A Canterbury Tale for Yom HaShoah: Reflections on an evening with Edmund de Waal at the Israel Museum

‘This is my first day in Israel,’ he announced.

‘I’m fifty-two years old! What took me so long?’

Here we were, in Jerusalem last November in a packed auditorium at the Israel Museum, at the opening of a much-anticipated talk by Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes; a book that has been described as part treasure hunt, part family saga. In it de Waal traces the path of Japanese figurines – netsuke – and in so doing he unravels at least a century of his family’s history in Europe.

‘I should explain,’ he continued, ‘that I come from Canterbury, that most English of cities, home to Chaucer of the Canterbury Tales.’

‘I grew up in a Christian family’, he added, ‘in a five hundred-year-old house next to the Cathedral where my father was Dean. ’‘My mother is a writer,’ he added, ‘she writes about Benedictine Monks.’

He told us how aged 17, having been accepted for a place at Cambridge University, he took advantage of a two-year scholarship to study Japanese and pottery and spent a year in Tokyo, where he landed on the doorstep of his great Uncle Iggie (ne Ignace). It was here that he first caught sight of the netsuke. These 264 wood and ivory carvings – including a hare with amber eyes – had been a wedding gift in 1899 from Charles Ephrussi of Paris to his cousin Viktor in Vienna, the author’s great-grandfather. And so unfolds the tale of his ‘ridiculously rich’ Ephrussi family. (One suspects that were he an American they might be described as ‘fabulously wealthy’). Thefamilyhad moved on from the Shtetl to Odessa, and by 1860 was the world’s largest importer of grain. They duly sent their sons west to European capitals, founding a bank Rothschild-style.

Edmund de Waal began his quest inParis where he found the family residence up the hill at 81 Rue de Monceau. An imposing building now housing a medical insurance company, it once provided separate and lavish apartments for the three Ephrussi brothers who had been sent there from Odessa: one a financier, another a playboy and Charles, who was free to indulge in the arts. We are readily endeared by descriptions of their lives that have been painstakingly pieced together from fin de siècle Paris; of how on his search, Edmund, describes walking up the staircase of that Hotel Ephrussi in awe that he was retracing Proust’s steps. And he is bemused, not so much that Charles slept in a Medici bed, but that he replaced the monogram M with an E for Ephrussi. At 21, Charles readily filled his empty apartment and days with art and literature, becoming a self-styled art historian and critic.

Actually we’ve already had a peek at Charles, although we didn’t know it. It turns out that he’s in the Renoir painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party. He’s the tall man with his back to us wearing a top hat; the one with a reddish beard. Yes, Charles moved in such circles: Renoir, Degas and Manet to name a few.

The story that truly charms us, however, is of the painting of a bunch of asparagus that he bought from Manet. The asking price was 800 francs but, de Waal explains, being young, rich and generous, Uncle Charles paid Manet 1000 francs. Three days later there was a knock at Charles’ door at Rue de Monceau. When he opened it he found a smaller painting. It was of a single sprig of asparagus. There was a note attached, on which was written: This one slipped out of the bunch!

In 1899, each of the Ephrussi brothers in Paris sent a wedding gift to cousin Viktor in Vienna. Charles’ gift was the netsuke. In Vienna the family had established itself in a statement edifice on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. De Waal shows us a slide of the family home. ‘Look at it,’ he says. ‘This building says we are here to stay!’ The Palais Ephrussi, as it was known, included a magnificent ballroom – the only room into which non-Jews entered – boasting a ceiling with paintings of the crowning of Queen Esther and Haman’s punishment

A lover of Virgil, great-grandfather Viktor was an accidental banker. Although he immersed himself in the classics his plans for a quiet life of scholarship were scuppered by his older brother Stefan who ran off with their father’s mistress. The onus then fell on Viktor to find a wife and become a banker. He duly married seventeen-year-old Emmy from the palace next door who – we are led to understand – enjoyed all the accoutrements and the social gaieties prevalent in Freud’s Vienna. She had little time for Virgil.

Edmund’s grandmother Elizabeth grew up here together with her three siblings including brother Iggie. Far away from the marble and gilding of the ballroom they would spend an hour each day with their mother Emmy in her dressing room and with her maid Anna. It was in this room that they would take the netsuke from the black-lacquer vitrine display and play with them on the carpet.

The children were tutored at home. They studied Classics, French, German, and English, spoke Russian amongst themselves; Yiddish was forbidden. Edmund was evidently close to his grandmother. To give us a taste of the world that she grew up in, he puts up a slide of a handwritten page of her ‘opera book’ recording performances that she attended in 1916. The list includes Koenig Richard Dritte, Coppelia and Koenig Lear.

With the Anschluss in 1938, the first tanks crossed from Germany to Austria. And forces crueler than Koenig Richard came crashing down on this cacophony of culture. The Palais Ephrussi was broken into, his great grandparents beaten up and, aided and abetted by the neighbours, robbed.

It is particularly crushing for Edmund to recount how librarians arrived and calculatingly, meticulously, recorded, crated and carried off his great grandfather’s beloved books. At this stage of the talk the audience is completely involved and we feel his pain.

For me, the turning point in the book comes at this point. It is after he is well entrenched in his quest. He has researched the family history in Paris and is making progress in Vienna when he reads the Nazi archive of items that were confiscated. He gives us a sentence of just four words: And then I cried.

It seems that until this stage in his life, having been a student of literature, archives had always been a source of pleasure for him. Indeed he shares with us the delight of his visit earlier in the day to archives at Israel’s National library, where he browsed the works of Gershom Scholem.

De Waal continues his family saga: The Gestapo plunders the house in Vienna of its treasures. The family flees. At this point of the talk Edmund de Waal turns to the audience and asks: What does one put in a suitcase?

The family escaped to a family holiday home in Czechoslovakia in 1938 and eventually arrived in England where they set up home in Tunbridge Wells. By now Elizabeth is married to Henrik de Waal; their son Victor, who is Edmund’s father, was nine.

Meanwhile Iggie, who had moved to the United States in the early 1930s, enlisted in the American Army. We are shown a slide of him at Normandy in his Army uniform behind the wheel of a jeep. Across the front of the vehicle is stenciled the name Elizabeth.

After the war none of the siblings wants to go back and live in Vienna. Elizabeth decides to pay a visit and meets an American Army officer in charge of her family’s home. It has been stripped of its art and other treasures, although some family items do remain. Miraculously, her mother’s maid Anna appears one day, and with her the netsuke.

After he is de-mobbed Iggie pays a visit to the family in England. He feels lost. He doesn’t know what to do or where to go. He decides to move to Tokyo in 1947, taking the netsuke with him. Iggie bequeathed the netsuke to Edmund and this is where the evening began with the issues that triggered this whole mission.

Time for questions.

He is clearly moved to be here in Israel. Someone asks if this is usually the case when he speaks about the book. He responds that it is definitely much more emotional for him being here in Jerusalem.

De Waal is a celebrated potter and there are three students of ceramics from the Bezalel Academy in the audience. They ask about his pottery. Why are his shapes always cylindrical? He explains that, having experimented with various shapes -jam pots, honey pots and the like -he finds that cylinders are the purest form.

He is asked how come his father, Victor, who was born Jewish became dean of Canterbury Cathedral. He explains that having arrived in England as a refugee his father became very English and that while he was a student Cambridge he converted to Christianity; he was later ordained. He shares with us a painting of his father done by a cousin. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘she’s painted him like a rabbi!’ He tells us how his father now volunteers in a North London centre for refugees together with one of his grandsons. For this they sport T shirts that state: I’ve got refugenes!

For many what distinguished the writer Chaucer, is that in contrast to his contemporaries who wrote in elitist Latin, he wrote in English. The use of everyday language brought his stories to the ordinary people. Of course today there is plenty to read in the vernacular but there are simply too many texts competing for potential readers’ increasingly limited time. Yet, five or so years ago, just at that point when we thought we’d read all that we could about that period in European history, Edmund de Waal proffered his family story with prose so elegant and engaging, that other texts competing for our attention might as well have been written in Latin or Greek. At the time his publisher explained that as there was ‘no market for Jewish memoir’only 5000 copies of the book would be printed. A million and a half copies later, it has been translated into almost thirty languages.

It’s not just about the lives that were lost but the life stories too. And for him this is the true inheritance that requires restitution. So when an unsuspecting member of the audience asked if he got the bank back, he explains that that’s not really the point. The audience concurs with spontaneous applause.

At the end of the talk the aspiring ceramicists approach with an offering wrapped in bubble wrap. And I wonder what de Waal has managed to see of the museum. I think of the adjacent gallery of Jewish Life and Art, where one walks among carefully curated objects that people managed to take with them when they fled; the objects that made it to ‘The Suitcase’.

There is the Seder plate complete with misspelled ‘Matzah’ that somehow made it from inquisition-driven fifteenth century Spain. It is overlooked by a display of three painted cloth panels of biblical scenes from Denmark. These panels once adorned the Sukkah walls of Chief Rabbi Friediger. In 1943, on the night that the Danish resistance smuggled some seven thousand Jews over the water to the safety of Sweden, the Rabbi felt it was his duty to stay in Copenhagen. His wife agreed to leave – but not without these precious paintings.

Suitcases move in both directions. Further along in the gallery one can view the remains of a silver Torah breastplate, found in the knapsack of a German soldier. It was charred and disfigured by the flames of Kristalnacht in November 1938. Yet on closer inspection one can see a marker on the breastplate with writing in Hebrew. It reads: Shmini Atzeret.These two words tell a story; that just a few weeks earlier the Torah scroll that it had adorned, had been opened in all its glory and read out to a festive congregation.

Each of the objects in the gallery has two histories. There is an internal history: silver/ Torah breastplate/ German / eighteenth century. And this is complemented by an external history: The Story. So consider the following internal history: netsuke/ wood and ivory/ Japanese; complemented by the external history: Family/ Ephrussi/ Jewish/ twentieth century Europe.

Stories can be easily dismissed as anecdotal in favour of the facts and evidence of history. Yet it’s these stories that make us human, both for the protagonists and for the audience. After all, a prime move of tyrants and racists is to dehumanize; to extirpate status and belonging; to replace names with numbers.

The pity of it all. Those who didn’t survive; those who survived physically but not mentally; those who survived physically and mentally, but no longer Jewishly; and a pity for those stories that were lost.

And we very much need Edmund de Waal’s reassurance about the human condition. This is because – incredibly, within living memory of the worst of the twentieth century – we live at a time when we turn on the television to see yet another boatload of refugees perish in the Mediterranean, imagining their way to a better life. We don’t see the horrors most of them fled from in Africa. At the same time, five months of almost uninterrupted bombing of the people of Aleppo comes close. The bombers apparently targeted the ‘white hats’ – the anonymous helmets of those rescuing people from the rubble. When future generations ask how the world let it happen historians won’t be able to say that we didn’t know what was going on.

Aleppo. Actually one of the Israel Museum’s greatest treasures was thoughtfully rescued from Aleppo ahead of anticipated riots. The Suitcase in this episode was a washing machine. Yet another story… for this one, I’m afraid you’ll have to take the tour.

Why did it take Edmund de Waal so long to come here? Why did he come at all? He was so brave to venture so much further back than Odessa, to where it all began. This part of the world, sandwiched between continents, which has always been the focus of conflicting cultures and nations. The epicentre of it all. Here, where long before the Shtetl, the Canaanites rejected the cuneiform of the Sumerians in the north (too many shapes) and the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians in the south (too many pictures). And they distilled this representation of language down to its purest form. It was an unassuming innovation of twenty-something simple shapes, each representing a sound. It so doing, they gave us the alphabet. They gave us the writing that facilitated trade, and later helped pass on stories forward through the generations.

It was the aleph bet that begat the alpha beta of great-grandfather Viktor’s beloved classics. It begat Latin letters, and those of Greek, Cyrillic, even Amharic. And, truth be told, even that grain – source of the Ephrussi fortune – may well have originated here in the Fertile Crescent.

At the end of the evening we are grateful to be reminded of how the human spirit can shine through: There is the humanity of the maid Anna – impromptu custodian of the netsuke during WW2 – always wanting to be able to return them. And there is that nine-year-old immigrant boy, now nearing ninety, who regularly volunteers with his grandson at a London refugee centre. And there is tonight’s speaker.

Our speaker is Edmund, great great grandson of Viktor, who would surely cherish his scholarly choice of words. Edmund is also great-nephew of Iggie who lovingly stenciled his sister’s name on that Normandy jeep. And let’s not forget, he is also great-great nephew of Charles; Charles who once, long ago, paid an artist more than the asking price for a painting.

These stories. These people. These memories. Much like that sprig of asparagus, they surely slipped out of the bunch.

About the Author
Judith Sinclair-Cohen is an independent consultant in public health, who lives with her family in Modiin, Israel. She is a guide at the Israel Museum.
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