The Hare with Amber Eyes

Family treasures lost and found

By Sara Evans

Recumbent hare with raised forepaw, signed Masatoshi Ivory, eyes inlaid in amber colored buffalo horn Osaka, Japan, ca. 1880

Close on the heels of an exhibition in 2020 about the Ephrussi family at the Jewish Museum Vienna,  the Jewish Museum in New York was confronted with a question: “Why tell a story that has already been told?”  The answer is simple. Some stories are so compelling that they merit endless recounting.  Edmund de Waal’s family tale, The Hare with Amber Eyes, is one of fortunes made and plundered, of homes made and lost, of disaster, dispersal, and reunion.  The Jewish Museum of New York has assembled a show that tells the story of the Ephrussi family from Odessa to Vienna, Paris, London, and Tokyo, through art and letters, photographs, portraits, and artifacts, tracing their journey over three centuries. At the center of this tale is a collection of netsuke—the 168 tiny Japanese toggles that form the centerpiece of the exhibition.

Architect Elizabeth Diller, of the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who designed this time-travel installation notes, “Home is a very, very important theme of the book and the show….One’s own home, building one’s home by choice, being violently forced to leave one’s home and homeland, assimilation in the home of another, returning to an ancestral home in search of something—for comfort, for clues.  Reuniting the netsuke with other family objects was a way to temporarily re-domesticate them.”  The netsukes, she says, are witnesses to spaces, to people, hands, and histories.  “Like spaces, objects can hold memories. I believe they can tell stories and they can tell them in a different way than words can.”

The Ephrussi family had its roots in the Pale of Settlement, the amorphous region of eastern Russia, where Jews were grudgingly tolerated.    The “Abraham” of this story, Charles Joachim Ephrussi, was a grain merchant in Odessa, the thriving port on the Black Sea that exported grain from the region known as “the breadbasket of Europe.” The city was polyglot and cosmopolitan, a place where Jews were allowed to trade and to thrive, though interrupted by a pogrom now and then.  It was, de Waal observes,  “a Hellenic city of merchants and poets.”

Odessa, a free port in the 19th century Source: Odessa

By the 1860s, Charles Joachim was immensely wealthy. He had a monopoly on the grain market and was its greatest exporter in the world.  He was also involved with the emerging oil trade, and established a family bank in Odessa. 

These enterprises came with a family game-plan. In 1857, Charles Joachim sent his two sons, Leon and Ignace, to Vienna, the center of the Jew-friendly Hapsburg Empire, where they were given the mission of extending the family business.  They established a second bank, Ephrussi et Cie, which quickly morphed from a commodity bank to a major financial institution. Ignace was in charge of extending the family business throughout the Empire.  His brother  Leon was tasked with cultivating Paris, arriving there in 1871. Between the two cities, Ephrussi et Cie dealt with rulers throughout Europe, funding the infrastructure of the industrial revolution: canals, bridges and tunnels, railways and docks.

Leon built a huge gilded palace at 81 rue de Monceau, an area then on the outskirts of Paris filled with newly minted Jewish banking families from Constantinople and Italy, Egypt, and Germany.  They built imposing neo-Florentine mansions, broadcasting their conspicuous consumption.  “Monceau” became code in Paris for “nouveau riche.”

Number 81 was divided into several large family apartments.  The ornate doors open into a marble hallway, with a checkerboard floor and a grand, sweeping staircase.  Each apartment was filled with marble fireplaces and intricately plastered ceilings.

It was to this house that Charles, the third of Leon’s sons, came from Vienna to live in 1871. He was larger than life—and, as de Waal notes, “much too rich for his own good.”

Below, a selection from the Ephrussi collection, courtesy the Jewish Museum of New York.

Above: Sketch of Charles Ephrussi, the art collector who served as a model for Swann in Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Right: The controversial Jason and Medea by Gustave Moreau, both images are courtesy of the Jewish Museum of New York's current exhibit (until May 2022) : "The Hare with the Amber Eyes."
Fragonard, Aurora Triumphing over Night-Press Image - 3000px W (300dpi) copy
Fragonard, Aurora Triumphing over Night
Renoir, Albert Cahen d'Anvers, husband of Louise
Morisot, Young Girl in a Ball Gown
Monet, View of Vétheuil-Press Image - 3000px W (300dpi) copy
Monet, View of Vétheuil

It is the third son, de Waal wryly observed, who “gets to leave home and go adventuring.” Charles travelled to Italy, where he embarked upon a truly epic buying spree. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, medallions, tapestries. A richly embellished ducal bed. A Donatello, a Della Robbia. He had, de Waal notes, “an exhilarating lack of connoisseurship.”  Three years later, he returned to Paris.  Gradually he became more discriminating, morphing from madcap collector to true connoisseur, accumulating more than 40 Impressionist paintings in three years.  Manet, Degas, Sisley, Morisot, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir. His appetite for art was insatiable. But despite his support of the arts,  Charles fell prey to the insistent thrum of anti-Semitism. When Renoir discovered that Charles Ephrussi had bought a large gilded painting of Jason and Medea by Gustave Moreau, he angrily dismissed it as “Jew Art.”  The Goncourt brothers observed in their prestigious journal that Paris was “infested by Jews and Jewesses.” 

In Paris, Charles fell madly in love with Louise Cahen d’Anvers, a  married mother of five.  Through her, he embraced the Parisian passion for “Japonisme,” the newly discovered spare aesthetic, a radical departure from the interior design of the city’s grand salons. Japanese porcelains and textiles, furniture, ivories, woodblock prints  and bronzes—suddenly Parisians could not get enough of them.

Charles started with lacquered boxes, then moved on to netsuke, miniscule, astonishing toggles, many not any bigger than a thumbnail—intricately carved and signed, and crafted from ivory and boxwood. There were animals—hares with amber eyes, monkeys, lots of rats, tortoises, frogs, foxes—as well as people—beggars, a laughing child sitting in a bathtub.  Eventually Charles  built a wall of glass vitrines, lined in green velvet, to display them.  It was, Edmund de Waal notes, “a very big collection of very small objects.”  

Below, netsuke from the de Waal family collection: The New York Jewish Museum.

Charles was a model for Charles Swann,  the wealthy Paris socialite and art dealer in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.  Along with the novel Japanese aesthetic, he passionately embraced Empire furniture, a style that was Neo-classical, and quintessentially French—his way of declaring that his French identity eclipsed his Jewishness.

As the Ephrussi family prospered and grew through a series of dynastic marriages, they built homes all over Europe—including a retreat at the spa Bad Ischl; an imposing country estate, Kovesces,  in Czechoslovakia on the Austrian border; and a six-story “chalet” in Switzerland that de Waal describes as “stupendously ugly.”

Like Haussmann’s Paris, Vienna had been radically remade. Modernized by the Emperor Franz Joseph, it branched out from a central circle as the remade Paris branched from the Etoile.  Ignace Ephrussi, the younger son of Charles Joachim, and his wife Emilie built an immense, five-story palace on the city’s famed Ringstrasse, opposite one of that city’s most famous churches—hiring the architect who designed the Austrian parliament. Claustrophobic and gilded, it was filled with Baroque furnishings. Emilie was a beauty and a fashion plate, known for her lavish entertaining and her sumptuous jewels. The Ephrussis were so assured of their place in Viennese society,  so confident that their Jewishness was acceptable, that they had the ceiling of their huge ballroom painted with scenes from the Book of Esther.  As De Waal notes, this was the most public room in the house—the Ephrussi’s way of saying, “We are here.  We are Viennese. And we are Jewish.”

Photo by Iwan Baan, Amsterdam. Salon in the Ephrussi Palais in Vienna which housed an extenstive art collection.
The restored Palais Ephrussi in Vienna today with shops on the ground floor.

Vienna was a Jewish city; the plurality of legal and medical professionals were Jewish, the musicians, composers, the major writers and poets were all Jewish.  There was resentment. The drumbeat of anti-semitism was getting louder; it was a place poised for trouble.  The Ringstrasse was disparaged as “Zionstrasse.”

In 1899, in Paris, Charles packed up his treasured collection of netsukes and their vitrines and sent them to Vienna, as a wedding gift to Ignace’s son, Viktor who had married the lovely and aristocratic Emmy Schey von Koromla.  Viktor was deeply committed to Austria. He became the second richest banker in Vienna, knighted for his civic contributions, as was his father.  So committed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was he that he would only invest his fortune within its borders. 

After the first World War, the Empire was shattered, the economy devastated. The people of  Vienna were starving. The gilded, stately Ephrussi Palace was quiet and gloomy—and the beautiful netsuke became toys for the four Ephrussi children, Elisabeth, Gisela, Ignace and Rudolf.

Like so many Jews throughout Europe,  the Ephrussis, who felt  Viennese to the core, were soon to discover that their sense of home, of belonging, of being rooted, was a delusion.  They were forced to realize, as de Waal notes, “how quickly a society can turn on itself.”

On March 11, 1938, they witnessed the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. The good people of Vienna lined its streets, delirious with happiness, shouting “Heil Hitler!”  That night, the Ephrussi Palace was ransacked and some of  its precious antique furniture destroyed. “The sound of things breaking,” de Waal observes, “is the price for waiting so long.”

The day after Hitler entered Austria, Baron Viktor was offered a choice: Sign over the Palais Ephrussi to the newly formed Austrian government—or get on a train to Dachau. The house and its furnishings were meticulously inventoried; its art, contents, and furnishings were no longer theirs. Jews mattered less, de Waal notes, “than what they once possessed.”   

Yet, as it says in the Book of Isaiah “A remnant shall remain.” Anna, the family’s devoted maid, who had been with the family since the age of fourteen, smuggled the netsuke collection out of the palace, a few at a time, in her apron pocket.  It took her two weeks to take them all but she hid them under her mattress where they remained throughout the war. 

After Emmy committed suicide at their country estate, Viktor managed to pay his way out of Austria and get to England. Sons Rudolf and Iggy made it to America, where they joined the armed forces. Daughter Gisela went to Mexico. Elisabeth, Edmund de Waal’s grandmother, went to Paris. Dispersal, Diaspora. A family destroyed.

Citizens watch as, under the Nazis, Jews are forced to scrub the pavement. By Unknown author -, Public Domain,

After the war, in 1945, Elisabeth Ephrussi returned to Vienna, a city of ashes, and to the ruined palace that had been her childhood home. She found Anna, now a very old woman, who returned the collection of tiny netsuke. Elisabeth brought them back to England. When Iggie, Edmund’s great uncle visited, he knew what to do with these precious objects. “Tokyo,” he declared. “I’ll take them home!”

Here’s where the story circles in upon itself.

As a young man pursuing his passion of becoming a potter, Elisabeth’s grandson, Edmund de Waal, got a fellowship to study in Tokyo in the 1990s and while there, became close to his great uncle Iggie, and Iggie’s Japanese partner, Jiro Sugiyama.

They saw this delightful young man as a work in progress, entertained him and introduced him to fine food, concerts, and to the bar at the elegant  Imperial Hotel. (“My first whiskey sour!” de Waal recalls.)  When Edmund visited each week, Iggie would take some of the netsuke out of their display case, and tell stories about the family’s life in Vienna. Uncle Iggie died in 1994. Upon Jiro’s death, the collection came to Edmund.

Edmund de Waal - Iggie and Jiro on a boat in the Seto Inland Sea, Japan, 1954.

Sometimes, the things we carry transcend their materiality; they accrue meaning and value beyond their objective reality. They can conjure how and where we lived.   For Edmund de Waal these 264 tiny figures, came with an implicit mission:  “Find out what happened to your family. Tell their story.”

This journey took him to Paris, to Vienna, to Odessa, to Tokyo and back, many times over the course of eight years.  The result was his beautiful memoir, “The Hare with Amber Eyes.”  The collection of netsuke has traveled a similar path from one museum to the next.   After a few more months at the Jewish Museum in New York, they will return to Vienna, on loan to the Jewish Museum there, serving as a tangible reminder of the Holocaust and “a somber trip into Vienna’s Jewish past.”  One of the most moving aspects of the current show in New York is the audio gallery guide, narrated by de Waal, in his gentle, honest voice.  

Who owns the netsuke now?  

In 2018, the family sold 79 pieces of the collection at auction, a sale that netted over 100,000 pounds— a sum which they then donated to British Refugee Relief.  The remaining 168 are in the current show. The family still owns them but they are on semi-permanent loan to the Jewish Museum in Vienna. In an interview, de Waal confessed, “It was the right thing to do, but I miss them.  I am bereft.” 

Like so many emigres, the Ephrussis were always reaching for home, always hoping for assimilation, yet no matter how many generations passed in a given city, they felt an intrinsic uneasiness.  To this day, de Waal refers to his own “tentative Englishness.”

Refugees, like the Ephrussi family, are always with us. They are eternal, they are Biblical. And many—in stark contrast to this tale—lack even the most basic resources.  They cluster on our southern border, flee from inundations of oceans, drown in Zodiac boats trying to cross the Mediterranean, freeze in the snow in the forests of Belarus.  All of them, all of them, seeking a place to call home.


Sara Evans is a lifelong New Yorker and the East Coast editor of Reinventing Home.  She has written about culture, travel, and the arts for The New York Times, Art & Antiques, Town and Country, Travel & Leisure, Parents, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Country Living, Fine Arts Connoisseur, Art of the Times and Martha Stewart Living.

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