About three years ago, deeply moved by Daniel Mendelsohn’s, The Lost, I published a text about it in my blog. The book told, in minute detail, the investigation led by the author to find tracks of parents, citizens of Bolechow, an Ukrenian shtetl, who disappeared in the storm of the Shoah.
And now, as we met recently, one of my cousins of Israel made me present of a book called La Mémoire retrouvée, the French translation of The Hare With Amber Eyes(1). I just finished reading it. In this book too, a man in his forties (Mendelsohn was born in 1960 and de Waal in 1964) undertakes a reconstitution of his Jewish family’s story. But the characters of the two books evolve in very different worlds: the Mendelsohns of Bolechow belonged to the middle class, while de Waal is a descendant of the Ephrussi, a family of very wealthy bankers from Odessa who settled in Paris and in Vienna.
|Edmund de Waal|
The main thread of the two stories is also very different: starting from some tiny clues, Mendelsohn engages in a thorough search for witnesses and for memories, whereas de Waal, who possesses plenty of elements enabling him to reconstitute the lives of his ancestors, chooses to paint the picture by following the route of a collection of netsuke(2) gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the end of the 19th century.
Guided by the route of the netsuke rather than by the chronology, de Waal portrays several of his ancestors. The trip begins in Tokyo, where Ignace – Iggie –, the last possessor of the collection before the author, lives for several years. Then Paris, the elegant district of Parc Monceau, where Charles Ephrussi settled in the 1870s. Charles was a banker, but also an art lover, friend of impressionist painters as Renoir and Manet, or writers like Jules Laforgue or Marcel Proust. He anticipated the fashion of “Japonisme” and gathered the collection of 264 netsuke of which de Waal will follow the track. We also discover the “patriarch”, Charles Joachim Ephrussi, who, in the 1850s, made a fortune with the wheat trade in Odessa. Then, it is Vienna, with the sumptuous Ephrussi Palace, built by Viktor, the great-granduncle of the author. We also learn to know Elizabeth, the grandmother, who married Hendrik de Waal, a Dutch gentleman. Some simple but impressive pages are devoted to the collapse of the Ephrussi family empire, in the late '30s. With the Anschluss and the triumphal entry of Hitler in Vienna, a large number of Jews - among which the Ephrussi - flee Austria. Among those who will stay, almost 70,000 will be killed...
Throughout his route, de Waal brilliantly evokes the atmosphere, the political and cultural background, the fashions, etc., that the Ephrussi experienced in Paris, Vienna or Tokyo. He draws a the same time a portrait without flattery, but not without affection, of these so diverse ancestors, who lived in a privileged circle and who, however, were immersed in their time.
Edmund de Waal is a ceramist. He practices a “minimalist” art. But his approach of the story, even if there is no pathos in it, is anything but minimalist. To provide an overview of the story, which is also History, he accumulates plenty of notations of all kinds, drawn from various sources: public and family archives, objects, newspapers, pictures, etc. The result is quite convincing: a valuable literary work and a precious document on events which marked the History.
The story of the Ephrussi family, if different from that of the Mendelsohns, yet affects us similarly. Because both confront us with the disappearance of an entire world, the sinking of the European Jewry. The emotion comes from the remembrance, revived by an image or an object that evoke a memory with more power than the event itself. No wonder, therefore, if both de Waal and Mendelsohn refer to the same verse of Virgil: Sunt lacrimae rerum (There are tears for things). In Aeneid, the Latin poet tells how Aeneas, who left behind himself the destroyed city of Troy, where he lost friends and relatives, arrives in Carthago. On the walls of a recently built temple, he discovers a fresco depicting scenes from the Trojan War. For the Carthaginians, it is nothing more than a decorative pattern. But Aeneas has experienced it as a tragedy that marked his flesh and his heart; he then bursts into tears and whispers: “Sunt lacrimae rerum – There are tears for things”.
(1) Edmund de WAAL, The Hare With Amber Eyes, London, Random House, 2010.
(2) Tiny carved figures used in the Japanese traditional clothing.