The Rabbit of Our Conscience

Die Presse, November 6, 2019.

German original:

The exhibit “Die Ephrussis” is the visual climax of a year-long rapprochement with Vienna of a family expelled by the Nazis. Very moving.

It is difficult to tell this story without drowning in a thick layer of nostalgic, Viennese whipped cream, something that Edmund de Waal would love to avoid – as he emphasized during a press conference in the Jewish Museum Vienna on the exhibit about his family. Too late, one thinks. However, he has no small part in the temptingly sentimental reading of the family’s fate, expelled from Vienna by the Nazis, and whose descendants now reconsiliate with the city. About ten years ago, the emphatic ceramic artist formed his genealogical research into one of the most moving historical novels, the bestseller Der Hase mit den Bernsteinaugen (The Rabbit with the Amber Eyes).

With the fame came the wooing – for himself, for the Netsuke-collection (Japanese figurines carved from wood or ivory), which, suddenly made famous by the book, had become a symbol of survival. The Jewish Museum Vienna under the direction of Danielle Spera apparently wooed most convincingly: Two years ago, the family - who today is dispersed all around the world – donated their archive to the museum and loaned the remaining Netsuke for ten years. Visual climax of this rapprochement of the Ephrussi descendants is the exhibition that opened yesterday. It was accompanied by the first gathering of 42 family members since 1938 in the former Palais Ephrussi (Universitätsring 14) the evening before. Today an office building, it was the first Ringstrasse – Palais to be aryanized in 1938. The expulsion of the second-most important banking family after the Rothschilds was an act celebrated by the Nazis.

We Restituted Ourselves as a Family

Despite the usual bureaucratic hurdles by which Austria attempted to prevent Survivors’ claims after the war, an extensive restitution of possessions and the art collection succeeded in 1950. For example, to the mother of the Anglican priest Victor de Waal, who resided in England at the time – today the only family member who experienced the time in Vienna as a child. “We restituted ourselves as a family to this city,” he said during the family gathering Monday evening. Who could listen to this unconcernedly?

Still, no happy end says Victor’s son Edmund. This exhibition is designed to remind, also regarding the current political situation in Europe, regarding the problems with anti-Semitism and refugees. So, away with the whipped cream for this reason. Look closely. This is also necessary while looking at the display case with six delicate, white ceramic vials that Edmund de Waal put at the beginning of the exhibit. One thinks everything is grasped quickly. Then, maybe one recognizes the shadows of the other receptacles, penetrating through a double back wall made of frosted glass. It is one of his “Memory” – objects, say de Waal. It fits wonderfully. It prepares the display case, which acts as a combining element, as glass protection for the valuable Netsuke – collection. Its delicate little animals and figurines move as a happy miniature herd through the entire family story, told in a pleasantly straight manner by the curators, Gabriele Kohlbauer-Fritz and Tom Juncker, with archival documents, video-interviews, furniture and paintings: from the ascent of the Ephrussis as “grain kings” in Odessa to the bankers’ dynasty in Paris, to the construction of the palais in Vienna by Theophil Hansen.

So Conciliatory, Hard to Believe

The Nazi-era is not orchestrated as a rupture, but as one chapter among many. The Nazis could not destroy this family, they exist, they take us to England, Mexico, Japan – and back again to Vienna, where one can listen to Edmund de Waal during an interview with Spera, talking about the reasons to move the archive here. Despite his fear of whipped cream: this exhibit is conciliatory to such an extent that makes it hard to believe. One pendent restitution case seems to be solved: the battle painting Franz Adams, which curator Juncker had found in the Museum of Military History a few months ago even was borrowed. In 2021, the entire exhibit will be shown at the Jewish Museum New York. Which is only worthy of Edmund de Waal’s great-grandmother Emmy, in her lifetime described as the “last beautiful, mundane woman.”

By the way, it is said that it was her maid Anna, who saved the Netsuke – collection from the Nazis in her apron and returned it to the family after the war.

This Anna is one of the mythical figures in the rabbit – novel. She was only talked about within the family, but there is no historical evidence for her existence. Historian Oliver Rathkolb, too, doubts her existence in the exhibit catalogue – but maybe it is just people’s affection for whipped cream.