Hiding in plain sight
Netsuke can take care of themselves - even against Nazis.
These Japanese figurines carved usually in wood or ivory are more durable than they look, made to be handled, even by children.
One valuable collection of 264 netsuke even survived a Nazi onslaught, shielded by their very diminutiveness and human bravery and ingenuity.
This collection was owned by a family of Jewish bankers, originally purchased in the 1870s in Paris. In 1899, the owner gave the netsuke to relatives in Vienna. Hitler was ten years old. Time would bring only trouble.
Edmund de Waal is an eminent British potter and current owner of these netsuke, which changed countries, and continents, several times. He recounts their travels, and travails in Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2010).
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The Orient Express
De Waal, a Cambridge-educated ceramicist whose porcelain is exhibited in museums around the world, inherited his Dutch-sounding surname from his grandfather Hendrik, a Dutch Protestant. Hendrik's wife (de Waal's grandmother) was Elisabeth Ephrussi, from a Jewish banking family.
Originally from Berdichev in the northern Ukraine, the Ephrussis moved to Odessa and traded grain profitably enough to start their own bank. This business prospered too, and soon Bank Ephrussi was a major financial player in Vienna and Paris.
The original bank remained in Odessa but the family didn't. All of the founding members relocated, primarily to Vienna and Paris. Maurice Ephrussi, a son of the founder, married a Rothschild.
In Paris in the 1870s, Odessa-born Charles Ephrussi sidestepped the family's banking business but used his wealth from that business to pursue his interests in art and literature. He acquired a valuable collection on paintings (his circle of friends and acquaintances included Renoir, Degas and Proust), and when Japonisme became fashionable in Europe, he bought all 264 netsuke in one go.
Charles, a childless 50-year-old bachelor, gave his entire netsuke collection to his Vienna-based cousin Viktor and his bride Emmy as a wedding gift in 1899. If Charles had had children of his own, his collection might have remained in Paris, and his wedding gift might have consisted of a Renoir.
Ivory and wood are the preferred materials for netsuke, and lions along with rats and people are the preferred subject matter. Ivory and amber combine to give this hare red eyes.
Too Small to be a Big Deal
Where do you put a large collection of small things in a 24-room mansion also home to Old Master paintings, statues, gold and silver objets d'art, a vast book collection, furniture and other valuable items?
The netsuke ended up in a display case in Emmy's dressing room, unseen by visitors but easily accessible to the four children she would have with Viktor: Elisabeth (the author's grandmother), Gisela, Ignace (Iggie; the author's great-uncle and later owner of the netsuke) and Rudolf.
Four decades later, Hitler annexed his native Austria to Germany. Viennese anti-semitism, omnipresent but normally subdued, burst into pre-genocidal fury.
Within weeks of the Anschluss, the Gestapo occupied the Ephrussi mansion. They took what they wanted, and what they wanted was almost everything.
Initially they indulged in a mini-orgy of destruction, smashing statues and hurling furniture over the banister. But their mission was more greedy than wilfully destructive, and they had done their homework. They listed several Ephrussi paintings as "museum quality" and sent them to their own museums. They sold other pieces. They also sold the bank to a non-Jewish competitor at a knock-down price; in effect, they gave the prosperous bank to a non-Jewish banking competitor of the Ephrussis. The Nazis retained the building for themselves for use as offices.
Jews were being apprehended for the crime of being Jewish, and the Ephrussis were no exceptions. Viktor and his son Rudolf were arrested, although Emmy was left alone.
The other members of the family might also have been taken away except that all of them were safely out of Austria at that time: Elisabeth and Hendrik (the author's grandparents) lived in Tunbridge Wells; her sister Gisela was in Mexico; her brother Ignace was in America.
After the Nazis released Viktor and Rudolf a few days later, Rudolf fled to America, and his parents escaped to the family's country house in Kövesces, Czechoslovakia. Tensions were high here too, and for Emmy, who had a heart condition, it was the end of the line: she committed suicide. Viktor, 78 years old, made his way to England alone, joining his daughter in Tunbridge Wells.
At around the same time and in roughly the same neighbourhood in Vienna, the Nazis arrested Anna Freud, putting her 80-year-old father Sigmund through a frightening ordeal until her release a few days later. As with the Ephrussis, the Freuds were allowed to leave but only after paying various fees and taxes. Sigmund Freud, an obsessive collector, managed to leave Vienna with his possessions, including a netsuke which still sits on his desk, now at the Freud Museum in London. Freud's Vienna apartment is also a museum, but the bulk of his possession, including the famous couch, are in London.
Some looted art has been returned to the original owners or their descendants (including the Rothschilds - detailed in this December 2012 obituary of Bettina Loram, a Rothschild daughter), a process that continues to the present day. Also see Restitution and Return.
Hare today, gone tomorrow
After the war, Elisabeth travelled to Vienna and went to see what had become of Palais Ephrussi, her childhood home.
To her amazement, Anna, the maid who had been with the family since the marriage of Viktor and Emmy, was still there. As a gentile she did not fear for her life, and the Nazis kept her on because she was familiar with the large property.
And Anna told Elisabeth that the netsuke collection was intact:
"'I couldn't carry anything precious away for you. So I would slip three or four of the little figures from the baroness's dressing-room, the little toys you played with when you were children - you remember - and I put them into the pocket of my apron whenever I was passing, and I took them to my room. I hid them in the mattress of my bed. It took me two weeks to get them all out of the big glass case. You remember how many there were!'"
Elisabeth took the netsuke back to Tunbridge Wells. Although she had two sons of her own, she gave them to her itinerant brother Iggie.
Like his aesthete uncle Charles, Baron Ignace von Ephrussi was drawn less to banking than to art, specifically clothing and fashion. He was also gay - relevant in that his sexual orientation made it likely, although not definite, that he would not have his own children. (Childlessness raises inheritance expectations. De Waal notes that "My grandmother was the expected heir of the fabulously wealthy and childless Jules and Fanny.")
Iggie was quick to see the Nazi handwriting on the wall - being Jewish from a banking family was bad enough, being gay made it worse. He moved to America, more congenial to his personal needs and professional ambitions.
When war broke out, he joined the US Army, which took advantage of his skills as a native German speaker by using him a translator. (He did not translate Hitler's Last Will: one, perhaps two other German-born Jewish soldiers, performed that task.)
Iggie moved to Tokyo, installed the netsuke in the home he shared with his lover, Jiro Sugiyama, who later became Jiro Ephrussi Sugiyama after Iggie formally adopted him. So Iggie had issue after all.
After nearly 50 years as an expat in Japan, Iggie died in Tokyo in 1994. The netsuke passed to Jiro, who, as he explained to Edmund after Iggie's funeral, had already given their long-term ownership some thought:
"Over a glass of wine, Jiro takes out his brush and ink and writes a document and seals it. It says, he tells me, that once he has gone I should look after the netsuke. So I'm next."
Edmund did indeed look after them, buying a surplus vitrine (display case) from London's Victoria and Albert Museum to house them. De Waal has three children. In London, as in Vienna a century earlier, the children are allowed to play with them - just as, some day, they will let their own children play with them.