Monday, February 13, 2012


The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal describes his exploration and discovery of his forbears, the vastly rich Ephrussi family. I am enjoying this best-selling book enormously, and using it to form my picture of secular-Jewish Paris before and during the Dreyfus affair and of secular-Jewish Vienna in the early 20th century, at least of certain high social strata of the cities.

The first prominent Ephrussi escaped his Shtetl origins and made a fortune by dealing grain in Odessa in the mid-19th century. Contemplating a financial and trading network, his descendants set up businesses and palatial homes in Paris and Vienna, where they lived in a world of wealth and culture.

A tiny carving of a rabbit (left) is one of several hundred Netsuke statuettes from Japan from the was acquired first by De Waal's Parisian art-collecting great-uncle, an art patron and friend of the Impressionists. By tracing the family members who later owned the Netsuke collection and the motives for its original acquisition, De Waal has created the fascinating story of these immensely wealthy members of a certain segment of Parisian Jews and Viennese Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Needless to say, the ending of the family's fortunes in 1938, when the Nazis marched into Vienna, looms over the story.

In addition, as I explore my topic of secular Jewish Vienna, I'm reading The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. He begins with a fascinating portrait of late-19th century Vienna and its Jewish cultural atmosphere and numerous accomplished Jewish citizens, and continues with his life as an author and cultural observer. This autobiography, even more than De Waal's book, is dominated by the Nazi destruction of the world that he had known. Zweig wrote it during his last year, before he committed suicide in despair.

Thus I continue my travels in secular Jewish cities, and will write more about both Vienna and later Paris.

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