Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Events in The Hare with Amber Eyes (which I started to discuss yesterday) eventually come to the Nazi takeover of Vienna in 1938 as experienced by the author's great grandparents and grandmother Elizabeth. De Waal explains how a long-employed family servant named Anna hid the collection of Netsuke (center of the story) a few at a time, so that these relatively insignificant items from the large and valuable stores of family possessions were the only ones rescued.

The Holocaust victims' shock of being deprived of all dignity and human rights is agonizing to read about no matter how many stories I've read before. Why had they not sent their money out of the country and fled before the inevitable happened? They were loyal and trusting citizens, up until then with equal rights despite the growing hatred of Jews. They were highly assimilated, Jewish but with a secular lifestyle. They saw themselves as real Austrians, and valued their position in Viennese society. However, the Viennese welcomed the Nazis with huge enthusiasm.

On a trip there, I once visited the home of Sigmund Freud, whose relatively modest apartment De Waal points out was very close to his family's palatial home in Vienna -- a video tape of the German victory parade was showing as a loop on a small TV set in Freud's one-time study, with the voice of his daughter Anna describing their shock at the frenzied anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi crowds. I thought of this as I read about the same parades, the same shock, the same sense of having been betrayed.

Elizabeth had earlier earned a doctorate in law from the University of Vienna, and with extreme bravery came to Vienna to help her parents to safety away from the Nazis. With her knowledge of the law, even in its eviscerated form, she was able to extricate her parents, who were desperately trying to escape. Her parents' first escape location was at a family vacation home in Czechoslovakia -- not safe enough. Her mother died at this once-happy refuge, but Elizabeth managed to get her father to England, where she and her husband and children were living, and where her son and grandson (the author) have spent their lives.

Later, after the war, Elizabeth tried to repossess some of the family's art collections and other property, but it was futile. The Austrians were successful in preventing Jews from returning or reclaiming what had been taken from them. I felt that the net result has this conclusion: the Holocaust was a great success. Where many Jews of all social classes and levels of accomplishment once lived peacefully in Vienna (and many other places of course), there are now virtually none, and those that survived had to start their lives over from zero.

The story is told in painful detail. Vivid and unbearable, the author makes you go through the suffering and desperate times with the family members and ask yourself for the millionth time, how did this happen?

The collection of Netsuke, small and resilient, made to be used as toggles for clothing, once used as playthings by the children of the family, survived better than many of the family members, and the post-war story is happier.

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