Tag Archives: French Jews

Jew of the Week: Camille Pissarro

The First Impressionist

Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was born on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas to a Sephardic Jewish family of Portuguese and French ancestry. Pissarro’s father sent him to a Paris boarding school when he was 12, and it was there that he was first exposed to art, learning to paint and draw. Pissarro returned to St. Thomas at 17 to work in his father’s business, and would spend every spare moment painting. At 21, he became a professional artist and moved to Venezuela, then settled in Paris four years later. There, he apprentice under some of the great painters of the time, including Melbye and Corot. Unlike them, Pissarro wished to paint realistic scenes, and focused on capturing natural landscapes and village life. During this time he met fellow young realists like Monet and Cézanne. Soon, Pissarro was the most famous of them all, with one critic of the day describing him as being able to paint “the smell of the earth”, and another ranking him among the “three or four true painters” of the time. During the Franco-Prussian War, Pissarro lived in a village near London and experimented with a new style that would later be called Impressionism. Upon returning to France years later, Pissarro found that only 40 of his paintings survived the war out of a total 1,500 – twenty years worth of art. Frustrated by the Paris Salon that set standards in art and alone determined whose work could be exhibited, Pissarro decided to start a new art society. He recruited fifteen fellow painters to do so. The others would see him as a father figure, especially because of his long, grey beard (despite being as young as they were). He was described as having the “look of an ancestor who remained a young man”. In 1874, the new society held their first exhibit to display their new form of Impressionist art. For several years afterwards, Impressionism was a very controversial style, with critics either absolutely loving it or hating it. Pissarro would later be credited as “the first Impressionist”. Meanwhile, he became a hero for all young painters for taking a stand against the Salon. Pissarro left the Impressionist fold shorty after, and began to study under painters of the pointillist style. He would go on to fuse the two styles into Neo-Impressionism. By this point, Pissarro was seen as perhaps the most versatile painter in the world, with an “extraordinary capacity to change his art”. In 1884, he took a young Vincent van Gogh as an apprentice. Pissarro continued to paint until the last days of his life, despite a chronic eye infection that weakened his vision, and the persistent financial struggles he faced his entire life. Pissarro was known for his youthful energy, his warmth, humility, wisdom, and gracefulness. Cézanne considered him like a father, and said of Pissarro that he was “a little like the good Lord.” While his works didn’t sell so well in his own lifetime, they are among the most coveted in the world today. One of his paintings was auctioned off for a whopping £19.9 million in 2014. Four of Pissarro’s seven children became noted painters of their own, as are a number of his great-great-grandchildren today.

Words of the Week

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.
– Paul Hawken

Some of Pissarro’s most famous painting, clockwise from top left: Entrée du village de Voisins (1872), La Récolte des Foins, Eragny (1887), Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather (1896), Le Boulevard de Montmartre, Matinée de Printemps (1897) – which sold for £19.9 million.

Jews of the Week: Alfred Nakache & Ben Helfgott

The Holocaust Survivors Who Became Olympians

Helfgott at the 1966 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia

Ben Helfgott (b. 1929) was born in Poland and was only a child when the Nazis invaded his country. He was sent with his entire family to Buchenwald concentration camp. Everyone perished except for one sister. After the war, Helfgott was among some 750 Jewish kids under 16 taken to England as refugees. Now safe in England, Helfgott started a Jewish youth club and became a big fan of sports. He was soon introduced to weightlifting and wanted to take it up professionally. Being just 5 foot 4 inches tall, and weighing 154 pounds, Helfgott was told to find another sport. He persisted nonetheless, and at age 26, became England’s champion in the 11-stone division. He went on to win four more English and British Commonwealth weightlifting championships, and represented the UK at the 1956 Olympics in Australia. He returned in the 1960 Olympics in Rome as the coach of the UK weightlifting team. He also participated in the Maccabiah Games, earning weightlifting gold three times. After retiring from sport, Helfgott became a successful businessman. He used his wealth to start The ’45 Aid Society, generously supporting struggling Holocaust survivors. Helfgott was recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He is one of just two Holocaust survivors to become an Olympian.

Alfred Nakache

The other is Alfred Nakache (1915-1983), born in French Algeria to a traditional Sephardic family of eleven children. As a child, Nakache had a crippling fear of water. He made the decision to overcome his phobia, and soon immersed himself in swimming and water sports. He went on to become a five-time French swimming champion, and set five European and World Records. After a silver medal at the 1935 Maccabiah Games, Nakache made the French Olympic team and competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When the Nazis invaded France, Nakache escaped to the Free Zone in the south of the country. He wasn’t safe from anti-Semitism, though. Banned from swimming in Toulouse, he moved to Marseilles. Several weeks after setting a new record in the 400 metre butterfly in 1943, he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Surviving the camp’s hellish conditions, Nakache returned to swimming, setting a new French record in 1946. He made the French Olympic team again and participated in the 1948 games in London. In 1993, Nakache was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He was the subject of the 2001 documentary Alfred Nakache, the Swimmer of Auschwitz. Today, many pools across France are named after him.

What’s the Difference Between Ashkenazim and Sephardim?

Words of the Week

According to the pain is the gain.
– Pirkei Avot 5:21

Nakache (far left) with the French relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Helfgott (inset) at a weightlifting competition.