Was André Salmon Jewish? Non
6, rue Joseph Bara [Paris], 19 septembre 1924
Mon cher Confrère,
J’ai de très chers amis juifs – et aucune relation avec la société israélite – mais je ne suis pas juif, comme vous le croyez.
De nombreux chrétiens portent ce nom de Salmon. Louis et Victor dit Noir, Louis Noir le romancier d’aventure et son frère Victor assassiné par Pierre Bonaparte et dont le cadavre manqua faire trébucher l’Empire, n’étaient pas juifs. Mais qui certes le fut moins encore, si j’ose ainsi dire, c’est le premier Salmon qui brigua le laurier: Jean Salmon, dit Maigret ou Macrinus, poète latin, valet de chambre du Galant.
Je ne revendique aujourd’hui d’autres aïeux que les paysans bateliers et constructeurs de yoles de Dormans-en-Champagne; la touchante Marie Salmon qui attendit septs ans son fiancé, le cousin Thierry, corsaire de qui la succession reste ouverte, un hussard de la République, déserteur en Brumaire; un cocher de diligence; le grand-père Th[éodore] Salmon, le peintre animalier et bon quarante-huitard. Mon père, Émile-Frédéric Salmon l’aquafortiste n’aurait pu conduire les siens en la Russie de tzars s’il avait été juif.
Mais, ceci dit, je répète que j’ai de bons amis juifs, qu’il m’arrive, parfois, de croire à une mission des juifs et que, catholique, je ne suis aucunement ébloui pas la conversion d’un juif. J’admire en Max Jacob le chrétien parfait et non pas le juif converti.
Permettez-moi de vous signaler – justification de cette épître ---que votre nomenclature néglige d’excellents critiques juifs, un au moins dont vous me forcez d’occuper la place. Me le pardonnera-il?
Ce billet peu étudié n’encombrera pas trop le Crapouillot. j’espère; laissez-moi l’achever sur l’expression de ma sympathie,
Translation into English:
My dear Colleague,
I have very dear Jewish friends, but I am not Jewish, as you believe – and no relationship with the French-Jewish [Israelite] community.
Numerous Christians have the last name Salmon. Louis and Victor[formerly Salmon] known as Noir: Louis Noir, the novelist of adventure stories and his brother Victor, assassinated by Pierre Bonaparte and whose dead body missed toppling the Empire, were not Jewish.* But certainly even less so, if I can put it that way, was the first Salmon, who aspired to the crown of laurels: Jean Salmon, known as Maigret or Macrinus, a Latin poet and chamberlain to of Le Galant.**
The only other ancestors I can claim were peasant boatmen and builders of small boats from Dormans en Champagne; the touching Marie Salmon who waited seven years for her fiancé, her cousin [surnamed] Thierry, a corsair/pirate without heirs; a hussar for the Republic, a deserter during the Brumaire; one stagecoach driver; my grandfather Théodore Salmon, animal painter and a real ‘48er. My father, Émile-Frédéric Salmon, an etcher/engraver, would not have been able to bring his family to czarist Russia if he had been Jewish.
However, that said, I repeat that I have good friends who are Jewish, that I sometimes believe in a Jewish mission, and that, as a Catholic, I take no delight in the conversion of a Jew. I admire in Max Jacob the perfect Christian, not the converted Jew.
Allow me to point out to you – as justification for this epistle – that your nomenclature neglects excellent Jewish critics, one at least in whose place I have taken according to you . Will he ever forgive me for that?
I hope this barely researched letter will not burden Le Crapouillot. Allow me to sign off with the expression of my goodwill,
*In fact their father was Jewish, and they converted to Catholicism.
** Jean Salmon Macrinus, (1490-1557) a highly-regarded Renaissance neo-Latin poet, served as the Valet de Chambre and King's Reader during the reigns of François I (1494-1547) and his successor Henry II (1519-1559). "Le Vert Galant" refers to Henri IV (1153-1610). Salmon Macrin, as he is known today, was a devout Catholic and chose the name Macrinus in 1513, in honor of the Bishop Maternus of Cologne, whom legend claims evangelized among the Gauls in the north of France during and after the reign of Emperor Constantine, the early 4th century A.D. True, there was an influx of Jews from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, but, so far, I have found no evidence that Jean Salmon Macrinus descended from the "conversos."
Lundi [le 22 ou 29 septembre 1924?]
Mon cher confrère,
Je vous remercie de votre lettre. Vous me répondez trop gentiment pour que je vous encombre de mon billet. Vous saurez très bien en tirer les trois lignes à communiquer à votre successeur.
Au surplus vous n’avez pas à vous excuser. Comme dit Maître Pierre: Y’a pas d’offense. Je serais même désolé qu’on pût me croire offensé.
Je ne crois qu’aux jeunes. Ils ont raison toujours et j’espère que vous n’êtes pas tout à fait sérieux en me donnant de l’éminence. Mais là encore point d’offense.
Je vous souhaite un accueillant drapeau, un garnison acceptable de la paix.
Tout à vous,
Monday [September 22 our 24? 1924]
My dear colleague,
Thank you for your letter. Your response to me was too kind for burdening you with my letter. You will surely know how to compose a brief note for your successor.
Moreover, you don't have to apologize. As Master Peter says:“no offense taken.” I would in fact be distressed if anyone believed it could offend me.
I only believe in young people. They are always right, and I hope you are not at all serious about bestowing on me such distinction. But there too, no offense taken.
I wish for you a welcoming platoon and an acceptable garrison in a peaceful setting.***
Best to you,
*** Vaucaire was sent to Germany to fulfill his military service. His regiment maintained order on the borders with France.
We are not insisting here that this one tiny notice in this one newspaper, which swung from independent critiques to the far Right during World War II before it folded in 1990, sowed the seeds of Salmon's perpetual misidentification as a Jew. However, we note here evidence of when Salmon was publicly labelled a Jew, which remains available to scholars researching early 20th century art in France.
We also found evidence that scholars assumed the poet/critic André Salmon was Jewish because his last name sounded Jewish. Their work perpetuated this misinformation from text to footnote to Wikipedia to sources we haven't discovered yet. The notion that Salmon's last name is Jewish may come from general guides such as this source on surnames. Here the entry explains that the surname Salmon is a shortened version of Solomon/Salomon, which is often a Jewish surname. Hence the belief that André Salmon must come from Jewish roots going way back in his lineage.
However, as André Salmon correctly noted there are both Jewish and non-Jewish Salmons all over the world. Even without consulting Salmon's letter here, we can learn from his genealogy that his mother and grandmothers were not Jewish. Thus, according to Jewish law (Halakhah), he was not Jewish, because only children of Jewish mothers are recognized as truly Jewish, as there was no certainty of paternity until recent DNA testing. Salmon's lineage more than verifies he would not be considered a Jew without proof of Jewish ancestry. (For further clarification and updates on who is considered a Jew and who is not, please consult "Who is a Jew?" in Wikipedia.)
I am indebted to Professor Jacqueline Gojard, the Salmon expert par excellence, and her husband Jacques Gojard, who showed me these letters and allowed me to photograph each one. Jacqueline Gojard helped me read Salmon's handwriting, which was challenging at times, and she oversaw this translation. She also told me orally and in emails that the Gestapo believed Salmon came from Jewish parents and insisted on having him strip to see if he had been circumcised. He was not and the matter ended with this evidence.
And yet the belief that Salmon had been Jewish remains in print for all to use for future articles on the poet/art critic. We find numerous references to Salmon as an undeclared Jew in the literature on the School of Paris and Jewish artists whom the critic/poet support, most notably in the Marc Chagall biography. In his essay "Jewish Artists in Paris, 1905-1945," published in the exhibition catalogue The Circle of Montparnasse: Jewish Artists in Paris, 1905-1945, Kenneth E. Silver, curator and professor of art history at New York University, demonstrates how influential these sources can be: "As for André Salmon (whose surname is almost always a Jewish one in France), his ethnic and religious origins are unclear. Although he was born a Catholic, he may have been of mixed Jewish and Christian ancestry. Sidney Alexander writes, 'When Salmon was questioned about his early years--whose landsmann was he? Litvak? Galitsianer?--"By our discretion we guarantee bread to those whom Stephane Mallarmé called les scoliastes futurs",' which provides no answer, of course. Yet, for reasons that he does not explain, Alexander concludes: 'But at least one knew that Salmon was a Russian Jew, like so many of those living at La Ruche.' Alexander, Marc Chagall: A Biography (New York, 1978), p. 135."
Romy Golan, professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, co-curated The Circle of Montparnasse exhibition with Professor Silver, and published an article in the exhibition catalogue that describes the antisemitic climate in France occasioned by the increased number of foreign artists who filled Parisian art schools, artists' colonies and exhibitions venues during the early 20th century. Best known among these foreign modernists were the Jewish artists Amedeo Modigliani (from Italy), Jules Pascin (from Bulgaria), and Marc Chagall (from Russia). The distinction between natural born French Jews (Israélites) and immigrant Jews (Juifs) dominated the article "École Française ou École de Paris" by Jewish critic Waldemar-George in a journal called Formes (June 1931, pp. 92-93 and July 1931, pp. 101-111), which informed Professor Golan's essay "The 'École Française' vs. the 'École de Paris'': the Debate about the Status of Jewish Artists in Paris Between the Wars." Much of the content in Golan's article appeared in her book Modernity and Nostalgia: Art and Politics in France Between the Wars (Yale University Press, 1995) and the anthology Jewish Dimensions in Modern Visual Culture: Antisemitism, Assimilation, Affirmation, edited by Rose-Carol Washton Long, Matthew Baigell, and Milly Heyd (Brandeis University Press, 2010). In the catalogue essay, Golan did not claim that Salmon was Jewish. In her book, she decided Salmon was "most probably an Israélite." (p149) And in the anthology essay, she deleted this latter assumption in that sentence. (p. 82)
However, a review of Golan's book written by Richard I. Cohen and published in Coping with Life and Death: Studies in Contemporary Jewry XIV (Oxford University Press, 1998) produced the following conclusion: "Strikingly, one finds several Jewish writers (Louis Vauxcelles, Waldemar-George and André Salmon) among the foremost critics of the foreign school of art that consisted, among others, Chaim Soutine, Amedeo Modigliani, Ossip Zadkine, Jules Pascin, Marc Chagall, and Moise Kisling." (p. 313). This review served as a source for an entry in Wikipedia that claimed for a very long time that Salmon came from a Jewish family Moreover, Cohen's statement informs us of the impression Golan's characterization of Salmon left on her readers: he was an antisemitic Jew.
Recently the Wikipedia assertion that Salmon "came from a Jewish family" was corrected, but the footnote for Cohen's review of Golan's book remains to expose the trail of misinformation passed from one source to another. However, the reference remains on Penny's Poetry's website. On November 15, 2020, a new footnote was added to this paragraph, citing Michael Woods' Reality vs. Perceptions: The Treatment of Early Modern French Jews in Politics and Literary Culture, (Virginia Commonwealth University Press, 2014), which does not mention Jean Salmon Macrin specifically. This addition seems to indicate that someone questions Salmon's awareness of the possibility that his ancestors were Jewish before they arrived in France.
It is of particular interest to me that Golan's assumption that Salmon was "most probably Israélite" influenced her reading of André Salmon's monograph on the artist Léopold Lévy (Editions Le Triangle, 1930). In all iterations of her essay, Golan singles out Salmon in particular as one who emphasized Frenchness as a perniciously nationalist position: "Summoning lofty themes from World War I rhetoric [Salmon] wrote: 'Léopold Lévy, a Parisian, was born with Mother France at his cradle . . . the mother of the peasant-soldier, of Corot and Renoir'." (Modernity and Nostaligia, p. 149) In French, Salmon wrote:
"Léopold Lévy, Parisien, vit se pencher sur son berceau la meilleure, la plus belle et la plus sage des fées, la nourrice France dont le bon lait nous valut des physiciens et des poètes du sentiment, des juristes et des marchands honnêtes. Ces Messieurs de Port-Royal et le Soldat-Laboureur, Descartes et tout de même Hugo et Gérard de Nerval le fol et Corot et Renoir."
"Parisian, Léopold Lévy saw leaning over his cradle the best, most beautiful and wisest of fairies, the wet nurse France whose rich milk gave us physicians, poets, judges and honest merchants. Those gentlemen from Port-Royal, the peasant soldier, Descartes, along with Hugo, crazy Gérard de Nerval, Corot and Renoir."
However, Golan's edits and crafts her translation to fit the thesis of her book: "Summoning lofty themes from World War I rhetoric [Salmon] wrote: 'Léopold Lévy, a Parisian, was born with Mother France at his cradle . . . the mother of the peasant-soldier, of Corot and Renoir'." This editing castes Salmon in a negative light as a xenophobic, nationalistic Israélite, who emphasized Lévy's authentic French lineage in order to shower praise upon his art in contradistinction from his fellow immigrant artists--an entirely absurd characterization of Salmon and rather malicious in its unfounded assertion. Salmon was not xenophobic, not nationalistic, and not a French-born Jewish antisemite at all.
Golan remarked that Salmon "included Lévy among the 'natural heirs' of the French tradition, in contrast to the newcomers "who were merely dazzled by it."
This is what Salmon wrote on page 13:
"J'ai, naguère, subi suffisamment l'injure pour avoir assuré la défense d'artistes étrangers dont j'estimais, contre tant d'obstinés, qu'ils avaient dûment acquis droit de cité parmi nous. J'ai eu, moi aussi, ma politique metécophile, comme M. de Monzie. On ne saurait donc se méprendre sur mes sentiments quant j'insiste tout de même sur l'importance qu'il y a pour un artiste à tout extraire d'un fonds authentiquement français, lentement transmis par une solide lignée. Je n'oppose pas les héritiers naturels d'une des plus riches traditions à ceux qui furent, plus ou moins promptement ou d'un coup, éblouis pas le rayonnement du trésor et se reconnaissant dans cette vive et pure lumière. Je leur veux seulement faire un sort particulier."
"Not long ago, I received plenty of insults for defending foreign artists I admired against so much narrow-mindedness toward their right to citizenship. I am also politically inclined toward diversity, like Monsieur [Anatole] de Monzie. Therefore, one should know not to misunderstand my sentiments as I nevertheless insist on the importance of this authentic French legacy slowly transmitted to an artist through solid lineage. I am not distinguishing those who are the natural heirs of one of the richest traditions from those who more or less quickly or suddenly were dazzled by this treasure's radiance, and thus found their true selves in terms of this lively and pure light. I only wish for them to find their own particular path."
Lacking an understanding of Salmon's referencing French in previous texts, such as his first two books La Jeune Peinture française and La Jeune Sculpture française, exposes Golan's superficial familiarity with Salmon's art criticism and his poetry. Nevertheless, Golan's opinions have garnered much praise and few corrections so far.
Richard I. Cohen judiciously arrived at this final note: "Though I found her study of great interest and merit, it appears to me overly driven by a monolithic and even deterministic scheme. Certainly the value of the book is in the way it uncovers the 'reactionary modernism' tendencies in the work of so many French artists and art critics, yet 'methinks she doth protest too much.' For one thing, the political scene in France was not wholly overtaken with nationalist ideas and antisemitic arguments during the interwar period, as is intimated in her presentation." (pp. 313-314)
I appreciate Cohen's perceptive analysis and note here that he himself was caught up in Golan's manipulations of quotations to buttress her thesis. In so doing, she tarnished Salmon's reputation as an art critic in the eyes of her book's readers and for those who relied on her book and article for their scholarly work: courses, lectures, articles, etc. Thus, we return to our theme: "truth decay" in print, from social media to scholarly texts.
This blog entry has attempted to rectify the various ways Salmon's identity has been distorted and his criticism misread to achieve deterministic theses. We ask you, kind reader, to bring similar mistakes to our attention so that we correct these grievous errors on this free and open-source platform.