Tracing History in Family Treasures

By Robin Jacobson. 

Two painted Japanese vases rest atop bookcases in my living room. According to family lore, my great-grandmother carried these vases with her when she fled Odessa with two small children around 1900. Why? The vases are large, fragile, and impractical. To take them, she must have left many other things behind. Why were the vases so important? Were they a gift? A legacy?

Like me, Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, had questions about a family inheritance of Japanese objects. He inherited a collection of 264 netsuke – miniature sculptures carved from ivory and wood. Eager to understand the significance of this collection for generations of his family, de Waal embarked on a quest to trace its history, as lyrically described in The Hare:

I want to walk into each room where this [collection] has lived, to feel the volume of the space, to know what pictures were on the walls, how the light fell from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and thought about it… I want to know what it has witnessed.

This lovely memoir interweaves family history with European Jewish history and art history. Above all, de Waal salutes the power of inanimate objects to convey family memories and stories.

The Ephrussi Family

Edmund de Waal is a world-famous British ceramicist whose work is displayed in museums. He is also a descendant of the Ephrussi family, an illustrious Jewish banking family like the Rothschilds.

As recounted in The Hare, the Ephrussi family first built its fortune in Odessa as grain exporters. Seeking expansion, the family patriarch sent one son to Paris and another son to Vienna to establish themselves as international financiers. The sons’ success made the family fabulously wealthy.

In the next generation, Charles Ephrussi was a prominent Parisian art patron and collector; he is even pictured in Renoir’s famous painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party. Caught up in the craze for Japanese art following the opening of Japanese seaports to the West, Charles purchased the netsuke collection in the 1870s. In 1899, he sent the collection, in an elegant glass-fronted vitrine, to Edmund de Waal’s great-grandparents in Vienna as a wedding gift.

Edmund’s great-grandmother Emmy kept the vitrine in her dressing room. To her children’s delight, she allowed them to play with the netsuke while she dressed for the opera or a society ball.

The Netsuke in Wartime

In 1938, the Nazis stormed the Ephrussi mansion in Vienna, confiscating the family’s precious art, silver, porcelain, and jewelry. They ordered Emmy’s devoted maid, Anna, to help pack these valuables for the Reich. At great risk, Anna surreptitiously removed the netsuke from the vitrine, a few figures at a time over a two-week period, hiding them initially in her apron pocket and then in her mattress for the duration of the war. In 1945, Anna returned the complete collection to Edmund’s grandmother, Elisabeth, saying she was glad to have saved something for the family.

When Elisabeth’s brother Iggie moved to Japan in 1947, he brought the Japanese netsuke collection back to its land of origin. Proudly displaying the collection in his Tokyo apartment, Iggie introduced each piece individually to his beloved great-nephew Edmund. Edmund’s favorite was a small hare with amber eyes.

Today, the netsuke collection is in Edmund’s home in London. Edmund keeps the vitrine that houses the collection unlocked, inviting his children to touch, hold, and imagine stories for each figurine. And so, what Edmund poetically calls “the sensuous, sinuous intertwining of things with memories” continues into another generation.