The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, by Edmund de Waal

October 30, 2010 at 10:17 pm (Book review, books, Judaism)

In the upper left hand corner is a snapshot taken in 1936 of Emmy von Ephrussi and her grandsons, Victor and Constant de Waal.
In the upper right is seen a detail of the ceiling in the study of Palais Ephrussi, in Vienna.
In the lower left, Emmy von Ephrussi as a young woman out dancing.
In the lower right, German tanks in Vienna, March 14, 1938.

This is what happened.

The rise of the Ephrussi, a Jewish family, began in Odessa.

Odessa was a city within the Pale of Settlement, the area on the western borders of imperial Russia in which Jews were allowed to live. It was famous for its rabbinical schools and synagogues, rich in literature and music, a magnet for the impoverished Jewish shtetls of Galicia. It was also a city that doubled its population of Jews and Greeks and Russians every decade, a polyglot city full of speculation and traders, the docks full of intrigues and spies, a city on the make.

The family business, masterminded by Charles Joachim Ephrussi, centered on the exporting of wheat grown in the fertile fields of the Ukraine. The  venture proved so prosperous that wealth began to accumulate. Seeking an environment more congenial to their enterprise, the Ephrussi moved their business to Vienna.

Some of the Ephrussi siblings preferred to live in Paris. It is there that this story really begins: the story of how the collection comprising 264  netsuke  was amassed by Charles Ephrussi. Author Edmund de Waal sums it up succinctly: “It is a very big collection of very small objects.” One of those objects is the hare with amber eyes. .

Charles Ephrussi was an aesthete par excellence. In collecting netsuke, he was following the new fad for all things Japanese: “Japanese things – lacquers, netsuke, prints – conjure a picture of a place where sensations are always new, where art pours out of daily life, where everything exisis in a dream of endless beautiful flow.” Charles also collected the works of Impressionist painters. Indeed, he knew Renoir, Gustav Moreau, and others. He also knew many writers of the period; at certain points, Proust floats dreamily into this somewhat magical narrative.

What periodically brings the magic crashing to Earth is the inescapable undercurrent of anti-Semitism. The very presence of Charles at the city’s fashionable salons is repugnant to writer and taste maker Edmond de Goncourt, who complains that those venues have become “infested with Jews and Jewesses.” L’Affaire Dreyfus, which broke out in 1894, served to make matters worse.

At the beginning of the new century, Charles sent his netsuke collection and the vitrine in which they were displayed to his cousin Viktor in Vienna as a wedding present.

One of several works on Albrecht Durer written by Charles Ephrussi

A Young Hare by Albrecht Durer, 1502

Charles Ephrussi appears in Renoir’s famous Luncheon of the Boating Party. He is the gentleman in the top hat, toward the rear of the painting:

(Here is a key to the identity of the other dramatis personae in this much loved work. The key is provided by Washington D.C.’s  Phillips Gallery, where the painting resides. Click on “Who’s Who.”)

Charles Ephrussi

Charles Ephrussi, by Jean Patricot

Charles lived near and knew another prosperous art-loving Jewish family, that of Nissim de Camondo. Their home has been preserved as a museum of decorative arts. Click here to access the museum’s website (in French) and learn more about the family.

The Grand Salon of the Musee Nissim de Camondo

Like his father, Charles Ephrussi possessed a weak heart. He was in his mid fifties when he died. The year was 1905.

As we have seen, the netsuke have already been relocated to Vienna. Since Edmund de Waal’s stated purpose in writing this book is to trace the progress of that collection, the setting of the narrative now shifts  to that city.

****************************

Fin de siecle Vienna was a famously fascinating place, filled with artists, musicians, and writers, with a cafe society that was the envy of the rest of the world. It was also a city with a burgeoning Jewish population. Jews of Vienna had achieved a prominence only dreamed of in former times:

Vienna was a city, said Jakob Wassermann at the turn of the century, where “all public life was dominated by the Jews. The banks. The press, the theatre, literature, social organisations, all lay in the hands of the Jews…I was amazed  at the host of Jewish physicians, attorneys, clubmen, snobs, dandies, proletarians, actors, newspapermen and poets.” In fact, 71 per cent of financiers were Jewish, 65 per cent of lawyers were Jewish, 59 per cent of doctors were Jewish, and half of Vienna’s journalists were Jewish.

Among the stars of this new Jewish aristocracy were the banker Viktor von Ephrussi and his beautiful young wife Emmy. Life flowed along in the Palais Ephrussi on the renowned Ringstrasse. There were balls and dinner parties, elegant clothes and jewelry, a fine library assembled by Viktor, and  beautiful works of art.

Four children of Emmy and Viktor lived to adulthood. The were Elisabeth, Gisela, Ignace, and Rudolf. Elisabeth was Edmund de Waal’s grandmother. More about her presently.

You would think that all this wealth and success would presage a dawning of freedom and acceptance for the Jewish population of this most cosmopolitan of cities. You would think this. But you would be wrong:

The flavour of Viennese anti-Semitism was different from Parisian anti-Semitism. In both places it happened both overtly and covertly. But in Vienna you could expect to have your hat knocked off your head on the Ringstrasse for looking Jewish (Schnitzler’s Ehrenberg in The Way into the Open, Freud’s father in The Interpretation of Dreams), be abused as a dirty Jew for opening a window in a train carriage (Freud), be snubbed at a meeting of a charity committee (Emilie Ephrussi), have yout lectures at the unniversity interrupted by cries of ‘Juden hinaus!’ – ‘Jews out!’ – until every Jewish student had pickedd up his books and left.

Somehow the Jews of Vienna were able to prosper and to enjoy life despite these repulsive gestures. But as we all know, that state of affairs changed drastically in 1938. Edmund de Waal describes in pitiless detail what was done to the Ephrussi family as Nazi fervor gripped the city. Everything they held dear was taken from them and desecrated or destroyed – or if valuable, sold to the highest gentile bidder.

Besides the confiscation of all their worldly goods, the purpose of this unprovoked cruelty was to humiliate persons of Jewish heritage to the greatest degree possible – to reduce them, in other words, to a stereotype of themselves:

They are beaten, of course; but they are also forbidden to shave or wash so that they look even more degenerate. This is because it is important to address the old affront of Jews not looking like Jews. This process of stripping away your respectability, taking away your watch-chain, or your shoes or your belt, so that you stumble to hold up your trousers with one hand, is a way of returning everyone to the shtetl, stripping you back to your essential character – wandering, unshaven, bowed with your possessions on your back.

Viktor, Emmy, and young Rudolf would surely have perished had it not been for Elisabeth. She was living elsewhere at the time that this Hell on Earth was being visited on her family in Vienna. In an act of tremendous courage, she traveled to the eye of the storm and rescued them. (Elisabeth was a person of singular achievement. The first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Vienna, she was also a poet and carried on a lively correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke.)

At this point, I’d like  to inject a personal note. This section of the book was extremely difficult for me to read. At first, I felt exasperated with the Ephrussi family: Viktor, wrapped about in his financial dealings, Emmy pampered by maids, making endless social rounds, both of them indulging in intermittent love affairs. Their complacency, and Emmy’s apparent frivolity, made me want to scream: Wake up! A cataclysm is heading straight for you. But soon I stopped blaming the victims. I felt instead a towering sadness for them. This in turn led to feelings of extreme anger and – I was surprised by this – a desire for revenge. This last was exacerbated by de Waal’s statement that at the war’s end, there was a general amnesty in Austria. No one was held accountable.

I looked into my own heart, and I realized something: I could run from my roots, but I could not hide. Once again, they had found me out; they were pointing a finger at me and reminding me: This is your legacy, too.

**************************

The Palais Ephrussi currently houses shops and is the headquarters of Casinos Austria.

***************************

I have here provided only the cursory outline of a complex story. I finished this book several months ago. It has no index – I think it should have – nor is there a “look inside the book” option for this title on Amazon. This has made fact checking very difficult. I apologize for any errors I may have made as a result.

***********************

Despite the excruciating parts of this book, I urge you to read it. As you have no doubt already gathered, Edmund de Waal, a potter and ceramics professor, writes beautifully. Early in my reading of The Hare with Amber Eyes, I looked up his Wikipedia entry and was surprised to find him described as “the son of Rev. Dr. Victor de Waal, a Dean of Canterbury Cathedral.” But how on Earth…?  The British subtitle of this book is “A Hidden Inheritance.” Hidden no more, once you’ve read the story of this family.

And finally, against all odds, the netsuke made their way to Edmund de Waal in England. The story of how this happened  stands as a tribute to one person’s determination to do the right thing in a world gone mad. Each of these tiny objects was a talisman.  They kept faith with their owners, and their owners kept faith with them.

************************

Here is Edmund de Waal:

8 Comments

  1. ida said,

    I love this annotated writeup of the book and author’s family. Will recommend it to my book group. Hope I haven’t missed his booktour!

  2. Joan Tedlow said,

    What a wonderful, comprehensive review of a most complex family! I will recommend the book to our temple book groups.

    Joan

  3. Canon Dirk van Leeuwen said,

    Two years ago I spent 10 weeks in Warsaw and left with some understanding of what the Nazis did to the Jews (and to the Poles!).

    Still, every story like this one I read grips me. What if the Nazis had won?

    • nerise1 said,

      “The Hare with Amber Eyes” was a fantastic read. Charles appealed to me most and then the dear Iggy in Japan. The portrait by Jean Patricot shows Charles to have been sensitive and endearing. The Viennese family I found rather boring, though the description of Vienna between the two wars and the arrival of the Nazis in 1938 was fascinating and insightful.
      No matter what they did, the Jews were never accepted, even stacks of money, influence and culture didn’t make a difference in the end. And then they bloody convert after all that persecution!
      I felt de Waal could have delved into that issue more than he did. I was amused that the first Ephrussi was actually a Chaim, his brother Leon, nee Leib and Ignace nee Eisak. To me that speaks volumes about how many Jews felt about their Jewishness. Sadly Emmy’s suicide also speaks volumes about her response to her roots. It seems once the Nazis had taken all the Ephrussi’s worldly goods from them and humiliated them that the whole edifice of her life collapsed.
      I had a squizzy on the net about Jews and Odessa. It appears it drew Jews there b/c there was greater tolerance of them in Odessa than in other parts of Russia and so they thrived. This might in part explain the family’s move from shetl life in Berdichev.

  4. Rina van Coller said,

    I’ve just read Edmund’s book and it really saddened me that a once illustrous family like the Ephrussi’s had gone the same way like so many others. It just shows; wars achieve nothing – apart from millions of lives lost, dynasties and legacies were ruined for ever. I don’t think anyone who had lost that much can imagine what it must be like. To see your great-great grandparents objects de’art and other irreplaceable masterpieces hunging in museums must be hard to bear. A remarkable family; in spite of their tremedous loss still able to adapt to “ordinary” life. At least Anna could salvaged Edmund’s beloved netsuke!

    • Munro said,

      So you’d rather have all of the historical artifacts and paintings locked up in their palaces rather than a museum for the public to appreciate.

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