Life & Culture

The grand houses with a missing Jewish past

The stories of the Jewish owners of stately homes, in the UK and Europe are often erased when the houses' histories are told. A new initiative hopes to fill in the gaps


Franz Philippson, the son of a well-connected German rabbi, emigrated to Brussels in the 1860s. He proceeded to found a bank at the age of 20 — and became such a substantial figure that he was involved in unofficial armistice negotiations during the final months of the Great War, and later did much to put Belgium back on its feet. A key mover in interwar Jewish relief efforts, Franz fled Europe with his family as the Nazis tightened their grip on the continent. His adopted country has forgotten this staunch Belgian patriot; his home — an extraordinarily grand 18th-century château — is a different story.

Evocative photographs exist of Seneffe as the Philippsons knew it: replete with tennis courts, a swimming pool, an English garden. Less charming images survive from the period when Seneffe served as a seat of the Nazi occupation. When the house eventually passed to the Belgian state, the authorities painstakingly removed all remaining relics of the arriviste (and Jewish) Philippsons, restoring the château to its original 18th-century glory. It is now a major tourist attraction.

There is nothing unusual about this story. The Château de Champs-sur-Marne, just outside Paris, is now the main office for the French equivalent of the National Trust, and celebrated as the residence of Louis XV’s mistress, Mme de Pompadour. Yet Champs survives thanks to Louis Cahen d’Anvers and his Italian-born wife Louise de Morpurgo, another couple of wealthy, cosmopolitan Jewish bankers.

Like the Philippsons, they bought a dilapidated 18th-century gem and revived it with loving care: rescuing the Christophe Huet panelling and decorating the rooms with masterpieces of 18th-century French furniture — a style that surely felt like home to Louise, who grew up in the ancien régime treasure-trove that is now the Civico Museo Morpurgo in Trieste. The descendants of the Cahen d’Anvers perished in the Holocaust, and there is little to recall the family in the château they once loved. In the narrative of this historic house, they too feature as caretakers of someone else’s past.

One might think the diffidence about telling these Jewish stories has something to do with the Nazi period. Specifically in post-Holocaust France, foregrounding the Jewishness of families like the Cahen d’Anvers could also seem to violate the principles of state secularism.

Nevertheless, the politics of Holocaust memory often play out differently. In Berlin-Wannsee, where the painter Max Liebermann’s bucolic lakeside villa was restored by a group of enthusiasts after re-unification, the fate of Liebermann and his wife Martha is a central part of the story. In the Czech city of Brno, where the Tugendhat and Stiassni families built villas admired the world over as icons of modernist architecture, their tales of flight and expropriation are likewise part of the narrative. Even in Paris, the Musée Nissim de Camondo — which houses the exceptional collection of 18th-century French art developed by Istanbul-born Moïse de Camondo –— now functions as a triple memorial: to the end of the old regime, the Great War in which his son Nissim perished, and the brutal end met by his descendants at Auschwitz.

Intriguingly, moreover, the lapses of public memory so often attached to the grand houses of the Jewish elite are also a feature of the British heritage landscape.

Like Brno’s Villa Tugendhat, Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham is a site of architectural pilgrimage, venerated as the first example of Gothic revival architecture in England. After the death of its creator, Horace Walpole, this 18th-century, neo-Gothic extravaganza passed to the charismatic Lady Waldegrave (daughter of a Jewish opera singer who proudly vaunted her father’s antecedents), and later to the international banking Sterns. Most visitors remain ignorant of this Jewish heritage. The parallels with Seneffe and the Château de Champs are striking. They speak to the iconic significance attached to a supposedly “characteristic” 18th-century style by guardians of the national heritage across Europe — and to a related failure to integrate Jewish stories into heritage narratives that evoke a lost world of ancient lineages and landed society from which Jews were traditionally excluded.

In Britain, these attitudes are most clearly apparent in the ambivalence shown by national institutions towards the spectacular houses and art-collections created by the Rothschilds in Buckinghamshire. In 1976, 20 years after the National Trust had accepted Ferdinand de Rothschild’s neo-French château at Waddesdon with famous reluctance because it seemed insufficiently English, Viscount Norwich failed to persuade the nation to “save” nearby Mentmore. He admitted that a house representing “the international bankers’ Jewish taste of the Rothschilds” was “not in any way characteristic”, but pleaded that it was “no worse for that… Great art belongs to the world.”

This argument failed to convince. A building that was once the most perfectly preserved Victorian house in England remains at risk and closed to the public; a collection rivalling that of the British royal family long since dispersed.

Only a couple of years earlier, parliament had declined to rescue the Science Theatre created by Sir David Lionel Salomons at his home near Tunbridge Wells. As Greville Janner informed the House of Lords, this was a site of historic importance for Britain’s Jewish community, since the Estate also commemorated the public career of the first Sir David Salomons: a leading figure in the campaign for Jewish emancipation, and the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London.

None of Janner’s colleagues bothered to engage with this argument. The intimate museum created by David Lionel’s daughter Vera still survives, but a remarkable house, the first in the country to use electricity, was condemned to decades as an NHS training centre. Many original fixtures and fittings were lost for good.

Taken together, the fate of Mentmore and Salomons Estate reflect a longstanding reluctance to recognise the country houses of the Jewish elite as a meaningful part of Britain’s heritage. There is a sense that the Jewish story is of merely parochial interest, a sense that Jews like the Rothschilds were more cosmopolitan than British, and a snobbish sense that the new wealth they represent is not really worth celebrating. There may even be a certain discomfort around the very idea of Jewish wealth — and a desire to avoid giving offence (or fuelling antisemitism), by drawing attention to it.

This nervousness is not replicated in more “mainstream” country houses, which routinely celebrate the lives and legacies of a privileged elite but rarely stop to consider that these houses and the luxurious lifestyle they embody are also symbols of wealth, power and exploitation — of the English working poor and, indeed, of free and unfree labour in many parts of the world.

The reaction to Black Lives Matter and the National Trust’s commitment to representing inclusive histories suggest this may be beginning to change. Uniquely, however, Jewish country houses like the Salomons Estate served as a vehicle for the emancipation of a historically persecuted and disadvantaged minority. They reinforced social hierarchies, but they also challenged them: for, in a social and cultural context shaped by Christianity, Jewish country houses had a transgressive quality.

These are sites that speak powerfully both to Jewish history and to the history of antisemitism — not least because of the way they seem to reinforce tropes about Jewish wealth, Jewish power, and Jewish internationalism. Yet for families like the Rothschilds and the Camondos, the wealth that was the source of their power and privilege was also a source of terrible vulnerability. This may be easier to grasp when visiting the Musée Nissim de Camondo than it is at Waddesdon.

Many things, however, fall into place once we begin to read the country houses of British Jews as part of a bigger, European story — one in which Jews feature not as caretakers, but protagonists. This is the intention behind the new, pan-European “Palaces, Villas, and Country Houses” route launched on September 6, as part of the “European Routes of Jewish Heritage” developed by the AEPJ heritage body within the Cultural Routes Programme of the Council of Europe.

For three years now, Oxford’s Jewish Country Houses project has been working with the National Trust and with historic Jewish houses across Europe to think about the connections between them and the challenges they face.

Antisemitism and the difficulty of telling Jewish stories in places far from established centres of Jewish life have emerged as common preoccupations — as is a sense that Jewishness is everywhere and nowhere in houses whose owners belonged to high society even if, like the Rothschilds, the Camondos and the Philippsons, they were also key figures in the world of Jewish philanthropy.

Yet it has become clear that these houses represent a genuinely European — and Jewish — heritage, which the nationalisation of memory culture has tended to obscure.

Their owners were patriots, but they came from cosmopolitan families whose connections across Europe — and beyond — were deep, wide and intimate. Familiar with other cultures and places, they were innovators who brought new styles and ways of living wherever they chose to settle: from Ferdinand de Rothschild’s French house and David Lionel Salomons’ electric lighting, through the world’s first Montessori school (established by Alice Hallgarten-Franchetti at Villa Montesca in Umbria), to the modernism of Brno. In the 21st century, this should be something to celebrate.

The “Palaces, Villas and Country Houses” route, which brings together 16 properties in six countries, is one way of articulating this complex, European story — and expanding our understanding of Jewish heritage beyond the conventional triad of synagogue, cemetery and ghetto. Now is a difficult time to visit, but it may be the perfect moment to learn more about these properties and the often extraordinary people who lived in them. You can always draw up an itinerary for the future.

Abigail Green is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Oxford.

“Palaces, Villas and Country Houses” launches on September 6. Follow on Twitter @JCHJewishHouses New material will be uploaded all week at


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