Book Review: The Hare With Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

From Odessa to Vienna and Paris, Edmund de Waal‘s graceful European memoir follows the fate of “The Hare With Amber Eyes”

The Ephrussi Family Legacy

“There is no easy story in legacy,” notes Edmund de Waal in the prologue to his absorbing and graceful European family memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes. An acclaimed British ceramicist, de Waal is fascinated by objects and intrigued by the possibility that things can hold memories.

De Waal is a descendent of the Ephrussi, once one of the wealthiest Jewish dynasties in Europe. When he inherited a collection of 264 netsuke that have been in his family for over a century, he set out to discover where they had been, who had handled them and what they had witnessed.

Netsuke are intricately carved, walnut-sized toggles used to attach a small purse to a kimono sash. Usually made of ivory or boxwood, netsuke may depict animals, fruits, human figures, masks or erotica. An artist attracted to the sense of touch, de Waal was enchanted by them. These silky little works of art became his collective muse, drawing him deeper and deeper into his family’s past. His journey took him to Paris, Vienna, Tokyo and Odessa. The result is a poignant exploration of questions of Jewish identity and assimilation through possessions and place.

From their mid-19th-century origins as grain merchants in Odessa, the Ephrussi built a powerful oil and banking empire, establishing branches in Paris and Vienna. The netsuke came into the Ephrussi family in the 1870s. The young art historian and collector Charles Ephrussi bought them in Paris during the height of japonisme, the aesthetic craze for all things Japanese. Charles, who was Proust’s inspiration for the character of Charles Swann as well as a patron of Degas, Manet, Monet and Renoir, kept the netsuke in a glass cabinet in a room filled with paintings by his friends.

In 1871, the family constructed enormous homes in Paris and Vienna, imposing monuments to their wealth and power. In Vienna, the Palais Ephrussi stands on the Ringstrasse opposite the Votivkirche, its legion of golden caryatids presiding over Schottengasse and the Schottentor station. It is hard to imagine that this grandiose building designed by Theophilus Hansen, which is now the headquarters of Casinos Austria, was once a family home. In de Waal’s words, it is “a piece of theatre, a show-stopping performance,” “aggressively golden.”

The Ringstrasse was the pride of Franz Josef’s Vienna, a majestic parade of imperial power embodied in architecture. It gained the nickname “Zionstrasse” because its construction was partly financed by the sale of building lots to families like the Ephrussi, from Vienna’s new class of Jewish industrialists and financiers, who built palatial homes there.

In 1899, the netsuke traveled to Vienna, a wedding gift to Charles’s cousin Viktor Ephrussi and his young wife Emmy, de Waal’s great-grandparents, who lived in the Palais on the Ring. Emmy kept the netsuke in a cabinet in her dressing room, where they were transformed from works of art into playthings. While Anna, her maid, helped Emmy dress to go out, sewing her into her ball gowns, Emmy’s children played with the netsuke, arranging them by color and size and making up stories about them.

What does it mean to belong to a place?  In both Vienna and Paris, the Ephrussi seemed to be fully assimilated, but de Waal points out that assimilation is in the eye of the beholder. While the family was essentially secular, considering themselves Parisians and Viennese, albeit with Russian roots, the societies in which they lived still saw them first as Jews.

“Does assimilation mean that they never came up against naked prejudice?” de Waal asks. “Does it mean that you understood where the limits of your social world were and you stuck to them?”

In Vienna, anti-Semitism was an accepted part of public discourse. Assimilated Jews were resented, especially those who, like the Ephrussi, had helped finance the Gründerzeit, the founding age of Austrian industrialization and modernization and of some of its finest architecture. Austrians might have preferred it if the Jews had remained “other,” wearing Eastern caftans and speaking their own language, instead of blending in.

The Emperor Franz Josef was one of the few strong voices that spoke out against anti-Semitism. When war erupted in 1914, Vienna’s Jews welcomed it, seeing an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty and gratitude to the Kaiser. Some expected that the war would bring an end to anti-Semitic agitation and allow Jews to claim full equality as citizens.

But the empire’s defeat and dismemberment in 1918 only heightened Austrian anti-Semitism. Two decades later, when Austria was absorbed into the German Reich and Hitler made his triumphal entry into Vienna in March 1938, the torchlight parades to the Heldenplatz passed in front of the Palais Ephrussi. “The Ring is made for this,” writes de Waal, “ the massed crowds, the parade ground of emotion, the uniforms.”

The Palais Ephrussi was one of the first Jewish properties in Vienna to be “fully Aryanized.” Viktor was promptly arrested and forced to sign over everything to secure his freedom. The family was shunted into two rooms of the Palais while all their possessions—paintings, silver, books, furniture, even Emmy’s gowns—were catalogued, assessed and taken away. This was happening in Jewish homes all over the city: artworks were confiscated and sold off to raise money for the Reich or put aside for Hitler’s planned museum in Linz.

De Waal’s grandmother, Elisabeth, who was trained as a lawyer, managed to do all the necessary paperwork and pay all the required fees to get her parents out of Vienna. In December 1945, she returned from refuge in England to see what remained of their erstwhile home. The Palais was severely damaged and all but empty, but Anna the maid was still there. And she had something for Elisabeth. While the Gestapo had been busy carting off the family’s valuables, Anna stealthily removed the netsuke from their cabinet a few at a time and hid them in her mattress. Over a two-week period, she managed to save them all. The Gestapo never noticed.

“How objects are handled is all about story-telling,” de Waal writes. He knows Anna’s part in the history of his family, how she handled the netsuke, but he was unable to discover her full name. He is hopeful that when the German translation of his book is published later this year, someone in Vienna will recognize her story.

 

The Hare With Amber Eyes
by Edmund de Waal
Available at 
The British Bookshop 
1., Weihburggasse 24-26
www.britishbookshop.at
or at Amazon
www.amazon.co.uk  

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