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History in a Shoebox

Katrina Goldstone

House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth Century Jewish Family, by Hadley Freeman, 4th Estate, 464 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0008322632

In 1989, the French novelist Patrick Modiano stumbled across a strange paragraph in an old issue of Paris-Soir, under the rubric “From Day to Day”. The day in question was December 31st, 1941. The news item that caught Modiano’s eye was in fact a missing persons notice, a quiet plea for assistance in locating one Dora Bruder. This random archival encounter spurred Modiano to turn detective, in a fevered quest to discover the fate of young Dora. He transformed this documentary hunt into a haunting narrative, entitled The Search Warrant. As a young Jewish girl in occupied France, Dora Bruder’s mysterious disappearance represented something more ominous than random teenage rebellion. Modiano became obsessed by the archival hunt to discover her fate, and this is at the core of his meditation on wartime France and the struggle of Jewish citizens and foreign Jews alike to survive in an atmosphere of suspicion, denunciation, round-up and deportation.

This larger political backdrop of occupied France, and the experience of Jews in it, is just one strand in this fascinating family history by Hadley Freeman. The book is part personal odyssey, part reflection on memory and trauma, part historical sleuthing. Also enfolded within its pages is the history of Jewish immigrants in the barbarous twentieth century, meditations on the contradictions of assimilation and the at times stark differences between the experiences of Jewish communities in America and those of European Jewry. Freeman is a well-known fashion writer and editor, with a painterly eye for the vivid flash of detail that brings her relatives to vibrant life. It may seem incongruous to find potted inventories of her grandmother’s wardrobe beside accounts of a hair’s-breadth escape from wartime France. But in fact it is one of the strengths of this engrossing book, which shows the complexity of humanity under duress in all its glorious and messy contradiction.

It all started with a shoebox. Freeman really did find this container full of strange documents and faded photos when she went rummaging in her grandmother’s wardrobes several years after her death. Her curiosity had been long been piqued by the elusive Sara, sometimes known as Sala. Relentlessly stylish as only French women could be, Sara stood out like the proverbial unicorn amongst her suburban American in laws. She seemed remote to her granddaughter, with a wistful air of yearning trailing behind her like a couture house fragrance. The mysteries of her grandmother’s life eventually came to so fascinate Freeman that she was compelled to turn into a family history gumshoe, following archival leads, gently interrogating a few witnesses in a bid to break the silences or elisions in family accounts of their wartime history. During her childhood, the extended Freeman-Glass family were separated by more than the ocean, with one set of relatives still in France and the American branch going about its cheery optimistic business. Freeman picked up, as observant children often do, there was that something no one could quite talk about or name. What she uncovers about her grandmother’s transmigration from Europe to the United States adds nuance and complexity to what some might carelessly categorise a triumph over tragedy narrative.

Her book occupies similar territory to other family histories set against the background of the Holocaust ‑ Nick Barlay’s Scattered Ghosts, Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, Lisa Appignanesi’s Losing the Dead. All these texts try to unravel the legacy of unspoken traumas and how it can disjoint normal family relations. They are books which in very different ways attempt to impose clarity on a family narrative that at times appears as if refracted through a set of distorting mirrors. Freeman’s relatives in wartime France were at the precarious end of the social spectrum, far removed from the glamour of the grand French Jewish families meticulously described by De Waal. They only became established in Paris in the 1930s, after an earlier life in the small Polish town of Chrzanów. It was once a town with a substantial Jewish population where relations with Gentile neighbours were cordial. But come the First World War, any small comfort in a warm communal life is swept aside. The gentle, studious Glahs patriarch, Reuben, returns hideously altered from the war, with lung damage, leading to an early death. And in the final throes of the war, when attitudes to Chrzanów’s Jews poisonously change, events take a calamitous turn with a pogrom, searingly described in the book. There is nothing for it but to seek a place of safety.

The Glass family chose as haven the City of Light. Freeman’s grandmother and her siblings Sender, Jakob and Jehuda become Sara, Alex, Henri and Jacques. “Paris is where I was reborn,” declared “Uncle Alex”, one of Freeman’s more picaresque relatives, whom she likens to a Yiddish Joe Pesci, stocky. and making up for his lack of height with a combative larger-than-life persona. Indeed there is something so rambunctious and irrepressible about Sender Glahs, who becomes Alex Maguy, that he would not be out of place in a Dickens novel. Maguy’s multiple identities include impoverished tailor, French Foreign Legionnaire, wartime resister, hunted man, couturier and designer, and a final incarnation as art dealer and friend of Picasso, Dior and a host of French cultural and art world figures.

The family history poignantly highlights the role of fickle chance, sly coincidence and temperament in extreme circumstances. Of the five Glass siblings whose wartime fate Freeman traces, stubborn traits from childhood, compounded by the twists of history, suddenly assume an urgent significance and in part lead to the wildly divergent fates of all of them. Each of the siblings’ stories have their own elements of heartbreak but also provoke wide-eyed wonder at the courage, resourcefulness and sheer chutzpah deployed to survive. Freeman is not a professional historical researcher, but she has applied herself assiduously to assembling and scouring archives to piece together the individual stories and broader historical context. She discovers that one relative was on the same transport out of the Drancy assembly camp in suburban Paris as the renowned writer Irène Némirovsky. In another archive, among hundreds of photographs of French Jews required to report to authorities, she stumbles on one with her great-uncle, standing out from a group of other Jewish men. Her eye was inexorably drawn to him because of his neat white shirt and dapper appearance. In another twist, she finds a crumpled photocopy of a “denunciation” letter about her relatives, a not uncommon thing in occupied France. This artifact owes its survival partially to the fact that one great-uncle, Henri, had pioneered a method for microfiche and photocopy, and thus the letter in all its venomous duplicity came to be preserved and wind up in the shoebox mortuary, later to be read by Freeman herself.

The sheer high-octane pace of the wartime sections and the will-they-won’t-they escape narrative ‑ with all the attendant thrills of an Eric Ambler spy story, naturally overshadows the history of the American side of the family. And sometimes Freeman’s digressions on assimilation or current American politics slow up the pace of an absorbing story. But that is a minor quibble; the book has been painstakingly researched, and Freeman has brought clear insight to a complex tale. Trying to steer a course through the self-censorship of survivors and the labyrinth of suppressed grief, or interpret testimonies and writings refracted through a traumatic past is no easy feat. Nonetheless she persisted.

By recounting with verve this intriguing family saga, she provokes us to reflect on memory, fate and survival. Across five life stories, which form a scaffolding for the broader historical tale, the experience of the extended Glass family furnishes in microcosm just one of the stories of millions of Jews across the continent of Europe in the war years. As Freeman writes, “ they lived through probably the most dramatic shifts ever endured by the world’s Jews, from the Holocaust to American immigration, to the founding of Israel , to assimilation”. That represents just some of the markers of the Jewish twentieth century, as do, one might add, the extraordinary contributions to art, science, music, philosophy, high and low culture and literature by both those who managed to flee and their descendants.

This interleaved compendium of life stories is by times heart-stopping and eye-popping. It is also sobering, as a testament to the sickening tenacity of old hatreds. Freeman draws our attention to the ideological relatives of 1930s fascists at work today, discriminating against Mexican immigrants, refugees and, yes, still spreading Jewish conspiracy theories. The plague-carrier calumnies of the Middle Ages are venomously transposed to the Covid 19 pandemic era. Freeman has managed not just to unearth the secrets of a painful family history and explore its legacy in the present day, she has provided a map of the afterlives of survivors, in all its complexity, joy mingled with guilt, relief with regret as well as, sometimes, an ineffable joie de vivre.

1/6/2020

Katrina Goldstone is a researcher and writer. Her book Irish Writers and the Thirties: Art, Exile and War will be published by Routledge in 2021.

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