Edmund de Waal speaks at Palais Epstein

Bringing Memory Home: The 75th anniversary of the Anschluss brought author Edmund de Waal once more to Vienna at the invitation of the Austrian Parliament. What follows are his remarks in the Palais Epstein

Here I am in Vienna.

I feel at home. This palais seems about the right size. It has certainly got the appropriate amount of gilding, and the marble seems familiar. I’m happy to see the caryatids and the mouldings and that the ceilings are lively with good painting. The view from the windows is grand and sweeping. As Ringstrassenpalais go, it isn’t bad.

I am a potter. Not a cultural historian, not an architecture critic, political analyst, not an art historian. Unlike my polyglot family – slipping between German and French and English, between Heine and Baudelaire and Tennyson – I stumble through languages.

Author Edmund de Waal in front of the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstraße at Schottentor; his family's home until 1938 | Illustration: Katharina Klein

Author Edmund de Waal in front of the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstraße at Schottentor; his family’s home until 1938 | Illustration: Katharina Klein

But I’m here. And you are here because of a story that I felt, a story the edges and extent of which seemed worth exploring, and which grew slowly but implacably from being that of a small ivory Japanese object, the carving of a pair of rats tumbling together in a knot of lithe energy, into a narrative that encompassed a Jewish family on its journey from a shtetl somewhere in the wheatfields of the Ukraine, through the avidity of Odessa in the middle of the 19th century – that shipping-out port of merchants, poets, and crooks – to the Paris of the belle époque of Haussmann avenues and salons, to here on the Ringstraße.

To the Vienna of this palais, its neighbours – the Opera, Rathaus, University, Musikverein. To the life of this street between 1870 and 13th March 1938.

No sanction is needed

‘There are fists on the door, someone leaning on the bell, and there are eight or ten – some with swastika armbands, some familiar. The last door they reach is Emmy’s dressing-room, the room with the vitrine containing the netsuke, and they sweep everything off the desk she uses as a dressing-table: the small mirror and the porcelain and the silver boxes and the flowers sent up from the meadows in Kövecses. Three of them heave the desk and send it crashing over the handrail until, with a sound of splintering wood and gilt and marquetry, it hits the stone flags of the courtyard below. The broken drawers scatter letters across the courtyard.

‘You think you own us, you fucking foreign shit. You’ll be fucking next, you shit, you fucking Jews. This is wild, unsanctioned Aryanisation. No sanction is needed. 

‘Because it’s all about dirt, about the pollution the Jews brought to the imperial city from their stinking hovels…

‘When these men and boys finally go, they say they’ll be back, and you know they mean it. Emmy is wearing her pearls and they take them off. They take her rings. Another paused to spit handsomely at your feet. And they clatter down the stairs, shouting until they reach the courtyard. 

One takes a run to kick the debris, and they are out through the doors onto the Ring, a large clock under an overcoated arm.

‘Snow is on its way.’ 

And so I write it. It takes forever. And it is published, and away go the books on the Habsburgs. The Baedekers for Austria and France, the sale catalogues for auctions in Paris, marked up with the prices realised for family furniture, the books on fashion, the stack of Gazette de Beaux-Arts.

The section of books on Freud and the shelves of Musil, Zweig, Roth, will stay, of course, but may have to move up. Some things – Grossman, Babel – are needed here at eyeline, but surely the de Goncourt journals can be banished. I won’t need to go through them again. I wasn’t sure if I could bear those brothers once and I need to move on. The proofs have gone back to the publisher and it is time to pack up.

Annotated, book-marked, stickered, full of expostulatory scribbles, pencilled to-do lists on end-papers and exultant underlinings these books are years of my life, of reading and re-reading.

And of buying. For several years the mid-morning post to the studio was made up of cardboard packages of books, necessary books, bought in the middle of the night from Abebooks. I tick here for priority dispatch, look away from the total price because I am in despair, I am buying another copy of X because I need it now, need to find the list of donors to the rebuilding of the Burgtheater in Vienna. I spend my advance buying books at night.

And now I’m finished and my office in the studio is a complete mess. I am making an installation of porcelain pots in lead-lined boxes for an exhibition. It is called From Zero, a phrase I have stolen from an essay by Malevich and so there are books on Constructivism coming in and photos of his black canvases taped up on the walls. We have the photographer coming, and the people from the gallery, and the novelist who is going to write the essay for the catalogue.

I need some clarity, some space away from all these files of notes. So I struggle to put this strange archive into a shape – folders on restitution, anti-Semitism in Paris 1880-1890, Levantine shipping. I won’t need it again. I am resuming my life.

I am an artist again.

And then come the letters

‘We share many things’, goes the first letter. And the second. And I’ve read your book, some say, and am astonished to find that my great-grandfather lived next-door, that your great-uncle worked in Y, that in Odessa my family knew Z. We are distant cousins, says a card in a shaky hand. I have my grandmother’s recipe-book, a brooch, a single spoon. I have nothing.

So what can I do? I get up earlier and earlier to try and answer my correspondence.

I make this rule, that if you are in your nineties you get a response the same day. In your eighties within a week. Your seventies…

I start out by saying yes to talking to émigré groups, literary festivals, book groups, journalists, then try to say no but find myself talking about Schoenberg or Viennese self-portraits.

I stand and talk about the book, about how I researched the story, about attempting to describe the shape of a diaspora, the journey into a series of silences about who my family was, where they came from. And all the time, muffled in England, clearer in America, there are the questions: So are you Jewish? Do you feel Jewish?

How can I know?

You try and tell a story because it is your story, try to let it go and you cannot, because the responses are from people in whose families silences about what happened are active and complex.

There is no statute of limitations on grief. You simply cannot say ‘get over it’ to someone else.

In saying this you are closing down the possibility of change, you are wrapping someone else’s silences in your own collective one.

I have found out that you cannot pack up a library. You pick up a book. It is small enough to fit into your hands, compact enough to put into a pocket and carry for later. This one is a book of poems by someone whom you have always loved, a poet whose verse you know the shape of, feel the sounds of the words in your mouth in a glance across a page. It is not a first edition, not an edition de luxe. It is scuffed and there are brown spots on the edges of the rough paper. It is well-read, well-handled. You open it up and flick the pages from the back.

There is a little blue embossed stamp: Moritz Perles Buchhandlung, Wien Graben, Seilergasse 4. The title page: Hugo von Hofmannsthal Gedichte, a lyre with ivy trailing across it, a small bright star. 1922. Im Insel-Verlag zu Leipzig.

And then right at the front a university bookplate, a class mark for German Literature (Modern), a shelf mark and a number. In pen a librarian has put a date. 1938.

And above, in pen, is the signature of your grandmother.


It has been in a library, placed from a crate of books opened by someone who understood and knew their literature.

Think of all those generations of scholars, students who have used it and never given a second thought to that unmistakably Jewish name, this bookplate, this date.

Imagine what it is to have back something that connects you. This book connects across 75 years of willed forgetting, conscious amnesia to someone who you know of but have never met, someone whose story has been circumscribed.

Restitution and possibility

The journey of this book – of infinitesimal financial value – €20 perhaps – is one of inestimable complexity.

It is a restitution.

But what is it restituting?

It is restituting possibility.

What possibility?

In my grandmother’s novel, The Exiles Return, she writes of the Jewish Professor Adler: ‘Back to where he had been before! That is what restitution – what reinstatement – meant.

But what one had felt to be right, to be commensurate, to be full of promise for the future, when one was still in one’s thirties, did not look the same in one’s fifties.

Time had not stood still. What, he asked himself, had he expected?’

This she says is the truth about restitution – be realistic, it cannot give you back time. But it can bring you back to somewhere that matters.

When I think of my grandmother Elisabeth – fierce about writing, burning all her letters in the 1970s from her grandmother Evelina Schey – I think of her wanting to preserve some kind of intimate space around this relationship.

I am in the wrong century to burn things. I am the wrong generation to let it go. I think of all those careful burnings by others, the systematic erasing of stories, the separations between people and their possessions, and then of people from their families and families from their neighbourhoods. And then from their country.

I think of someone checking a list to make sure that these people were still alive and resident in Vienna, before stamping ‘Sara’ or ‘Israel’ in red over the record of their birth. I think, of course, of all the listings of families in the manifests, for deportations.

If others can be so careful over things that are so important, then I must get it right, go back and check it again, write it again.

But this is not about me, it is about us, an us that encompasses all kinds of institutions, museums, of libraries, universities, of orchestras.

And on this particular day there is a very simple demand on all of us here to say that it is not too late.

Not too late to rethink what restitution means, where memory belongs. On this day we remember that you can never tell what telling stories will do, or to whom.


The Hare With Amber Eyes

by Edmund de Waal

Vintage Books, London (2011)

pp. 354          



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