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Book review: The Hare with Amber Eyes

Posted by joeabbott on January 30, 2016

I enjoy a lot of the books I “read” through serendipity: happy chance … and my last book, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund DeWaal was no different.

The above “read” is in quotes because I listen to many of my books on tape (DVD\podcast\streaming\whatever) and, again, THwAE was a book I enjoyed on my drives to and from work. And it was telling that, on the days I’d drive, I’d actually hurry through my morning routine so I could get to the story more quickly and enjoy it a few minutes longer. It’s that sort of book.

Picking it up

My wife and I frequent two local public libraries … one farther away but with a larger selection … and I tend toward nonfiction books, mostly science related.  In that I’ve enjoyed stories of famous people, sailing solo around the world, stories behind chemicals and atomic elements, the US highway system, and all manner of things. But, I’m starting to deplete those shelves of novel content so my searches are broadening. And in such a sweep across nearby shelves, I came across DeWaal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance.

The back of the CD box contains the following summary:

The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who “burned like comets” in the nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox.

The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of collection. And so begins this extraordinary moving memoir and detective store as de Waal discovers both the story of the netsuke and of his family, the Ephrussis, over five generations.

OK, I’ll admit that, for a guy who likes science and “how it works” sorta stories, this wasn’t a slam dunk, but I was intrigued at how a Rothschild-like fortune could be burned through in a couple generations, who the Ephrussis were (I’d never heard of them … nor had I heard of “the renowned … de Waal”), and what a netsuke was. And because the library was out of books on Richard Feynman and didn’t have anything on inventors on the shelves, well, this 9-disc set would be my port in my current reading vacuum.

And I can only thank happy chance.

The story

The Hare with Amber EyesGiven my penchant for material matters, I was more interested in the collection of netsuke … who the artists where, how a netsuke was made, why they were collected … than about the Ephrussis and so I found the start of the story a bit off-putting: it focuses on the Ephrussis family more than on the hare with amber eyes and her kin. My interest in rich families is really minimal; perhaps I’ve been tainted by stories of entitled athletes, young entertainers who behave badly, or socialites’ vain pandering to ever-present cameras (side note: we need more rich people like Bill Gates in this world). But, my sentiments seemed to align with de Waal’s and so I continued listening.

And, over a disc or two, I learned of Charles and Viktor and Emmy Ephrussis and their collection of art, the social circles in which they turned, the summer homes built like small castles in eastern Europe, and the homes in Vienna and Paris which were described as palaces. While I am not an admirer of “family money”, de Waal brought to light many positive qualities in the family. The dedication of Charles on writing a book on art history … and where I might head to a library or museum for my research, Charles simply bought the artists materials as he was able; the banking business managed (or mis-managed) by Viktor, along with his library of first-folios and love for reading classics; and even of Emmy who lorded as a titan in the social world.

I reflect that the writing must have been exquisite because I hung on every word and found interest in the seasonal fittings for dresses, the routine of changing and accessorizing for nightly meals and dinner parties, and how de Waal described Emmy’s changing to be a family affair and time her children spent playing with the netsuke while they learned of fashion from their mother.

It was a story first and foremost of a family, and the netsuke were merely a possession that hung in the background: the warp to the family’s stories weft.

The Ephrussis

The Ephrussis started in Russia, a family that made their money initial on the grain exchange, but morphing that into a banking empire. They expanded into Austria and later France as various members settled and built their grand houses and establishing additional footholds in Europe. Sometime around WWI the Ephrussis were deeply connected to Austria and ended up siding with the losing side; and as such, lost much of their empire as the various settling out of such things happened; but still, the family was worth some 200-300 million when WWII rolled around.

And it’s here that I should mention the Ephrussis were Jewish.

While that fact plays a role in the story at nearly every turn, it’s during WWII that it becomes a defining feature. The family themselves were never very religious, leading a nearly secular life, but they did come from a Jewish line, identified as Jewish, and recorded family events at the synagogue, respecting Jewish identity. But yes, enter WWII.

At the time that Austria capitulated to Hitler and Germany, acknowledging and welcoming the Nazi Party to power, things changed overnight. While many of the Ephrussi friends encouraged them to put their money into other places, to relocate, and to essentially leave Austria, they didn’t. A characteristic ascribed to Jews at this time was not having a homeland, not being a member of their country, not being loyal … and Viktor Ephrussi appeared to want to do everything in his power to dissuade these characterizations from sticking to him or his family.

And so, after the Nazi’s rose to power, gangs broke into his house, stole his belongings, threatened his family, and nothing was done about it. As the noose was tightened on Jews across Vienna and they were no longer allowed basic rights, Viktor and Emmy stayed. And stayed. And then were no longer allowed to leave. By this time Jews were not allowed on public transportation, could not be in the parks, could not attend concerts or gather or even leave. And nothing they owed was considered theirs any longer.

The Ephrussi family bank was taken over, Viktor’s library was ransacked, the art was sent away, and his home, the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna, became home to a Nazi administration department.

An aside from the story for a moment …

While I’ve always thought the horrors of what man can do to man, especially during wars, is unthinkable, the plain telling of the systematic destruction of livelihood and lives of a particular group of people based purely on their religious beliefs is boggling. How soldiers could participate in these atrocities, how people on the street could allow it to happen, how governments could enact such policies … absolutely mindboggling.

And yet, the Ephrussi family endured all that.

Viktor and Emmy’s children had made it out of Austria, and their daughter, Elisabeth lived in England. Having a legal background, she was able to negotiate the bureaucracy and pay the fines and taxes and finally get those remaining in Austria out before the wholesale destruction of Jewish life reached a crescendo. But the family was destitute … or, as close to destitute as could be for a family that had lived in palaces. I’m not one for a lot of sympathy on lost wealth, but to have it taken from them with no recourse for restitution … well, that is absolutely another thing.

There was a lot more about the sons and daughters of the Ephrussi family, the diaspora of members to the various countries of the world, and ultimately the chain that led to Edmund and his work with pottery that took him to Japan and into the warm embrace of his great uncle, Iggy, who now owned the netsuke. But do yourself a favor and ignore the poor telling above and get this book and enjoy the story … the painful parts and all … for yourself. It’s a beautiful book.

The netsuke

The small collection of Japanese figures were pronounced “net-soo-kay” in the CDs but a subsequent interview with the author (included at the end of the discs) had de Waal pronouncing them something like “nets-kay”. However you say the word, netsuke are small carvings made in wood, bone, or ivory. The carvings are everyday things: rat or deer, or turtle or people on the street making a living; they can be monks or bathers or hare with amber eyes. They are intended as small, intimate items you’d use as a pull or hang from your belt or keep in your pocket for company.

In the late 1800s a collection of 264 were bought by Charles to amuse him as all-things-Japanese were raging through Europe and he was in want of appropriate items to decorate his newly built palais in Paris. Sometime in the early 1900s they were given to Viktor, as a gift to him when he and Emmy married.

They sat in Emmy’s dressing room and used as a distraction for her children as she dressed (in those days, dressing for an event taking the better part of an hour or more) and considered toys, more than art.

During WWII as the family’s home was being systematically cataloged and carted away by the Germans, a long-time maid to the family was enlisted to help with the packing up. That is, the Germans had her helping them package the Ephrussi art and property to be sent to museums or the homes of Nazi officials. As an unwilling participant, she noted the netsuke were being ignored for the moment and, over the course of weeks, would pocket a small item or two, and secret them away to be hidden in her bed mattress in safekeeping should the family ever return.

Some months after the war end … or perhaps prior to the official end of the war but during the American occupation of Vienna … Elisabeth did return to the family home. It has been stripped, a wing destroyed, and the Americans had now made it an administrative building of their own, but the maid still resided in a small room upstairs and it was then she was able to return the “childhood toys” to Elisabeth.

From there they were given to Iggy, Elisabeth’s brother, and made their way back to Tokyo where he lived and, upon Iggy’s passing, ultimately were inherited by Edmund.

And so these small wood and bone and ivory figures started in Japan some 150-200 years ago, made their way to Paris, then to Vienna, came back to Japan, and are now in England.

The production

A part of the beauty of The Hare with Amber Eyes is Michael Maloney’s reading. He has a wonderful accent (to this Yank’s ears), a strong control of words of various languages … which is needed for a story that visits the cities of Odessa, Tokyo, Paris, and Vienna … and he reads with the compassion of someone for whom the story has deep meaning. Inflection, tempo, and gravitas are all brought to bear in the telling of this deeply personal story.

He’s not just reading the book, he’s sharing it with you. And while I typically love the tactile qualities of reading something personally, I strongly recommend taking the time and effort to have the story read to you by this wonderful narrator.


Lately I’ve had the good fortune of reading a number of fantastic books, but The Hare with Amber Eyes stands above these. I learned new things, I was invited into social circles I’m typically not privy to, and felt moved as I seldom have by a story.

The book has been out five years already so you may have read it already; if you haven’t, pick up a copy or put it on hold at your library. This is a story worth enjoying.


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