Jewish Museum Exhibit Explores the History of an Author and Looted Holocaust Property
Fans of the best-selling book “The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund de Waal, have just under a month left to see the compelling and historical exhibit at The Jewish Museum. The exhibition, which recreates de Waal’s journey of his Jewish Ephrussi family, opened back in December and runs through May 15.
The well-designed show traces the family’s rise to prominence in the first half of the 19th century, when they became one of the most influential Jewish families in Europe, to World War ll, when they lost their fortune and art collections to the Nazis.
At the centerpiece of the displays, featured in glass cases, are a collection of Japanese netsuke — 168 pieces of miniature carved ivory and wooden sculptures from the Edo period (17th-19th centuries.)
The assemblage of art and artifacts include paintings by Jean-Honore Fragonard, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, and Gustave Moreau. Also seen throughout the galleries are old family photos as well as recent ones, which include the Ephrussis’ grand former residences in Vienna and Paris. There’s also handwritten letters and documents on display, including the marriage certificate of Ignace von Ephrussi and Emilie Porges in Vienna in 1858, and a page from an Austrian export permit issued to Viktor Ephrussi in 1950.
Edmund de Waal first discovered his family’s netsuke when he was a teenager visiting his great uncle, Iggie Ephrussi, in Tokyo. He inherited the collection 20 years later and that led him to write his book, “The Hare with Amber Eyes.”
The Ephrussi family includes prestigious figures from European history who were distinguished financiers, bankers, art collectors and patrons, writers, publishers, and artists. Charles Joachim Ephrussi, the patriarch (1793-1864), earned his fortune as a grain distributor in Odessa. His offspring and their families made their mark throughout the capitals of Europe.
Being a prominent Jewish family in Europe, the Ephrussis were victims of antisemitism. During World War ll, family members managed to escape to England, the United States, and Mexico, but the Nazis stole most of their property. In 1938, the Gestapo arrested Viktor Ephurssi, Edmund’s great grandfather, along with his son, Rudolf. To avoid being sent to a concentration camp, Viktor signed away his assets, homes, art, furniture, jewelry, and more. Their palace was then occupied by the Nazis. Viktor managed to reach England in 1939. Iggie was living in America and Rudolf joined him in 1939. (Among the documents on display, is the first page of the Gestapo inventory of the Ephrussi collections).
After the war, the family was able to trace works of art from the family’s collection. But many works belonging to the Viennese Ephrussis have never been returned.
Visitors to the exhibit can get a tour of the collections room by room, with the use of headphones, listening to de Waal himself narrating. A video of de Waal reading can also be seen in one of the rooms.
The Jewish Museum is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Because of Covid restrictions and safety, tickets are timed to avoid large crowds. Masks are required. www.TheJewishMuseum.org.
Alice Burdick Schweiger is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for numerous magazines including Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, Be Well, Emmy, ASU Travel Guide, and Grand Magazine. She has also written for various Jewish newspapers and co-authored a book with Laura and Jennifer Berman.