The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
At a certain age most of us become curious about our ancestors – unfortunately it is often after they have died and we can no longer ask them the questions we have about their past.
Edmund De Waal is a British potter, son of an Anglican clergyman, who felt compelled to research his family’s past when he inherited a collection of very old netsuke from a great uncle. In spite of his clergyman father Edmund knew his grandparents and great-grandparents had been Jewish, before swift conversions made in an attempt to get out of Austria in 1938. Like many others they continued to practice their chosen Christian religion to safeguard their descendants from the possibility of ever facing what they had experienced themselves in Europe.
Edmund de Walls’ s ancestors, the Ephrussis family of Odessa, and then Vienna, were wealthy bankers, making their home in a grand palais, entertaining and enjoying the cultural life in Vienna, and spending summers at their country home in Czechoslovakia. We follow the history of five generation of the family, from the move to Vienna from Odessa, into the new century, when we are with the family of Viktor and Emmy Ephrussis, and their children who include Elizabeth, the author’s grandmother, and Iggie, the author’s great-uncle.
This is not a family to ignore the signs of trouble when Hitler marches into Vienna in March 1938 – Viktor has managed to get his adult children out of Austria – Elizabeth to England, and Iggie and a younger son, Rudolph, to the United States, but he and Emmy have stayed behind. As food becomes scarce in Vienna and they are afraid to venture on to the streets, Viktor and Emmy move to their country home in Czechoslovakia. Emmy dies here early in the war, and Elizabeth manages to get Viktor out of Europe and he lives with her family, in England, where he dies just before the liberation. Iggie meanwhile, now an American citizen, has joined the U.S. Army.
Elizabeth, who was one of the first women in Vienna to become a lawyer, ends up in Tunbridge Wells where, ever resourceful and resilient, she makes a life for herself and her family, as she learns to cook, and tutors local children. She has left everything behind and starts life in England with nothing but her wits – as her father observes as the Jews are fleeing Vienna “it takes something to walk out your door and leave everything”. Viktor himself signs away all of his possessions and his home to the Gestapo to prevent himself and his son from being sent to Dachau. Everything they own is packed up and removed – books, paintings – gone. Viktor is devastated at the loss of his library. In Austria the passports for all Jewish men are stamped Israel over their first names, and Sara for all of the women – effectively erasing their own names, and identity.
In December 1945 Elizabeth decides to return to Vienna to see if she can recover any of the family’s property or possessions. She finds that the family’s gentile maid, Anna, while obeying the Gestapo and packing up all of the silver and jewelry, each day removes some netsuke which she keeps safely, and returns to Elizabeth. The netsuke are all that remain of the Ephrussis family fortune. Elizabeth eventually manages to recover the family home but not one of them would have considered living again in Vienna so Elizabeth, the lawyer, sells the palais and has accepts a small payment for the stolen family property in a settlement after the war – this money divided among the remaining family members. Their home is now Casino Austria.
Eventually Iggie takes a job as the representative to a Swiss bank in Tokyo, and with the netsuke collection that is his inheritance, he lives there for the rest of his life. Iggie is a very generous great-uncle to Edmund de Waal, who spends some time in his youth learning Japanese and regularly visiting his great uncle, who reveals the story of the netsuke to his nephew.
As Edmund de Waal unravels the story of his ancestors he travels paths he had no idea of – uncovering family secrets, yet feeling there is more to discover. His grandmother had written about her experiences, and there were plenty of family documents – but it was also obvious that much had been purposely destroyed – as if to say ”don’t come near this – this is private”. What he does discover, however, makes The Hare With Amber Eyes a fascinating view into a world that has disappeared forever, bit kept in this recorded memory.