How can we draw meaning from the remnants of past generations — be they photographs, candlesticks, documents or letters — and squeeze out the stories they tell? It’s a challenge that only increases over time.
Hadley Freeman grew up feeling distant from her paternal grandmother, who carried an air of sadness and mystery. It was only in 2006, a dozen years after her grandmother’s death, that, while writing a piece for Vogue about the fashionable dresses that remained in the closet of her grandmother’s Miami apartment, Freeman discovered a shoebox that contained photographs and papers that offered clues into a past that had long been unspoken.
“House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family” records Freeman’s discovery of this history, which took her far beyond the items in the shoebox.
Freeman’s Grandma Sala came from southern Poland, but she, along with her mother and three brothers, would move to Paris in the aftermath of a terrible pogrom and the death of Sala’s father. Much of the book is devoted to the distinctive paths each sibling took. Sala became a pattern designer in the clothing industry, Henri invented a pioneering microfilm device, Alex became the head of a fashion house and Jacques worked as an unsuccessful furrier.
Just as their vocational paths diverged, so did their experiences during World War II. Henri bravely dragged his machine across France in order to preserve archival materials at risk of falling into Nazi hands. After escaping death by jumping from a train, Alex went on the lam and worked with the Resistance; and Jacques, who believed in playing by the rules (he was the sole brother to have registered as a Jew), was deported to Auschwitz, where he was killed.
Sala was spared these wartime traumas. In 1937 an American named Bill visiting Paris told her that he had fallen in love at first sight and invited her to return with him to New York as his bride. Alex and Henri encouraged her to accept the offer, even though she was already engaged, as they foresaw that life for Jews in France would deteriorate. Her life was saved, but at a cost. She never grew to love Bill, and, tiring quickly of her suburban life, she dreamed in vain of returning to Paris.
Freeman’s discoveries allowed her to understand the sadness that her grandmother had radiated. Sala longed for a life that had been stolen from her. Fortuitously for a fashion-illiterate reader like me, Freeman’s background as a journalist specializing in fashion helps communicate the allure of this world that remained central to Sala’s identity and unrealized dreams.
While most works of family history are the products of descendants like Freeman, “Family Papers: A Sephardic Journey through the Twentieth Century” is the achievement of an academic historian.
Sarah Abrevaya Stein, a professor at UCLA and one of today’s preeminent historians of Sephardic Jewry, had been working with the memoir of Sa’adi Besalel Ashkenazi a-Levi, a leading publisher in late 19th-century Salonica, when she found a trail leading to an enormous volume of letters and documents that had been archived by family members around the world — including a vault in Rio de Janeiro containing nearly 5,000 items. These letters offered an extraordinary window on the dispersal and fortunes of Sa’adi’s descendants.
During Sa’adi’s time, Salonica (today the Greek city of Thessaloniki) hosted the third largest port in the Ottoman Empire and was known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” Jews, most of them Ladino-speaking Sephardim, constituted around half of the city’s population, occupying every social stratum.
The first half of the 20th century was calamitous for Salonica’s Jewish community, initially through wars and a vast fire in 1917 that wiped out hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses. Jews’ status declined further following the Greco-Turkish War, as a massive population exchange brought into the city thousands of Christian refugees, who received preferential treatment. And the final blow was the Holocaust, which claimed 98 percent of Salonica’s remaining Jews.
Stein allows the reader to experience these events, along with happier ones, through the experiences of Sa’adi’s descendants, largely as revealed through letters. Some members of the clan remained in Salonica, while others fanned out to India, Brazil, England and elsewhere as conditions changed.
One shocking story to which Stein devotes particular attention was not found in letters or family lore. One of Sa’adi’s great-grandsons, Vital Hasson, was an enthusiastic Nazi collaborator who participated in rounding up and brutalizing Salonica’s Jews. He was the only Jew in Europe to have been tried and executed during the postwar era for his wartime activities.
As difficult as the family’s story often is, there is another sense of loss in the book — the loss of the act of writing letters. As Stein writes cogently, “Other forms of communication may be speedier, more immediately gratifying. But letters are an inheritance. Their value, and the meanings we derive from them, are limitless … the longer we save them, the better we understand one another, and ourselves.”
I teared up when I read this. My own marriage started out as an exchange of letters — something nearly unheard of today. It is fascinating, and rather saddening, to contemplate what future family members and historians are going to do with a legacy of emails and text messages.