A kind of Viennese “Downton Abbey”

by | Jan 11, 2013 | Book Reviews

The Hare with the Amber Eyes
Edmund de Waal
Picador Books, 2010
354 pages, $16.00 (paper)
ISBN 978-0-312-56937-2

This powerful family history was a best seller a little over a year ago; its appearance in paperback prompted a reread. Your reviewer, believing this unique, if flawed work is so unusual as to warrant a second look (especially in a year that suffered a relative dearth of great new works), offers the following review.

When Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of 264 Japanese miniature carvings (netsuke—pronounced net-s’kay) he began a journey to discover who had held them and how they had survived. De Waal, a noted ceramicist, found himself drawn deeper and deeper into the story of the netsuke and of five generations of his family, the fabulously wealthy and powerful Ephrussis.

A remarkable book about a remarkable family, the Ephrussis lifted themselves from the poverty of a Ukrainian shtetl to great wealth and power as the largest grain merchants in Europe.

Originally headquartered in Odessa, the family branched out into banking and oil with family dynasties in Paris and Vienna rivaling the great Rothschild clan itself. But who ever heard of them?

Now, of course, one can Google the name and there are many references and even a video. However, their story was buried deep within the ranks of obscurity until de Waal peeled back the layers of time, using the travels of the collection of netsuke as a device connecting the past with the present.

As the author lays out the family history with exhaustive and at times exhausting descriptions of the homes, furnishings, clothes, jewelry, and art collections of each generation, the reader may find it frequently necessary to refer to the genealogical chart provided in the front of the book. We quickly learn that the eldest son inherits the responsibility of running the business, regardless of ability or proclivity. So what does the younger son do? He becomes a collector, a patron of the arts, a boulevardier. Thus, the story of the netsuke begins with great-great uncle, Charles, of the Paris branch, living in a palatial mansion, patron of such artists as Renoir and Degas and founder of a noted journal of the arts. At first the irony of Charles, the powerful and wealthy Jew befriended by artists like Degas, a notoriously outspoken anti- Semite, escapes us. But in retrospect there is a foreshadowing of events as the waves of Jew-hating during the Dreyfus era seem to affect the family’s life only superficially.

Turning to the Viennese branch of the Ephrussi family, the author presents his subjects in such a sympathetic fashion that one almost forgets to be critical of these effete and very peripheral Jews. Their enormous wealth—and perhaps denial of anti-Semitism—permits them to mingle with nobility. The reader is treated to a kind of Viennese Downton Abbey, with plentiful glimpses of the principals of noblesse oblige. Great-grandmother Emma has little to occupy her life other than managing her wardrobe, rotating among her lovers, and attending high society salons, opera, and theater. The author’s grandmother, Elizabeth, is the one woman of her generation to break out, achieve a real education and have a semblance of a career. We are introduced to the faithful retainers; Anna, Emma’s maid, manages to save the netsuke from being plundered by the Austrian brownshirts and the Nazis.

In the end, the Ephrussis are helpless and ineffective, even when opportunities to save themselves were presented. The Shoah and the fires of World War II claim most of the family and just about all of their riches. And, most sadly, their story is revealed by a descendant who is the son of a Christian cleric. Proud if unobservant Jews that they were, their Judaism was lost along the way through conversion and intermarriage.

Edmund de Waal has given us a fascinating text, full of the results of dedicated research, yet without a single footnote or reference. How much is faithful to the scant documents uncovered and how much is the result of skillful interpolation is not clear. Writing is not his profession, yet he has written with great sensitivity and skillful use of description. He has given us the story of the Ephrussi family. Now we know who they were.

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for 30 years.