This month, the Balfour Society were delighted to host Edmund de Waal via webinar, who told us the poignant story of his family’s experience of Nazi persecution in Vienna, and his own journey to uncover their history.
Mr de Waal’s discovery began when he inherited 264 Japanese netsuke, appropriate for someone so drawn to ceramics, from his great uncle Iggie in Tokyo. It transpired that these netsuke were initially owned by his family, the Ephrussis, and amazingly survived the Nazi occupation of Vienna and imposition of Aryanisation policies, hidden in a mattress by the family’s Austrian maid. De Waal explained the astonishing story of the Ephrussis, the subject of his highly acclaimed book The Hare with Amber Eyes. It is, as de Waal puts it, ‘the story of the ascent and decline of a Jewish dynasty, about loss and diaspora and the survival of objects.’
Throughout this moving reminder of the reality so many Jews faced in the mid-20th Century, Mr de Waal provided the audience with thoughtful historical, artistic and cultural reflections on the fall of a great Jewish family. He also spoke about his own art and his current exhibition at the British Museum, Library of Exile, which exposes visitors to an instillation of more than 2,000 books written by exiled authors. It was exceptionally powerful to hear how the library would be donated to the University of Mosul, whose library was sadly destroyed by ISIS in 2015.
Mr de Waal’s talk was thought-provoking, engaging and moving, and had something in it for everyone. Yet his central message shone through, that through the horrors of persecution the resilience of the oppressed remains, and we must tell their stories. We thank Mr de Waal for sharing his thoughts with us in lockdown.