De Waal is a London ceramicist. The book is about a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke and, mainly, the family history bound up with it. It’s about memory, loss, and human life.
Oddly, de Waal never exactly explains what netsuke are (miniature carvings in ivory, wood, etc., originating as toggles for garment drawstrings), nor notes the unobvious pronunciation (“net-skay”).
The collection was assembled in 1870s Paris, during a rage for japonisme, by Charles Ephrussi, rich young scion of a family of Jewish bankers and commodities traders from Odessa, Russia. Charles, with unlimited money, was able to make a career of aestheticism.
In 1899, he sends the collection, in its massive glass display cabinet, as a wedding gift for his cousin Viktor Ephrussi, in Vienna, the family’s financial headquarters. The Ephrussis occupy a colossal marble Palais, built by Viktor’s father, filled with art works, porcelain, silver, fine books, elegant furniture, and so forth. Viktor is Edmund de Waal’s great-grandfather.
Comes World War I. We can fathom the wave of nationalist fervor; no one foresaw the horror. Patriotically, Viktor puts a large chunk of Ephrussi money into imperial war bonds – Vienna was capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, allied with Germany. With the defeat, the Empire is kaput, and so are the bonds. Ephrussi holdings in Paris and London are confiscated by Allied governments. Those in ancestral Russia disappear in the Bolshevik conflagration. Then comes postwar inflation and economic meltdown.
Yet, though diminished, the Ephrussis aren’t ruined. The bank endures; so does rich life in the Palais.
My grandfather, Otto Dreyfuss, like Viktor a highly assimilated Jew, was similarly a patriotic German, who fought for his country in the war. We still have the notification that he was missing-in-action. Shot through the leg, he was carried off as a prisoner by the Brits, and surprisingly turned up alive at war’s end. I remember him lifting his pants leg to show me the bullet scar.
Otto was an up-and-comer who secured his ascendance in the Theilheimer family’s thriving Nurnberg metals business by marrying the boss’s daughter in 1919. It was no love match. But, like the Ephrussis, the family lived the good life. I don’t really know just how palatial their digs were, but they were definitely very comfortable.
Families like the Ephrussis, Theilheimers and Dreyfusses could not have been oblivious to anti-semitism, yet must have felt secure living in Vienna or Germany, after all the world capitals of civilization, of philosophy, literature, arts and sciences, of modernity. These sophisticated and successful Jews had a place in these highly advanced societies. Jew-baiting was vulgar, ignorant; this wasn’t the shtetl any more. But, reading de Waal’s account of rising Viennese anti-semitic agitation, complaining about Jews owning everything, so many doctors, lawyers, professors being Jews, and on and on – I couldn’t help wondering, didn’t any of those knuckleheads ever stop and think – how come Jews are so successful? Could they just possibly be doing something right?
In March 1938, the Austrian nation enthusiastically throws itself into Hitler’s lap. I’ve said the 1914 fervor was understandable because they didn’t know better. But now they knew how that had turned out, so going down the same road again was surely madness – doubly madness, in respect to the military adventurism, now compounded by the madness of the pogrom.
The Nazis justified their treatment of Jews by calling them animals. But what the Nazis did would have been monstrous even if done to animals.
In March 1938 a gang marauds into the Ephrussi Palais to rough the place up and terrorize the inhabitants. By now, that includes only Viktor, his wife, son Rudolf, and one last servant, Anna. The army of other servants had all deserted; the other three children were gone.
Soon after, the Gestapo arrives in earnest, searching for “evidence” of anti-Nazism to arrest Viktor and Rudolf. In typical bureaucratic SS fashion, they methodically inventory all the valuables not smashed in the prior home invasion. Then it’s all packed up and carted off.
Viktor, 78, is marched to the bank office to sign away its ownership. He actually gets a little money. But being one of Vienna’s leading citizens doesn’t protect him from being humiliated and brutalized. Indeed, such is the point. Thus was Viktor thanked for his patriotic behavior.
The book notes that a lot of seized Jewish possessions were sold off by the venerable Austrian national auction house, Dorotheum. Another resonance for me – Dorotheum still exists. I’ve bought many coins from them. I have their latest invoice right here.
Viktor’s daughter Elisabeth had gone to University, become a lawyer, and married a Dutchman, de Waal. Now, she risks a return to Vienna (would her Dutch passport protect her?) and with great efforts battling the Nazi bureaucracy, manages to get her parents out of Austria – to their country estate, in Czechoslovakia. Finally, in 1939, with little more than the clothes on his back, Viktor reaches safety in England. Rudolf had gotten himself to America. Viktor’s wife meanwhile, unable to endure more, had killed herself.
The book has a 1937 photo of Viktor. He looks just like Otto Dreyfuss. Things in Nurnberg are no better than in Vienna; indeed, Nurnberg is the epicenter of the Nazi race cult. A lot of thanks Otto got for taking a bullet for his country in the war. He was not as rich as Viktor had been, but must have been a shrewd operator. In 1938, the family arrives in America (a couple of Theilheimers in 1941), passing by that lady in the harbor lofting a torch. Unlike Viktor Ephrussi, Otto even manages somehow to bring out an amazing amount of furniture, paintings, silver, and bric-a-brac. But his mother dies in a concentration camp.
In 1945, Viktor has died, and Elisabeth visits liberated Vienna. The Palais had been used by Germans through the war as offices; now the Americans are there. And there’s still an old woman – Anna. She had remained, working for the Germans. Anna had noticed the cabinet of netsuke, strangely overlooked in all the pillaging. Perhaps the tiny sculptures had seemed inconsequential. Anna sneaked them out two or three at a time, in her pockets, and hid them in her mattress.
Elisabeth gives them to her brother Ignace, who has turned up as an American intelligence officer. The netsuke tip his decision to accept a posting to Japan, where he winds up spending the rest of his long life.
Through the years, Elisabeth doggedly manages to recover a small fraction of the objects looted from the Palais. Eventually, she actually regains title to the building itself. But in depressed postwar Vienna, it’s a white elephant, and is sold off for a pittance.
Otto Dreyfuss succeeds in crafting a new life of sorts in America, though a shadow of his former status. He winds up working as some kind of export-import broker, involving much foreign travel. From overseas he sent me a sailor suit; we had to go to LaGuardia airport to pick it up. After Otto’s death, in the mid-50s his widow Else follows Elisabeth’s path and travels back to Germany, hiring a lawyer to pursue the issue of their old family building, grabbed by an “Aryan.” She gets a settlement.
Ignace Ephrussi dies in 1994 and his great-nephew Edmund de Waal inherits the netsuke collection.