Japanese heirlooms lead author to his super-rich ancestral dynasty

Odds are that the Ephrussi — to use the author’s charming plural — were the richest Jewish family of which you’ve never heard.

Author Edmund de Waal, son of an Anglican priest, is a successful British ceramic artist and sixth-generation Ephrussi who knew his family once had been Jewish, involved in finance, “and staggeringly rich,” not unlike the illustrious Rothschilds.

But that was a century ago, before intermarriages, the Soviet revolution, anti-Semitism and two world wars diffused their fame, depleted their fortunes and brought tragic deaths.

“The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” by Edmund de Waal

In “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance,” De Waal brings the leading branches of this once-powerful family back to life in an account so vivid it’s almost like watching a film. De Waal will speak on “Art, War & Family” at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at the  Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

The wealth began in Odessa, where Berdichev-born Chaim Ephrussi — who later de-Judafied his first name to Joachim, then to Charles Joachim — made his fortune “by cornering the market in buying wheat.” By 1860, the family was the world’s largest grain exporter. “Doing a Rothschild,” de Waal says, Ephrussi sent his six children by two wives “to be deployed as financiers or married into suitable Jewish dynasties.” Sons Leon and Ignace — originally Leib and Eizak — were installed and thrived in Paris and Vienna.

Both died in 1899, leaving their legacies to their sons: Leon’s son Charles in Paris and Ignace’s son Viktor in Vienna. Unshackled by business concerns, the suave and scholarly Charles became a collector, an art historian and a patron/ friend of writers and artists during La Belle Époque. He entertained Proust and Degas and sat for his pal Renoir’s most famous painting, appearing in a top hat in the background of “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” By contrast, Viennese Viktor had to abandon his scholarly life for business after his father’s death. 

But both Ephrussi heirs enjoyed the GildedAge, living in grand style with enormous, lavishly appointed and staffed homes. De Waal describes their lives and surroundings in such rich detail — including paintings on the walls — that it’s like peeking through keyholes.

The cousins are high society — for Jews — but beneath the cosmopolitan surface churns Europe’s toxic river of Jew-hatred. Charles loses social standing and friends – including Renoir and Degas — for supporting framed Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Viktor endures a virtual flood of anti-Semitism after the collapse of the Hapsburg empire. World War I costs him his huge holdings in Britain, France and Russia as well as a fortune in Austrian bonds and half the Ephrussi Bank. The book’s very necessary family tree traces the Paris Ephrussi only to 1924. Viktor and his wife escape to Czechoslovakia in 1938 with just the clothes on their backs as the Nazis invade. Later, Viktor reaches his daughter Elisabeth in Britain, dying in 1945.

And what of the title’s amber-eyed hare? It’s one of 264 netsuke, miniature Japanese carvings in wood or ivory, acquired by Charles during a late-1800s French frenzy for all things Japanese. In 1899, Charles sent them and their large display case to cousin Viktor as a wedding present.

The netsuke remained for the surviving Ephrussi because Anna, faithful servant to Viktor’s high-style wife Emmy, snatched them a few at a time from under the noses of German officials inventorying and removing the family’s multitudinous possessions. Anna remained in the house during the war, the netsuke concealed in her mattress, surprising a returning Elisabeth with them in 1945.

They traveled back to Japan in 1947 with Elisabeth’s brother, also named Ignace, who’d left for America before the war. Discharged from U.S. Army intelligence, he took a job with, of all things, a grain-exporting company. It posted him to Tokyo, where de Waal saw them on visits to great-uncle “Iggy.”

De Waal is now the keeper of the netsuke. His investigation of their provenance led to the book and the untangling of his family’s story. It’s a good read, once past a partially disjointed and egotistical beginning; some transitions are abrupt; the author too often uses French or obscure words, and, alas, there’s no index.

“The Hare,” published last year in Britain, has been short-listed for several awards and received international acclaim but — the book’s publicist says — little notice in the United States. It deserves much more. n

Edmund de Waal will give a free talk at 12 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, in the Terrace Room of Building 460 on the Stanford campus. He will speak on “Art, War & Family” at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F.  Tickets $10-$20.

“The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance”

by Edmund de Waal (Picador Trade Paperback, 354 pages, $16)