The Ephrussi family lived in Jewish Odessa and made their considerable money from grain exporting and later banking. Cultivated, educated people, they created lovely homes for the family in Vienna, Tokyo and Paris. The most exciting part of the family’s history was undoubtedly when one branch of the family left moved to Belle Epoque Paris. This was the time they mixed with artists, writers and cultural salons. Great great uncle of the author, Charles Ephrussi, was a particular friend of the Impressionists Renoir and Degas, and apparently was the inspiration for Marcel Proust’s Charles Swann.
de Waal's book, published 2010
It was also the time (1870s) when the family bought hundreds of tiny Japanese netsukes; great uncle Charles Ephrussi, carried away with Paris’ passion for Japonisme, bought the objects. The tiny art treasures were kept in a black lacquer case and later posted to Vienna as a wedding present for a cousin Viktor.
The other half of the family settled in Vienna. And there was nothing too shabby about early 20th century Vienna either - this elegant, cultivated family in a totally acculturated cosmopolitan city. Life must have been lovely at chez Ephrussi on the very famous Ringstrasse. The family held large dinner parties and balls, wore fine clothes, and Viktor gained enormous pleasure gathering together impressive collections of books and art.
Only with the 1938 Anschluss in Vienna did this established Jewish family realise that their money and their education would not save their lives or their homes. I am not clear why the netsuke survived the Anschluss when every other treasure was stolen or destroyed, although answers have been offered. Still, God certainly worked in mysterious ways.
one of Charles Ephrussi's netsukes, up to 4cm high
With the Anschluss in Vienna, the Ephrussi family went into exile or died. After the war Viktor’s daughter Elizabeth (de Waal's grand-mother) returned to Vienna from Britain to discover what remained of the family and their vast treasures. Only the netsuke survived.
In 1947 Elizabeth's brother Ignace visited her in Britain, before his next posting in Japan on behalf of an international grain exporter. While Viennese uncle Ignace might have been a stranger in Japan, he took the netsuke with him... and the netsuke were going "home".
It wasn't until the early 1990s that young British author Edmund de Waal inherited the very same collection of Japanese netsuke, whilst he was studying in Japan. The netsuke he inherited were tiny, detailed and carefully crafted carvings of animals and humans from his Uncle Ignace. In the book, Edmund described how he left on a journey of discovery, to investigate his family’s history and the importance or otherwise of Ignace’s netsuke. At least one carving always kept de Waal company while he was travelling: an immediate connection with his family’s past.
Personally I would not have chosen netsuke to engage the hearts and minds of readers, because few people I know love them passionately. But Edmund’s relatives didn’t collect Huguenot silver objects or Meissen porcelain – or if they did, they were destroyed during the war.
The book was a record of de Waal’s journey, both geographical and emotional. Historians always read old letters and chronicles, and visit old homes, but it must have been more difficult when the people involved were direct family. Catastrophic events overtook previous generations and although the author manages to keep it under control, I wonder if the reader does.
The netsuke were created in Japan, got auctioned in France, were posted to Austria, got carried to Britain, were gifted back to Japan and ended up in Britain. Thus the netsuke could be seen as a metaphor for the wandering Jewish family. de Waal appropriately stated "I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers and where it has been." I would be more specific and ask "which other family fingers have rolled this object and what were their lives like?"
Emanata saw how the works were passed from one member of the family to the next, and how they came to mean something different to each successive owner. Thus, he asks, how did each inheritor reinvent the collection to suit his or her own interests and needs?
The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal, Chatto & Windus in 2010.