David Calling

The Ephrussis Brought to Life

I have just returned from Vienna, where I went to celebrate the launch of the German edition of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. This tells the story of the Ephrussi family, who were bankers and businessmen originally from Odessa and once household names. Edmund has an Ephrussi grandmother (to declare an interest, I have an Ephrussi great-grandmother). By profession he is a ceramicist, very well known.  This is his first book, and a runaway success everywhere. I think the Viennese publisher Zsolnay said to me that he had already sold 30,000 copies in a few days.

The book is marvellously well written, but that doesn’t explain why it is such a hit. The reason seems to be that what happened to the Ephrussis is something everyone can identify with, something of a parable. Settling in Vienna, in the 1860s they built a Palace on the Ringstrasse, a huge and extraordinary monument on six floors around an enclosed courtyard. Here was standing evidence to their wealth, success, and their evident belief that they were assimilated, so socially acceptable that the city’s rabid anti-Semitism wouldn’t affect them. Wrong, of course. Fortune, creativity, taste, enterprise, social connections, counted for nothing when the Gestapo had its day.

The Palace today belongs to a company called Casino Austria. The rooms are a riot of painted ceilings, ornament, gilding, massive panelling and doors, all restored to former standards. A throng of maybe 200 or more gathered in the courtyard. There were speeches. A representative of the city council asked the crucial question: What had Austria lost by expelling or killing its Jews? Edmund followed up: The book was an act of restitution, meaning that memory of the expunged family was returning to Vienna. He spoke as he writes, movingly free from the anger or self-pity that might have come naturally.

Enthusiastic Nazis and anti-Semites, Austrians like to pretend that they were victims of Hitler. This is how they cover the fact that Casino Austria owns this Palace, and not the Ephrussis, or that when the family bank was Aryanised Herr Steinhausser, its manager for twenty-seven years, took possession of it and after the war saw nothing wrong in what he’d done.  If anyone can humanise the Austrians and get them to see the truth of their conduct and their history, it is Edmund de Waal.