Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Holocaust through the Window of Family

(We've moved to:

A friend, knowing my interest in family history in its wider social context, recommended that I read Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes. What a wonderful book! Essentially, it is a memoir about de Waal’s Jewish ancestors in Europe prior to, then during, the Holocaust. One can read it as a moving and beautifully-written insight into a horrific historic period as people lived through it everyday; one can also read it as a personal way of writing about one’s own family and search for history.

de Waal  is a ceramicist who has had numerous exhibitions and installations. He did not start out to be an author and family historian. The idea for the book grew from his quest to know more about a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke he inherited from an uncle who had been living in Japan, and with whom he spent considerable time while studying ceramics there. Netsuke, for those of you who are wondering, are small, intricate carvings made of bone, wood, or other hard material, that hung from cords on traditional Japanese obi. 

de Waal, the fifth generation in his family to inherit the collection, became intrigued with the question of who had acquired it in the first place, and why. His drive to find out led him to spend years researching what became a highly personal story of the growth of a Jewish dynasty in Paris and Vienna, after relocating from Odessa, Russia; then its decline and dispersal in the context of the Holocaust, and subsequent Jewish diaspora. de Waal's research took him to the places where the netsuke had been (such as to Paris where Charles Ephrussi was the first to buy them). He spent months reading all he could find about the family as well as reading, seeing and experiencing as much as possible what they read, saw, and experienced. Through this process, he constructed portraits of people, telling readers as part of the story how he imagined them, what he thought of them, and how his own understanding deepened as he went along.

In the process, he tells a moving story about people living within a context shaped by class, culture, religion, and anti-Semitism. Going back and forth between stories of people, netsuke, and the cultural context of their lives, for example, in a chapter entitled "So light, so soft to the touch," we learn about japonaiseries, or items from Japan that fascinated Europeans during the late 1880s. Japan was regarded as an exotic cultural Other:

Though the Japanese were extremely rare in Paris in the 1870s -- there were delegations and diplomats, and the odd prince -- their art was ubiquitous. Everyone had to get their hands on these japonaiseries: all the painters Charles was starting to meet in the salons, all the writers Charles knew. . ., his family, his family friends, his lover, all were living through this convulsion.

Later, in a chapter entitled “History as it happens,” we learn about the escalation of anti-Semitism in Europe:

In 1899, the year that the netsuke arrived in Vienna, it was possible for a deputy in the Reichstrat to make speeches calling for Schussgelder – bounties – for shooting Jews. In Vienna the most outrageous statements were met with a feeling from the assimilated Jews that it was probably best not to make too much fuss.

This book intrigues me, for some of the same reasons as it has intrigued others, I'm sure. The Hare with the Amber Eyes has won the Economist Book of the Year Award, the Costa Book Award for Biography, and the Galaxy National Book New Writer of the Year Award.

But what intrigues me most is the meticulous and loving process of research that de Waal plunged into through the time he spent in the places where his ancestors lived, his insightful rendering of their lives within historic contexts many of us have only read about, and his beautiful blend of his own personal inheritance in dialog with his ancestors. In the last chapter, he explains that his grandmother wished to burn the painful records of what the family had experienced. "Don't come near this. This is private." But then he goes on to explain that, "The problem is that I am in the wrong century to burn things. I am in the wrong generation to let it go."

For that, readers are thankful.

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