On a long flight to Israel this past week I read a beautifully written memoir called “The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund DeWaal. This thoroughly researched work tells the story of four generations of the Ephrussi family, among the most prominent and wealthy Jewish families in pre-World War II Europe. It is a gripping tale about a dynasty acting at the center of the world of art, culture, politics, and finance in two great European cities, Paris and Vienna. It is biography, history, art history, anthropology, autobiography, and memoir written by a British porcelain ceramicist and Ephrussi descendent.
Hailing from Odessa, the Ephrussis migrated to Paris in the mid-19th century, then to Vienna, and within weeks of the Nazi Anschluss (lit. “link-up” with the “Fatherland”) of Austria in March 1938 to London. They fled Austria with one suitcase leaving their palatial estate, much property, a massive art collection and library, and interests valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars by today’s standards.
The book’s title takes its name from a small carving in the Japanese netsuke style, one of 264 such figurines collected by Charles Ephrussi (great-great uncle to the author) who was an amateur art historian, dealer and art patron in late 19th century Paris. These animal carvings are the only items remaining of the family’s fortunes. The Ephrussi treasures most likely hang in the world’s great museums and private collections with no compensation ever having been given to the Ephrussi heirs.
Edmund DeWaal is an elegant writer with an artist’s eye for detail. As he weaves the family’s story together set against the late 19th century and early 20th century European art culture and Parisian and Viennese upper-class soirees and balls, he ponders what it means to belong anywhere and to leave what one has always known. In that sense, this is a quintessential Jewish story.
Though the Ephrussi family fate was like that of the rest of pre-war European Jewry, there was almost nothing identifiably Jewish about them. They never attended synagogue, did not observe any holidays, were disinterested in nascent Zionism (Theodor Herzl appealed to them for financial support but was politely turned away), and they seemed to know little about or care about Judaism as a faith tradition and religious civilization.
Instead, their social circles were populated by writers, artists, intellectuals, royalty, and business tycoons. In the Paris of the 1880s Charles was a friend to Proust, Pissarro, Manet, Degas, Sisley, Monet, and Renoir. He even appears in top hat and black suit in Renoir’s famous Le dejeuner des cannotiers (“Luncheon of the Boating Party”). He was among the earliest and most important collectors of Impressionist art in Europe.
Charles Ephrussi’s granddaughter Elisabeth continued the family’s affinity for the intellectual and artistic elite. She had left Austria when Hitler came to power and earned a law degree in London. She carried on an extended correspondence with the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
The lack of a strong Jewish religious identity eventually took the family far from the large pre-war Jewish community of Vienna as they continued the process of assimilation that many underwent in the Western Europe of those years. Elisabeth married a member of the Anglican Church who was eventually ordained a Priest, attending Church with him every Sunday. Her uncle (Edmund’s great uncle Iggi), a gay man, lived out the rest of his life in Tokyo as part of that country’s artistic and cultural elite with his long-time Japanese partner, Jiro.
The netsuke carvings followed the family from the moment Charles purchased them in mid-19th century Paris to Vienna. They symbolize this family as constant outsiders. The only reason these object d’art survived as a collection is due to the courage and loyalty of a long time Ephrussi family Viennese servant, Anna, who, when the Nazis ordered her to help crate all the family’s art and books, systematically took them away in her apron pockets and hid them in her mattress until she could return them to the family. They now reside with the author.
Edmund concludes years of research, travel and writing by wondering what it means to belong to a place, to leave it and continue to wander. “You assimilate, but you need somewhere else to go. You keep your passport [in] hand. You keep something private…Why keep things, archive your intimacies?...Just because you have it does not mean you have to pass it on. Losing things can sometimes gain you a space in which to live.”
A provocative thought, but I don’t buy it. For Jews, especially, memory shapes who we are, how we think and what we think about, and who we will be. Transmission therefore becomes not only an existential necessity but a religious duty.