The Hare With Amber Eyes

One of the pleasures of reading family history is the way it skips across boundaries. Instead of one thing, you get two: family and history. Read this way, the story of your clan can be thrilling. All at once, you find your ancestors hobnobbing with French Impressionists, corresponding with poets, or dodging the Gestapo. It’s hard to believe that you and Uncle Fred could share such gallant forebears.

For the writer, the temptation to insert famous names into the manuscript can be hard to resist. (Believe me, I know.) And the jaded reader might indeed take a cynical view of such inclusions, writing them off as mere name dropping. But if done purposefully, citing the famous or notorious dead along with your own less renowned kin can provide revelations. You learn things you might otherwise never have known.

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal is a case in point. de Waal gives us a great deal to chew on. His ancestors, the Ephrussi clan, were an illustrious bunch. Grain merchants and bankers, they belonged to the European elite of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Ephrussis shipped grain from Odessa to all corners of the world. They loaned money to emperors and archdukes, socialized with Renoir and Degas and traded letters with Rilke, to name a few. Some of them, in the book’s most harrowing episode, kept one jump ahead of the Gestapo when the Nazis marched into Vienna. Others, alas, did not.

The great wealth of the Ephrussi family is part and parcel of its story. So is its Jewishness. These two notions often travel together, usually as a prelude to disaster. While I have no wish to reinforce history’s most odious trope, it’s hard to avert my gaze from the reinforcing done by others. The family’s riches loft it to the highest reaches of society, while its Jewishness threatens at every turn to smash it down.

Wealth affords Charles Ephrussi, the author’s great uncle, a life of leisure, which he puts to good use. Editing an arts journal, commissioning paintings from Manet and Degas, socializing in the best salons with Marcel Proust and Edmond de Goncourt, he makes the most of what fortune has so carelessly bestowed on him. His image remains with us, as the man in the black top hat in the upper right corner of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. A lover of beautiful things, he buys a trove of netsuke, the dainty Japanese carvings at the center of this story.


The Viennese branch of the family also makes out well. Its patriarch, Ignace, becomes the second-richest banker in Vienna, accrues a raft of aristocratic patents, and begets a bunch of philanderers, dandies, and at least one poet-scholar. Ignace’s son, Viktor Ephrussi, carefully husbands the family’s capital. His wife Emmy consorts with princes and archdukes. Their daughter Elisabeth—Edmund de Waal’s grandmother—corresponds with Rilke and studies with the great minds of the Vienna School.

But history was in the end no kinder to the Ephrussi clan than it was to the anonymous Jews of the shtetl. The historic personages waltzing through these pages are just as likely to sneer as to fawn. This is where genres converge as de Waal presents acrid biographical sketches of the great and not so great, fulminating with anti-Semitic invective.

de Goncourt writes darkly about “Jewish money” and vents his ire at Jews who “don’t know their place.” Renoir scoffs at “Jewish art” and he, along with Degas and Cézanne, turn their backs on Charles Ephrussi as the Dreyfus affair plays out. These are choice vignettes, which I never would have discovered if not for de Waal’s book. They are the distinguishing mark of a chronicle that melds the family story with world events: not the past as it happened to everyone, but the precise imprint of history on one particular family.

The Viennese branch of the family fares even worse. Hitler’s rise in Germany exerts pressure on Austria almost from the start. A coup attempt by the Austrian SS in 1934 leads to a wider Nazi uprising, which pushes the country to the brink of civil war. Fire trucks speed down the Ringstrasse, passing the Palais Ephrussi. The March 1938 plebiscite is derailed by intimidation, with Hitler issuing ultimata and German troops massing on the border. The government resigns and mobs rule the streets, breaking the windows of Jewish shops. A portion of this mob invades the Palais, smashing furniture and threatening the inhabitants. When Hitler arrives, on the 15th, pro-Nazi crowds again surge along the Ring and past the Palais, while the Luftwaffe roars overhead.

The Gestapo visits the family soon afterward, cooly tallying accounts and taking an inventory of artwork. The shakedown proceeds in earnest now, beginning with confiscation of the Ephrussi Bank and continuing with the levying of absurd and punitive taxes and fees. Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi run a humiliating bureaucratic gauntlet in their search for exit visas, endure a heart-stopping delay at the border, and finally enter Czechoslovakia on May 21, 1938—just weeks ahead of the Sudetenland crisis.

Hitler’s machinations continue while Chamberlain prevaricates. The conquest of Czechoslovakia resembles that of Austria: a charade of diplomacy, sham plebiscites, and intimidation. The elderly Ephrussis hole up at Kövecses, Czechoslovakia. The Czech government abdicates. German troops enter the Sudetenland. A pro-Nazi government takes power in Slovakia, just 22 miles from the Ephrussi’s refuge. Emmy dies in October—probably by her own hand. In Switzerland, the Ephrussi children labor mightily on their father’s behalf, and Viktor obtains a one-way visa for Britain in March 1939. He dies there in March 1945, a month before the liberation of Vienna.

I’ve left out the Ephrussi family’s experience in World War I, if only to keep this post to a reasonable length. I’ve also skipped over the netsuke, the Japanese figurines at the heart of this book, but never mind. Edmund de Waal explores these fascinating objects with great nuance and appreciation. Read his book. With its mixture of macro and micro, of the familiar and unfamiliar, it’s a fascinating object in its own right.

© 2013 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.