(Note this review contains a fairly thorough summary. There are spoilers, if you can call them that, though anyone who knows basic world history will already know the things that come to pass in this nonfiction book.)
It took me some time, but I have finally finished The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal. I have read quite a few other books over the weeks of working through this one, and it’s about time I got around to finishing and reviewing it. While I found this book interesting and most certainly educational, it got progressively harder to read; the problem was that I knew where it inevitably would be going.
Let me start from the beginning. The Hare With Amber Eyes begins with de Waal explaining how he came to be in Tokyo, spending time with his great-uncle Iggie — the man who would later bequeath the collection of tiny Japanese carvings to him. The carvings, called netsuke, are what tie the generations of de Waal’s family together in this sweeping history. They enter the picture in Paris, purchased by Charles Ephrussi in Paris in the late 1800s. The Ephrussi family is fabulously wealthy, and this allows Charles to become not only an art connoisseur and critic, but a collector. He buys paintings, furniture, tapestries, and scultpures. He is a friend and mentor to artists that today remain among the most prestigious: Renoir, Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro. When he buys the netsuke, he does not hesitate in his pursuit; Charles Ephrussi buys 264 netsuke as one entire collection.
Of course, it would be easy for de Waal to have focused on his family’s generally happy life as elites in Paris. There was a dark underside, however. They were Jewish, and there was plenty of latent animosity toward them for that reason. Even Charles’ friends eventually turned against him, as anti-Semitism rose ever higher. The same artists that courted Charles as a patron sneered at his Jewishness, ridiculing his place in
society and agreeing with the ever-increasing level of vitriol against the Jews in the French papers. Charles’ wealth meant nothing as more and more of society closed ranks against him. Readers can feel de Waal’s frustration and sadness at the treatment his family endured, even as he attempts an uncolored history of the events. Charles died in 1905, though the book moves away from him slightly ahead of his passing. De Waal’s narrative follows the netsuke to Austria.
In 1899, Charles’ first cousin, Viktor von Ephrussi of Vienna, married Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla. As a wedding present, Charles sends the newlyweds his entire collection of netsuke, along with their ornate display case. The netsuke are put, of all places, in Emmy’s dressing room. It is a private place, but one central to her life, as well as the lives of the children that were born in 1899, 1904, 1906, and 1918. Emmy and Viktor were the elite among the considerable Jewish presence in Vienna in the early 1900s. Viktor is a banker and a scholar, a sobering counterpart to his wife Emmy, a fashionable social butterfly. Their children are Elisabeth (the author’s grandmother), Gisela, Ignace, and Rudolf.
De Waal expertly weaves his family history into the history of Europe (and the world, really) at large. The tension between nations explodes into the Great War in 1914, and the von Ephrussi family faces myriad difficulties over the next four years as the war rages on. Even as World War One comes to an end, my sense of foreboding got worse. It is impossible as a reader to ignore what we all know happens next. Reparations. Fear. Poverty. Anger. And finally, one man who rises to power and gives everyone a focal point for their rage.
Before the worst of it, however, there are bright spots. Elisabeth von Ephrussi receives a doctorate in law in 1924, the first woman to receive this degree from the University of Vienna. She then moves to the United States, and later to Paris, to continue her studies. Gisela marries, then moves to Madrid with her husband in 1925, then to Mexico when the Spanish Civil War begins. In 1933, Ignace runs away from his life as the heir apparent to the banking business. He goes to Paris to work in the fashion industry. In 1934 Ignace leaves Paris for New York, where he makes a name for himself as a designer. The youngest son, Rudolf, remains in Vienna with his parents, too young to strike out on his own just yet.
The 1930s, of course, are when the darkness becomes the norm. Anti-Semitism goes from being a sad problem to a terrifying, all-encompassing reality. Hitler’s rise to power does not go unnoticed in Austria, and a mass exodus of Jews begin. It becomes increasingly difficult to obtain documents to leave the country. The von Ephrussi family deliberates for too long; by 1938 they are out of options, and Nazi Germany has taken over Austria. Aggressive campaigns to “Aryanize” Vienna strip Jews of their money, possessions, and their most basic human rights. There are beatings and murders, and a mob mentality that allows the perpetrators to deny their own culpability in these events.
This is when my reading slowed to a crawl; the stories hit too close to home. I felt sickened by the descriptions, knowing that de Waal’s family was just one of millions, and that they were relatively lucky that three out of four of the children were out of the country already. I can’t imagine their fear at this time. Viktor and Rudolf were arrested, and Viktor trades every last possession to save them from being sent to Dachau. Just like that, the Palais Ephrussi and all its contents belong to the Nazis. Their belongings are cataloged and sold. The choicest art is sent to Hitler himself. Viktor’s non-Jewish banking partner buys him out at next to nothing. The family is literally left with only the clothes on their back. De Waal describes the final act to “cleanse” the Jews from Vienna, discovered when he attempted to look up Viktor von Ephrussi in official records:
There is an official red stamp across his first name. […] An edict decreed that all Jews had to take new names. Someone had gone through every single name in the lists of Viennese Jews and stamped them: ‘Israel’ for the men, ‘Sara’ for the women. I am wrong. The family is not erased, but written over. And, finally, it is this that makes me cry. (de Waal 259)
Rudolf, only 19, manages to secure a visa to the United States. Viktor and Emmy have no such luck. They are saved by Elisabeth, who comes back to Austria despite the danger. As a lawyer, she is able to negotiate the bureaucracy and speak on the level of the officials that used specifically obscure language to turn many away. At one point, Elisabeth even impersonates a member of the gestapo to achieve her ends. I am amazed by this woman’s courage, her sheer refusal to abandon her parents to this black hole of hatred. Her work pays off; Viktor and Emmy manage to flee to Czechoslovakia, but their refuge their is short-lived. As the Nazi’s empire expands, Emmy faces a future to which she is unwilling to submit herself. On October 12, 1938, she intentionally overdoses on her heart medication. Her suicide rocks the family. Viktor, who has literally nothing left but his children, is barely able to obtain a visa to England. He makes his way there in 1939, and would die there just before the end of the war in 1945.
The Holocaust claims an enormous number of the Ephrussis’ family and friends. People disappear into camps, and are untraceably lost. Rudolph and Iggie both join the United States army and fight in Europe. Iggie’s ability to speak English, French, and German is especially valuable. He can be seen in a French photo from 1944, translating the surrender of German troops to the Allied forces. The family, save Viktor, survives the war.
In December of 1945, Elisabeth traveled back to Vienna to see what had become of her family’s legacy. The house had been converted to offices for the victorious Allied command, but officials tell her an old woman who still resides in the back of the house might be able to tell her more about what happened there. The woman is Anna, Emmy’s maid.
Anna had stayed on in the house after the Nazis appropriated it, and decided she was going to save what she could of her employers’ legacy. While the gestapo were busy evaluating the worth of the larger items in the house, Anna set about smuggling the netsuke out of their display case and into her mattress. For seven years, she keeps them; the tiny figures are never out of her protection, even while she sleeps. When Elisabeth finds her, Anna is proud to have salvaged this tiny portion of the Ephrussi family’s possessions, and to have something to give back to Elisabeth. The netsuke are reclaimed, though so much else can never be. The family’s belongings were scattered too freely to ever be fully collected back. De Waal sifted through records and found that many items were impossible to retrieve because their new owners had legally obtained them at Nazi auctions. Faced with the dismissive attitudes of those that had simply been onlookers, the family turned their back on the rest and focused on what had been salvaged: all 264 of the netsuke.
From this point onward, the netsuke have a significantly simpler path through the Ephrussi/de Waal family. Elisabeth gives them to Iggie, who takes them with him when he moves to Japan in 1947. The final chapters of the book are a mix of tentative post-war optimism and rebuilding that eventually segues into de Waal’s own current memories, including the final (for now) possession and location of the netsuke in his London home.
As I expressed, this book is a very well-written history that feels like a gentle trip to the museum. Art history mixes with family history mixes with world history. De Waal does an excellent job of bringing his family to life on the page, showing readers their successes and failures in equal measure. It’s an engaging book, though the World War Two era is a troubling and difficult section to read, regardless of the fact that most of the major family members survived. This book probably won’t top many peoples’ list for must-reads, but I do recommend it, especially for readers interested in art or history. As for me, I found it interesting, though slow in sections. I took my time reading it, and balanced it with some pure fluff fiction to ease the emotional strain of the heavier sections. Take that for what it’s worth.
(Aside: the vast majority of my time is currently consumed by grad school and all the work that entails, but I’ll continue posting reviews when I can. I will always try to keep making time for books outside of school reading.)