Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes” is about many things. Towards the very end of the 350-page book, the author confesses, “I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still about small Japanese things.”
The book is about all of the above, but its organization hinges on those “small Japanese things” called “netsuke,” which the Ephrussis, a fabulously wealthy Jewish family, handed down from generation to generation, from place to place.
Indeed, the title of the book, “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” refers to but one of the miniature sculptures in the family’s collection of 264 Japanese netsuke carvings of ivory or wood.
These 264 netsuke, kept from the Nazis by the courage and cunning of a loyal servant, are all that is left of the Ephrussis’ once vast holdings of mostly European masterpieces. The Nazis plundered, stole or hid the family’s fortune in artwork, which was never recovered.
Among the netsuke miniatures are a menagerie of animals, including rats, monkeys and tigers, as well as a range of human types, including an elegant Japanese dancer and a beggar who has fallen asleep over his begging bowl.
This cornucopia of netsuke could feed the imaginations of young and old alike. All of these charming miniature sculptures, some as small as a thimble or a matchbox, are designed to be held and fondled in the palm of your hand; some have suggested that they function as “worry beads.”
In the sophisticated European capitals of 19th-century Paris and Vienna, where the Ephrussi family held major banking interests, Japanese netsuke introduced the art world to “new textures, new ways of feeling things.”
These netsuke form an essential linkage in the story of the decline and fall of the Ephrussi dynasty.
After de Waal’s great-great uncle, Charles Ephrussi, moved to Paris from Odessa, in Ukraine, he acquired the collection of 264 netsuke. In 1899, he gave the collection, as a wedding present, to his cousin Viktor, in Vienna, where the netsuke remained until some months after the Nazis were defeated in May 1945.
In December 1945, Anna, Viktor’s faithful servant, delivered the netsuke to the author’s grandmother, Elizabeth de Waal, who kept them in her home, at that time in Tunbridge Wells, a town about 30 miles southeast of central London.
But there was no rest for the weary netsuke; in 1947, the author’s great-uncle, Ignace (Iggy) Ephrussi, took them to Tokyo, where they remained on display in his home until his death in 1994. Iggy bequeathed them to Edmund de Waal, who now keeps them in his London residence.
The netsuke have been silent witnesses to the poisonous antisemitism that slowly ate away at the privileged lives of the Ephrussis.
Antisemitism in Paris, never far from the surface, erupted with the onset of the Dreyfus Affair in 1894. But the antisemitism in Vienna, where Viktor Ephrussi lived with his family in the luxurious Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse, was far more blatant and ultimately far more dangerous.
On March 13, 1938, Hitler’s troops annexed Austria into the German Reich: the Anschluss. De Waal writes, “And on 27th April it is declared that the property at number 14 Dr. Karl Lueger Ring, Vienna 1, formerly the Palais Ephrussi, has been fully Aryanized. It is one of the first to receive such an accolade.”
So begins the exile of the Ephrussis.
And all of this was before the outbreak of World War II, on Sept. 1, 1939; all this was before the barbarity of the Holocaust.
Jewish property in Vienna was being confiscated. “So this is how it is to be done …. And while this is going on, the erstwhile owners are having their ribs broken and their teeth knocked out,” de Waal comments with terse bitterness.
It appears that the Ephrussis were not subject to the same physical brutality as were many of their fellow Jews. Nevertheless, when de Waal visits the Jewish archives in Vienna while doing research for his book, he discovers that “there is an official red stamp across his [great-uncle Viktor’s] first name. It reads ‘Israel.’ An edict decreed that all Jews had to take new names ... ‘Israel’ for the men, ‘Sara’ for the women.
“…The family is not erased but written over.”
WHEN I was an adolescent, I was a devoted disparager of “things.” I became intoxicated with the profound psychological, philosophical and religious challenges that flowed forth from such literary masterpieces as Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.”
I had little patience with those who appeared to be obsessed with collecting things. Though I loved my Aunt Ann deeply, I could not fathom why she cluttered her Bronx apartment – and, later on, her Fort Lee apartment, on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge – with what we Jews call tchotchkes.
Having read “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” I have made room within myself for a far greater respect for “things.” All kinds of “things” – many of them of little intrinsic value – help us to tell the stories of our complex lives.
And so it is that those “small Japanese things,” those 264 netsuke, have made it possible for Edmund de Waal to tell the complicated story of his family, his memories and his deepest self.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.