Recapturing Our Past: The Hare with Amber Eyes

What is the meaning of title of this highly-regarded memoir?

The hare with amber eyes is a netsuke––one of many such objects that had a semi-practical use in Japan when men wore kimonos. Netsuke became objects of interest after 1854 when Japan was opened to the West. A large quantity was shipped to European capitals where they were purchased by collectors, along with other Japanese art.

Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of Edmund de Waal’s great grandfather, purchased nearly three hundred netsuke in Paris––a moment’s attraction soon supplanted by other interests, including emerging Impressionist artists.

The Hare is not a book about obscure art objects, however. It is the story of a remarkable family organized around de Waal’s search for how these particular objects were obtained, passed around in the family, and then survived until his uncle Iggie, who moved to Japan at the end of World War Two, told de Waal their story.

The hare netsuke of the title is not unique. There’s no picture of it among the dozen or so photos and illustrations in the book. Nor is there a close-up of any of the Ephrussi family’s collection. A photo of the glass case in which they resided in Japan after the war is too distant to satisfy one’s curiosity.

What is The Hare actually about?

A memoirist must have an organizing principle to avoid inundating the reader with details of insignificant meaning. In deWaal’s case, the ownership and passing on of Charles Ephrussi’s netsuke collection corresponds with the rise and fall of the Ephrussi family in parallel with the story of the Jews of Europe who emerged out of a shtetl existence, assimilated themselves in their host countries, and then were targeted for genocide, one consequence of which was the loss of the objects they had obtained––objects of art, of culture, of luxury, and of personal meaning not to mention loss of property, homes, apartments, jobs, careers, and finally loss of life.

De Waal’s thorough research enables him to describe in detail the taking of all that his family had accumulated in chapters describing the emptying of the Ephrussi’s palais on the Ringstrasse by an Austrian mob and the Gestapo. The Ephrussis accumulated an abundance of objects, the wages of financial success, and they lived a life-style unknown to the masses, but it was their religion that made those possessions suspect­­––more so than the acquisitions of Austrian nobility, though they were no less desirable to the Nazis, including Hitler himself who personally monitored what his minions catalogued.

Connecting with The Hare

Members of the book club for which I read The Hare were surprised at the critical acclaim awarded The Hare. I agree in the sense that unless the reader has a personal connection to the story, it requires a leap of faith to empathize with de Waal’s ancestors. The family was extremely wealthy. Their initial fortune was made in Odessa in the grain trade, which enabled them to spread out across Europe with members of the family establishing business bases in Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland.

The Ephrussi family bought into the opening of the doors of opportunity granted to Europe’s Jewish population by champions of the rule of law such as Austrian Emperor Franz Josef. Their wealth made them largely immune to the anti-Semitism that reared its ugly head when events large or small did not go someone’s way. They supported the Jewish community with generous donations, although they were not religious. Yet, they lived a life that few recognized was unsustainable––one balanced on the thin edge of tolerance that only an empire could demand of its subjects.

More Than de Waal’s Story

The Hare’s deserved acclaim is due to the fact that it is more than one family’s story. It is the story of my family for example. My mother’s family––the Altmanns––came from Bohemia to Vienna, where in two generations they became successful as merchants and professionals. They had servants; their children went to good schools and had music lessons. They attended performances at the Opera House on the Ringstrasse, and enrolled in the university. The Altmanns had Christmas trees and rarely entered a synagogue.

It is likely members of deWaal’s family and mine came across each other during those years. Members of my mother’s family may have done their banking at the Ephrussi bank, they may have frequented the same coffee houses, or met at performances at the Opera. Viktor Ephrussi was friends with a Bernardt Altmann, who like my great-grandfather Marcus Altmann, came from Bolekhiv (Bolechov) a city in Bohemia (today part of the Ukraine) that tolerated Jewish ambition.

Possessions may be valued for the stories associated with them. Where did the Cuckoo clock my grandmother had in her living room in upstate New York come from? What about my mother’s Vienna glasses or the painting of Salzburg? How were they acquired? Were they handed down from a previous generation? What are their stories? I search for answers, most of which I’ll never discover, but the ones I do find are precious and life-affirming.

One not so small side note gained from reading The Hare is how much of the written record, if not the objects themselves, remains. Even in tragedy some of the past can be recovered. De Waal shows that it can be worth the effort to dig for the story. It can enrich despite the loss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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