the world of true values, sacrificed on the altar of subterfuge and lies.

But the Creator, in His Infinite Goodness, does not cease to watch over His children, sending warning signals: first as small raindrops, then light rain. Exactly as He did during the Flood.

Demonstrations of anti-Semitism are stark reminders to assimilated Jewish families and to the assimilation processes prevalent at that time. Reminders of Jewishness….

The first signals appear in the form of sharp remarks coming precisely from the "Intelligentsia" of artists and writers, who frequently socialize with the family and who are often, absurdly,  also the recipients of their financial support and help.

Renoir, who was not paid on time for a painting commissioned by the Cahen family from Antwerp (another opulent Jewish family), openly expressed discontent and denounced the stinginess of the Jews.

Edmond de Goncourt (yes, yes, the founder of the literary prize) vociferously despised Jews and openly displayed his contempt for those “nouveau riche social climbers” in his articles.

Degas told ferocious and tasteless jokes against the Jews. He even painted a picture of two financiers with hooked noses and red beards,  talking in a low voice. He called it: "Portraits of the Stock Market" ...

A thunderbolt broke out in 1894 with the Dreyfus affair. It awakened anti-Semitic passions which were now displayed without restraint. The words Jew and traitor, united by a hyphen were now freely expressed by all.

When the First World War was declared, the sons of these Jewish families were the first to enlist, proudly exuding their patriotism. But ironically, cousins ​​scattered throughout various countries involved in the conflict took up arms against each other. On the war front, a Jew shooting an enemy soldier could hear the unfortunate victim screaming "Shema Israel."

War brings misery and people look for culprits. The wealth of these families becomes suspicious: they are suspected of making profits from the war.  Some may profess that perhaps the Jews even provoked the war for financial gain. This equation is a convenient pretext against the Jews who have always been considered foreigners par excellence. How can a Jew’s loyalty to his hosting nation be proven? Is he not Jewish before being German or French?

All these occurrences, which seemed threatening and even alarming to the Jews of that time were in fact orchestrated by the Hand of Providence, adamantly trying to wake the children of Israel from their slumber. Unfortunately, these warnings were not heard by members of the Ephrussi family.

In 1938, the Anschluss annexes Nazi Germany to Austria. A storm is imminent and dark clouds hover over the skies of  Vienna and Europe.

Nazi troops parade on the Ring. From the windows of the Palace, the Ephrussi family witness this horrifying scene: evil taking possession of the place.

The Gestapo informs Viktor Ephrussi that he and his son Rudolph will be deported to the Dachau camp. To save his life, Viktor signs a document in which he renounces his right of ownership of the Palace and all the treasures contained within it to the benefit of the Nazis. The few surviving family members are confined to share two small rooms. Herr Kirchner, the "faithful" German porter "carelessly", leaves the heavy oak gate open, allowing the Gestapo henchmen to loot the Palace effortlessly. All objects are meticulously listed in thick folders. Each work of art, each piece of porcelain, each painting are stored in boxes to enrich the coffers of Austrian and German museums, or to be sold to Aryan collectors for a pittance.

Part of the Ephrussi family was murdered in the Holocaust. And most of its survivors left the faith and the Jewish People through assimilation.

A superficial reading of this family’s biography describes a succession of dramatic events that shook Europe in the last century. But, a keen eye will be able to discern the insistent, urgent, alarmed call of a Father who calls His children, even the most remote ones: "Come back ... come back My dearest. You are members of My People, chosen from among the nations and separated from them, to serve Me and follow My holy Laws. "

A Jewish Mission

The Jewish people were given a mission from which they cannot extricate themselves and from which they can never escape: to embody the existence of the Creator. We received particular and immutable laws on Mount Sinai that bind us to God and distinguish us from the nations. This is the noblest mission any people have ever received.

If we abandon this role, of the elder brother, role model, a light unto the nations, we awaken hatred from other people who literally resent us. Because our place is elsewhere.

A pilot can not leave his cockpit with impunity on the grounds that he prefers to sit with the passengers, whose rear seats are more comfortable. An elite unit that neglects its mission can cause serious damage to his troops.

Likewise, when a Jew falls asleep and declines to play his role as a member of the Holy People, humanity sinks.

So, on the upcoming months of Elul and Tishri, when we experience such a deep closeness with our Creator, let us internalize the lesson we learned from the Ephrussi saga.


Jocelyne SCEMAMA - © Torah-Box Account

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