I am standing on the Ringstraße in Vienna, that fabled street which is a masterpiece of urban planning, gazing up at a vast, late-19th century neo-renaissance palace and trying to imagine the spectacular wealth and influence of the Ephrussi family who once lived here.
It is a hard thing to do. The Ephrussis have long gone and this, their former home – designed by Theophile Freiherr von Hansen, architect of the magnificent Austrian parliament building and the foremost architect of the day – has slightly gone to seed, so that barely a penumbra of the past remains. On a wall of this huge edifice, which takes up an entire city block, I do eventually find a small plaque, a cursory nod to the past. “The Jewish Ephrussi family lived in this house until forced to flee in 1938,” it says, with untypical Viennese restraint, bordering on gross understatement.
The story of the Ephrussis, now immortalized in Edmund de Waal’s bestselling 2010 memoir, “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” goes like this. In 1856, Charles Joachim Ephrussi, having amassed a huge fortune as a grain distributor in Czarist Russia, moved from his native Odessa to cosmopolitan, glamorous Vienna. His son Ignaz moved with him, establishing the banking house, Ephrussi & Co., in the Austrian capital. The family fortune continued to grow, as did their influence. Ignaz was ennobled by the emperor, Franz Josef I, as branches of the bank were established in Athens, Paris and London.
Then, in 1938, came the Anschluss [annexation of Austria into Germany] and life for the Ephrussis – for all Austrian Jews, of course – fell apart. After a menacing visit from the Gestapo and the routine smashing of some furniture followed by three days in prison, Charles Joachim’s grandson, Viktor – now head of the family – was given a choice. Either sign over the house, its priceless art, its objets, its furniture, its incunabula [books printed before 1500], to the Nazis and get out of Austria – or lose it all regardless and be transported to Dachau. Some choice. Viktor signed on the dotted line and handed over everything, including the family bank, eventually making it to England where he settled with his daughter Elisabeth and her two small children, in a small house in the genteel southern English town of Tunbridge Wells.
Among those of the many treasures left behind in Vienna was a collection of Japanese netsuke, exquisite miniature hand-carved figures that had been given to Viktor’s own parents as a wedding present by a Paris cousin. And it was one of those netsuke, the eponymous hare, which gave de Waal the title for his book.
The Ephrussi palace, meanwhile, now judenrein, was taken over by the Nazi administration and used for some years by the Nazi ideologue and racial theorist, Alfred Rosenberg. After the war, it was occupied by the Americans as their property control headquarters and later became the headquarters of Casinos Austria, one of the largest casino operators in the world.
Today, as I look at the inconsequential plaque and try to imagine the lost world of the Ephrussis, I am thwarted by the ordinariness of the former palace. The upper floors of the building now house law offices. On the ground floor, at street level, there is a row of trashcans to the left of what must have once been the immensely grand front door, waste repositories for an Italian diner, a McDonalds and a Starbucks. The degradation is not lost on me – nor the irony of the presence of Starbucks in a city once famed for the quality of its coffee and the literary milieu of its coffee-houses.
It is a triptych of reasons that has brought me to Vienna, all hinged together. The first is a long-held desire to see this cradle of European civilization, this architectural wonder of a city, seat of the Hapsburgs who ruled Spain and the Spanish empire for two centuries, Hungary and Bohemia for a further two, and Austria itself for over 600 years. Imperial palaces, royal residences, fairy-tale castles and colonnaded museums are liberally sprinkled around, their facades of blinding-white marble and plaster, like massive wedding-cakes. Vienna is a city of aching beauty and impossible luster.
Second, the music. Mozart, of course and Beethoven, indubitably, with Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, a dynasty of Strausses and Lehar hot on their heels. The lives of all these musicians were intricately bound up with Vienna, whose opera house, tellingly, is bigger than its central railway station. Modern-day Vienna, meanwhile, is home to a staggering eight full symphony orchestras, eight major concert venues and is peppered with smaller concert halls and music schools. Even on the plane coming over from London, the earnest young man sitting next to me was scribbling away at a score. Music is everywhere around this city, even in the skies above it.
Third and most importantly, I had fears of my own to assuage. Twenty years ago, I swore off ever visiting a German-speaking city in Europe again after a night spent in a hotel room near Munich close to the railway so I tossed and turned as I heard the trains chugging back and forth wondering what human cargo had traveled those lines before. It was Jewish Vienna, or the remains of it, I was now ready to see.
A potted history, not that you can put this monumental history into any pot. Few European cities have a Jewish history as intertwined with its civic and social history as Vienna. A Jewish community had flourished here since the 12th century, but was disbanded by means of the Vienna Geserah (or “decree”), at the command of Duke Albert V in 1420. Imprisonment, starvation and executions ensued, culminating in the mass suicide of the city’s remaining free Jews in the Or-Sarua Synagogue, in the city’s Judenplatz, in the very heart of the city.
But Jewish life was never fully extinguished, so much so that Vienna’s Jews, having once again started to grow in significant numbers, were again expelled in 1624, under Leopold I. Only in the mid-18th century, slowly at first under Maria Theresa, and later under Joseph II and his Edict of Tolerance, did Jewish life seriously begin to develop and flourish. A glittering roll-call of Jewish names, with talents across virtually every sphere – including “household” names like Mahler, Wittgenstein, Kafka, Freud and Schoenburg – were born in Vienna or called it home. By 1938, the community numbered 180,000, with 22 synagogues, a further 50 prayer houses or temples, theological seminaries, schools, libraries, newspapers, Yiddish theaters, kosher kitchens, a pair of orphanages, a Jewish Museum.
But the Anschluss sounded the death-knell of Jewish life in Vienna and Kristallnacht, eight months later, sealed it. Of the nearly 200,000 Jews living in Austria before the War – nearly all in Vienna – 125,000 fled and 65,000 were deported to concentrations camps. After the War, some 2,300 survivors returned to Vienna from the camps, but most of them wanted to leave again as soon as possible.
The present-day Jewish Museum in Vienna comprises two sites. The first, in the city’s central Judenplatz, centers on its ancient community. It stands on the site of a destroyed medieval synagogue, the recent excavations of which form part of the modern museum. The Judenplatz is also home to Vienna’s Holocaust Memorial, known as the Nameless Library. Designed by British artist Dame Rachel Whiteread, the cement block, which seems at first to be a kind of bunker, on closer inspection shows itself to be a library, but with the pages of the books turned outwards so that we cannot see their titles. Around the base of the block are inscribed, in alphabetical order, the names of the 45 concentration camps where Austrian Jews were murdered, from Auschwitz to Źámosc. (At the request of the artist, the memorial was not given an anti-graffiti coating. As Whiteread has explained, “If someone sprays a swastika on it we can try to scrub it off, but a few daubed swastikas would really make people think about what’s happening in their society.”)
A second memorial (and tellingly, the first state-funded one) in the city’s Ostarrichi Park – the Shoah Wall of Names Memorial – bears the names of each of the 64,400 Jews known to have perished. It was inaugurated in November 2021, on the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht.
The second Jewish Museum site, meanwhile, just a few minutes’ walk away from Judenplatz, looks further at the history of the community, from the Middle Ages to the Shoah. It delves in to the golden years of Viennese Jewry in the late 19th century (one of the more esoteric exhibits is Theodore Herzl’s bicycle, suspended from the skylight roof of the museum) but also documents the rise of rabid anti-Semitism from the turn of the 20th, long pre-dating the holocaust. In a permanent exhibition on the ground floor, the growth of the post-war community is explored, describing, in the museum’s own words, “the development, in spite of the unhelpfulness of Austrian post-war politicians, of an almost completely destroyed Jewish community to its present-day modest but highly dynamic presence.”
Viewing the exhibition, for me, as for many I expect, it was the decision of some Jews who had survived the war to return to Vienna after it and stay on which I found especially perplexing. I am not Viennese, not of Austrian descent, and nor did I lose any direct family, thank God, in the Holocaust, but still it is hard to imagine wanting to return to this impossibly beautiful city, to live in the benighted shadow of the Shoah.
When Elisabeth de Waal, née Ephrussi, returned to the Ephrussi palace, her childhood home, in December 1945, she was in for a surprise. That her former world, the palace itself, the art and the treasures, were all gone, she already knew. But, admitted to the building by the American army personnel who now occupied it, looking around for something, for anything to salvage – a faded photo perhaps, a knick-knack – a kindly lieutenant mentioned an old lady, Anna, who still lived there, and whom he said might be able to help her. And so it was that Anna, a former Ephrussi parlor-maid, was reunited with Elisabeth and presented her with the netsuke, the 264 Japanese miniatures she, Anna, had cannily taken from their display case in small batches and deftly tipped in to the pockets of her apron, later stitching them into the mattress of her bed, pretty much under the eyes of the marauding Nazis as they had begun to plunder the house eight years earlier.
Elisabeth herself had no wish to remain in Vienna. She brought the netsuke back to Tunbridge Wells in England and later gave them to her brother Ignaz (Iggie), who had settled in Japan, coincidentally returning them to their country of origin. Iggie, in turn, bequeathed them to his great-nephew Edmund de Waal, Elisabeth’s grandson, and once again, in 1994, the miniatures found their way to England.
Fast forward nearly 30 years. On a bitterly cold New York winter’s day in January, with the wind whipping down Fifth Avenue and around the corner of 96th Street, I joined an early morning line of people waiting for admission to the New York Jewish Museum. Huddled against the cold, we were perhaps a curious assortment, as museum visitors inevitably are. I observed the waiting group – some fans of de Waal’s memoir among us, for sure; two heavily-accented German or Austrian couples, smartly dressed and coiffed; a stooped older lady. I listened to snippets of their conversations with interest. “It’s not pronounced net-soo-kee,” a crop-haired Brooklyn intellectual-type was briefing her companion as we waited on the icy sidewalk, “it’s net-skee.”
“The Hare with Amber Eyes” exhibition opened at the Jewish Museum last November, telling the story of the Ephrussi family’s rise to prominence, the splendor of its heyday, and its ultimate demise at the hands of the Nazis. And along with other family records and ephemera, at its center are the netsuke themselves, which since the publication of de Waal’s book have acquired an almost totemic power.
As for the poor, lop-eared hare, it is a nervous, plaintive little thing, which seems to wear its immense fame with slight self-consciousness. In truth, it would be easy to miss him if you did not know his story.
Soon, along with his other netsuke companions (in 2018, Edmund de Waal sold 79 of the original 264 pieces, the proceeds of the sale going to the UK Refugee Council charity) the hare will return to the Jewish Museum in Vienna, where it will join the remainder of the family archive now on permanent loan from the de Waal family. Generations on, continents crossed, Vienna seems the most fitting home for these remarkably well-traveled carvings.
As for me, I have seen Vienna now, its municipal splendor, its gleaming palaces, its imposing concert halls, its grand and gemütlich coffee houses, but its ravishing loveliness comes at a price far beyond any admission ticket. In the end, there is something ‘not quite right’ about loving Vienna too much. Comfort itself makes us uncomfortable. As Simon Wiesenthal, himself a longtime Vienna resident put it at the opening of the Vienna Holocaust Memorial, in 2000, “This monument shouldn’t be beautiful, it must hurt.”
Well, it does, as Vienna, for all its beauty, hurts. I think it always will.
The Hare with Amber Eyes exhibition at the New York Jewish Museum runs until May 15th. For more information, visit www.thejewishmuseum.org.