LONDON — Perched amid the woodlands and picturesque villages of the county of Sussex in southern England sits a partially ruined medieval-style manor house surrounded by 30 acres of magnificent gardens.
But the property’s appearance is deceptive. The Nymans estate, much of which was destroyed by fire in 1947, was not built by a 15th-century English nobleman. Instead, it was largely the creation of a family of German-Jewish émigrés less than 100 years ago — their complex, overlapping identities encapsulated by the Star of David and English Rose engravings etched into the garden’s stone walls.
Nymans is one of more than a dozen Jewish-themed palaces, villas and country houses featured on a new online touring route launched this month by the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage.
It stems from the Jewish Country Houses project, a major research effort led by UK academics that, they argue, represents a “first attempt to write these houses and their owners back into British, European and Jewish history and to establish their importance as sites of European — and Jewish — memory.”
“When people think about European Jewish history they don’t tend to think about Jewish palaces and castles,” says University of Oxford historian Abigail Green, who leads the Jewish Country Houses project. “They may feel ambivalent about it. They may feel that these people are sellouts who assimilated and weren’t interested in their Jewishness or the Jewish world.”
But, Green says, although the properties are all different, such perceptions are misplaced. “We try to show that that’s not the case. We don’t see these houses [as] sites of assimilation, we see them as sites of Jewish assertion.”
How to win acceptance and influence society
Together, the properties, all of which are linked to Jewish families or those of Jewish origin, illustrate the impact of Jewish emancipation in the 19th century on European politics, culture and society and underline the struggle for acceptance and recognition.
“Many have extraordinary art collections and gardens. Some were stages for lavish entertaining, others provided inspiration to the European avant garde. All were beloved homes that bear witness to the triumphs — and tragedy — of the Jewish past,” notes the introduction to the touring route website.
“Explicit traces of Jewishness are rare in these grand properties, which often seem much like the manor houses of the landed aristocracy or the rural retreats of other nouveaux riches,” it continues. “Yet the Jewish stories these houses tell reveal a fundamentally different set of historical experiences and personal connections.”
Nymans, for instance, tells the extraordinary story of the Messel family. Ludwig Messel, a highly successful German-born stockbroker, bought the sprawling Nymans estate in 1890. The purchase allowed him to indulge his love of gardening and served as a way to integrate his family into rural English society.
Explicit traces of Jewishness are rare in these grand properties, which often seem much like the manor houses of the landed aristocracy or the rural retreats of other nouveaux riches
Country houses thus acted, says the touring route website, as a “bridge between Jewish and non-Jewish society,” placing “urban Jewish families at the heart of rural communities.”
While Messel drifted away from Judaism, marrying in a Christian Unitarian church and raising his children as Anglicans, he also served on the board of the Anglo-Jewish Association.
However, as the National Trust, which now owns the property, has charted, Messel’s embrace of “Englishness” had its limits. Soon after buying Nymans, an elegant if plain early 19th-century villa that typified the popular “Regency” style of the period, he set about making radical changes. Using designs drawn up by his brother, Alfred, a leading German architect, the house was given a sweeping makeover. An Italianate tower, conservatory and sloping Alpine roof atop a billiard room were bolted on. During World War I, the presence of the tower sparked local rumors that Ludwig — who still spoke with a heavy German accent — was spying for the enemy.
Ludwig died in 1915 and Nymans passed to his son. But Leonard struggled to convince his wife, Maud, to move to the property — succeeding only after agreeing to transform Nymans into the kind of medieval-style manor the couple had long coveted. Sadly, the resulting Great Hall — along with much of the house’s southern wing — was destroyed in a 1947 blaze barely 20 years after its completion. Postwar rationing and building restrictions prevented an extensive rebuild, leaving the exterior of the property today largely frozen in time.
But the Messels didn’t abandon Nymans. Family quarters were established in the surviving wings of the house, including a cozy sitting room, book room and library that visitors can still see today. After her parents’ death, Leonard’s daughter, Anne, already married to the 6th Earl of Rosse, continued to visit Nymans. Another frequent visitor was her younger brother, Oliver Messel, the celebrated set and costume designer. Anne, who lived at the house for the last decade of her life, was the mother of Lord Snowdon, who had a famously tempestuous marriage to Princess Margaret, the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II.
A prime minister struggling to fit in
A rather more successful royal relationship is evident at Hughenden Manor, which overlooks the Chiltern Hills of Buckinghamshire to the northwest of London and was once home to the Victorian statesman Benjamin Disraeli.
Disraeli, Britain’s first — and thus far only — Jewish-born prime minister, was a favorite of Queen Victoria. Disraeli’s premiership in the 1870s — marked by a mix of social reform at home and swashbuckling imperialism abroad — won the Queen the title of Empress of India. Victoria, in turn, paid a visit to Hughenden — an honor she accorded to only one other prime minister during her 64-year reign — and made Disraeli a Knight of the Garter, the oldest and most prestigious order of British chivalry granted as the personal gift of the monarch.
Disraeli was baptized into the Church of England at age 12 after his father, Isaac D’Israeli, became entangled in a row over an unpaid fine with the trustees of the historic Bevis Marks Synagogue.
But despite his lifelong membership in the Anglican church, Disraeli’s political opponents — both inside and outside the Conservative party — relentlessly used his Jewish upbringing to attack him. His purchase of Hughenden in 1848 shortly after becoming Tory leader reflected his deeply conservative yearning to cling to a past — rural, aristocratic and hierarchical — that was fast slipping away in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. It also stemmed from his desire to present himself as a part of landed classes that still dominated the Conservative party.
Disraeli’s romantic notions of English history are apparent in the remodeling of Hughenden, which began in the 1860s. Its modest 18th-century Georgian features were stripped away. In their place, Gothic-style battlements and pinnacles were erected and plaster vaulting was added to the interior. The result delighted Disraeli but was described by one architectural historian as “excruciating.”
Isaac D’Israeli’s falling out with the synagogue trustees undoubtedly changed the course of British history. It wasn’t until 1858 — 21 years after his son was first elected to the House of Commons — that the long struggle for Jewish emancipation in Britain was completed when parliament lifted the bar that effectively prevented professing Jews from taking their seats.
A number of Jewish ‘firsts’
Disraeli himself consistently voted for reform and later played a key, behind-the-scenes role in securing its passage. However, a far more prominent and significant campaigner was Sir David Salomons. The first Jewish Lord Mayor of London, he was the owner of Salomons, a country estate outside Tunbridge Wells in Kent.
A stockbroker, banker and communal leader, Salomons was also one of the first Jewish magistrates in England. Elected a Liberal MP in 1851, Salomons attempted to take his seat in the House of Commons without first taking the Christian oath.
Expelled by the parliamentary authorities, Salomons was later fined for having illegally voted in the division lobbies three times. After the reforms of 1858, Salomons was successfully reelected in 1859 and remained an MP until his death in 1873. While the estate is now a wedding and conference venue, a museum on the site contains the parliamentary bench from which Salomons was ejected as he fought to win Jews their civil and political rights.
While some Jewish country homes, such as Nymans and Hughenden, very much embraced the national style, others had a rather more cosmopolitan air. Nestled in the Aylesbury Vale above an archetypically English village sits Waddesdon Manor, whose spires, turrets and towers drew inspiration from the great Loire Valley chateaus of the Valois kings. The best-known of the Rothschild family’s great houses in England, Waddesdon is one of the UK’s most-visited stately homes.
Born in Paris and raised in Frankfurt and Vienna, Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild bought the simple hilltop farming estate at Waddesdon — which lacked even a water supply — in 1874 and commenced an epic seven-year building project.
His spectacular creation, which was further extended in 1889, became renowned for its exclusive summertime “Saturday to Monday” house parties. The guest lists featured members of the royal family — including Queen Victoria’s son and heir, the future Edward VII — prime ministers and cabinet ministers, as well as the cream of aristocratic society.
Today, the house, which is owned by the National Trust and managed by the Rothschild Foundation, still boasts an impressive collection of 18th-century French furniture, Sevres porcelain, Beauvais tapestries and English portraiture.
But together with his love of collecting, Ferdinand also shared his family’s passion for politics.
Ferdinand’s uncle, Lionel, nominated Salomons to the post that would see him become Britain’s first professing Jewish MP in 1858. And Ferdinand’s brother-in-law, Natty, was MP for Aylesbury. When Natty became a member of the House of Lords in 1885, the door opened for Ferdinand to replace him in the Commons. He held the seat until his death in 1898.
The inescapable shadow of antisemitism
The Rothschilds’ involvement in politics was not unusual; other Jewish owners of country houses went into public service, often representing local constituencies. Philanthropy, to the benefit of both Jewish and non-Jewish causes, was also a common thread between wealthy Jews and played an important role in their lives.
But, as the experience of the Rothschilds — who famously became a target for antisemitic conspiracy theories — suggests, wealth, power and privilege was invariably accompanied by suspicion, hostility and prejudice.
Green believes that rather than feeding antisemitic tropes, Jewish country houses can be “sites for teaching about antisemitism.”
“Because antisemitism is so centrally preoccupied with ‘rich Jews,’ I think that pretending [they] didn’t exist is not an effective way of dealing with those narratives,” she says.
Instead, she says, it’s important to present a “nuanced view” that recognizes the role antisemitism played in the history of the houses and those who lived in them.
Indeed, even in Britain, few of the Jewish country houses are untouched by the Nazis’ attempt to annihilate European Jewry in the 1940s.
This year, the Jewish Country Houses project has worked with the Holocaust Educational Trust to develop a series of teachers’ study seminars examining the often overlooked topic of Britain’s relationship with the Holocaust. It focuses on the Messels’ efforts to get members of their family out of Germany before the war.
While Alfred’s daughter Irene, her husband, Wolfgang, and their children found safety in the UK, others weren’t so lucky. Wolfgang’s parents and sister, Vera, remained in the northern German city of Kiel. When Vera received news that she was to be deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, she committed suicide in July 1942 alongside her parents.
The seminars also examine the Rothschild family’s work on behalf of imperiled European Jews, which is told in an exhibit at Waddesdon.
James de Rothschild, who inherited the house from his great-aunt Alice in 1922, used his position in parliament to highlight the plight of German Jews. With his wife, Dorothy, he also directly helped a group of Kindertransport schoolboys escape from Frankfurt.
In March 1939, 21 Jewish boys between the ages of 8 and 13 arrived in Waddesdon along with their headteacher, his wife, and the couple’s two daughters. The refugees were housed in a large house in the village — The Cedars — and James and Dorothy de Rothschild were frequent visitors. As letters and photographs at the house show, many of the “Cedar Boys” stayed in touch with the Rothschilds and attended reunions for decades after the war.
The Holocaust’s tragic impact
The impact of the Holocaust was, of course, felt more keenly by Jewish owners of country houses in continental Europe than in Britain. The neglected 18th-century Château de Seneffe in Belgium, for instance, was purchased and restored in 1909 by banker and philanthropist Franz Philippson and his wife Isabelle Mayer.
Through his leadership at the Jewish Colonization Association — which facilitated the relocation of impoverished Jews to agricultural colonies in North America, South America and Ottoman Palestine — Philippson was heavily involved in efforts to aid struggling Eastern European Jewry.
But at the beginning of World War II, Philippson and his wife were forced to flee Europe for the US. During the German occupation of Belgium, Seneffe fell into the hands of the Nazis and became the country estate of the German military governor, General Alexander von Falkenhausen.
The Liebermann-Villa on Berlin’s Lake Wannsee tells an even more tragic story. One of Germany’s leading impressionist artists, Max Liebermann, joined upper-middle-class Berlin’s turn-of-the-century fad for country houses by snapping up the last plots at the “Alsen villa colony” on Wannsee in 1909.
Liebermann slaved over the designs of the house — drawn up by a student of Alfred Messel — and garden, creating a summer residence for his family. Liebermann, a longstanding president of the Prussian Academy of Arts, was declared an honorary citizen of Berlin and awarded the eagle shield of the German Reich by president Paul Hindenburg to mark his 80th birthday in 1927. (Hindenburg was, alongside Albert Einstein, the subject of one of over 200 commissioned portraits painted by Liebermann.)
But, when the Nazis came to power, Liebermann — who is reported to have remarked, “I could not possibly eat as much as I would like to throw up” — was forced into the shadows. Branded “degenerate,” his work was removed from public collections and his death in February 1935 went officially unmarked. In 1940, Liebermann’s widow, Martha, was compelled to sell the property to the Deutsche Reichspost, which set up a “training camp” in the villa for its “female followers.”
While daughter Käthe and her family escaped abroad, Martha remained in Berlin. She committed suicide in 1943 prior to her imminent deportation.
Martha’s fate, and that of millions of other Jews, had been sealed early the previous year less than half a mile from the family’s former home when high-ranking Nazis infamously gathered to plan the implementation of the Final Solution.
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