The fascinating memoir book “The Hare With Amber Eyes” by Edmund de Waal and the exhibition “The Ephrussis: Travel in Time,” at the Jewish Museum Vienna, reopen a chapter in history by telling the story of the Ephrussi family.
The must-see exhibition is a travel in time. It takes us back to what happened to wealthy Jewish families after Hitler incorporated Austria into the Third Reich, a part of history not often addressed.
The Ephrussis and the Rothschilds
The Ephrussis were an affluent family whose wealth compared to the Rothschilds’. The family came from Odesa, today’s Ukraine, where they made fortune trading grains. Then, they migrated to Paris and Vienna.
In Paris, Charles Ephrussi was a prominent art collector and patron of artists such as Proust and Degas. The French impressionist Renoir is said to have portrayed Charles Ephrussi in his famous painting “Luncheon of the Boating Party”, which you can see at the exhibition in Vienna.
In the 1870s, Ephrussi bought the Netsuke collection with more than 260 tiny Japanese small toggles used to hold together a Japanese man’s clothing ensemble. The figurines are carved in ivory or wood. He sent this incredible collection to his cousin Viktor in Austria as a wedding present.
The Ephrussis in Vienna
In Vienna, Viktor von Ephrussi thrived as a banker. And as a wealthy man, he lived at the imposing Palais Ephrussi in the Ringstrasse, which is still there nowadays.
Following Austria’s annexation, the Nazis arrested the 78-year-old Viktor (the great-grandfather of Edmund de Waal) and his son Rudolf. The Third Reich threatened to send them to the Dachau concentration camp. But in exchange for his whole family’s freedom, Viktor von Ephrussi was made to sign away the palace, including its entire contents, the Ephrussi Bank, and all their other properties.
And until today, many of Ephrussi’s valuable works of art are part of international museum collections.
So, the family fled to Britain, leaving behind everything they had. But a faithful servant managed to hide in her apron and then, inside her mattress, the collection of netsuke figurines. Years later, she gave the collection back to Elisabeth de Waal, who visited Vienna in December 1945.
The Netsuke collection, symbol of migration
The tiny netsuke went to the UK with Elisabeth de Waal, then to Japan with her brother, and upon his death, they came back to Britain.
Edmund de Waal and his family decided to auction 79 figures to raise money for The Refugee Council for unaccompanied refugee children. He explained that “this is the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. My father was a refugee. The only reason that we exist as a family is because he was allowed to come to Britain in 1939. The status of refugees now is hugely significant to us as a family. So we thought, actually, this collection is a symbol of migration; it’s a beautiful collection of migratory objects. And, for me, that’s the story I tell in the book.”
The 157 Netsuke still left are at the heart of “The Ephussis: Travel in Time” exhibition, including the hare with the amber eyes that gives the name to Edmund de Waal’s book. The best-selling author loaned the miniatures on the long-term to the Jewish Museum. In addition, he donated documents, photos, diaries, correspondence, theatre tickets and other objects and souvenirs. All these documentations show the family’s fate and their travels between Russia, Austria, France, Great Britain, Spain, the USA, Mexico, Japan and other countries. He said, “What you have to do is to give people back their story, and that’s pretty much the only thing you can do.”
After more than eight decades, 41 descendants of the Ephrussi family living today around Europe, the United States and Mexico, gathered in Vienna to open the exhibition at the Jewish Museum, curated by Gabriele Kohlbauer-Fritz and Tom Juncker.
You can visit the show until March 2020.
Source: Wikipedia, The Jewish Museum. Title Photo_The Hare with amber eyes_courtesy of Jewish Museum Vienna.