As I consider what to say about parts 3 and 4 of The Hare With Amber Eyes, I remember my daughter, Julia’s christening in early spring 1961. At the reception in our Don Mills apartment, her fraternal grandfather made a casual anti-Semitic joke. My objection was all but drowned out by laughter. What exactly he said, I have mercifully forgotten, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that the genes he handed down to my husband Blake and on to Julia got blended with Warsaw Jewish genes to produce a son, not strictly speaking Jewish since Julia is not, but good enough for Hitler. Even so, I mostly don’t let myself feel anything like the full force of what I could feel about the Holocaust which destroyed all but two members of that middle class Warsaw family. Until I read this part of The Hare With Amber Eyes. Oddly, it is the pillage and loss of beauty, which is irresistibly affecting to me, the netsuke sitting vulnerable in their glass cabinet while the mob breaks in and then the Nazis seize the palace and force Viktor to sign it over.
Unlike his children, Viktor does not have the instinct to flee. By the time, it is necessary, he has great difficulty doing so. It is true that none of the immediate family is deported to a camp, although one does not survive. On balance, the Ephrussis of Vienna, like my grandson’s Warsaw family, could be seen as lucky. Strange luck to survive in the face of such grief, of so much loss. The great advantage the Ephrussis have is Elizabeth, the lawyer and the author’s grandmother. Thus Viktor finds himself sitting by the kitchen stove in Tunbridge Wells, reading news of the war and Ovid’s poems of exile, while Elizabeth learns to cook. In December 1945, she goes back to the Palais Ephrussi, no longer a Nazi headquarters but an American one. Almost nothing is left, except Anna and, amazingly, the netsuke.
Then the story switches setting. Iggy, former fashion designer, and American Intelligence officer, returns to England from a year trading grain in the Congo and receives the collection from Elizabeth. It is as if the netsuke settle what he should do next. He takes the collection with him when he moves to war-torn Tokyo. Ironically, he will work as a banker there. “Iggy had a small attache case filled with ivory monks, craftsmen and beggars, but he knew nothing about the country.”
Edmund De Waal gets to know his uncle when he goes to Japan as a teenager to study ceramics. By that time, Iggie has added Japanese to his German, Russian and English. He lives in a home with fewer objects, but nevertheless rare, Japanese antiques. He is successful and shares his life with a male friend, Jiro, some years younger. So there is beauty there and happiness, but this part feels elegaic. After Iggie’s death, De Waal stays with Jiro when he visits Japan.
Finally, the author goes to Odessa where he joins his younger brother and they discover clues of the Ephrussi brothers presence there before 1870, not only in stories but also in a school and an orphanage they founded.
The netsuke are in London now in a vitrine where they can be taken out and played with by children.