The Ephrussis of Paris and Vienna

My mother, a schoolgirl, leaning on the shoulder of her teacher

The Ephrussis of Paris and Vienna

The book I’ve just finished reading had an impact on me greater than any book I can remember.  By impact, I don’t mean long-term influence on my heart or mind.  I mean something like being kicked in the chest by a horse!

The author, Edmund de Waal, is a young man of mixed background, Jewish on his mother’s side, and the book’s title is The Hare with Amber Eyes.  It refers to one of the tiny Japanese figurines (netsuke) that de Waal — eventually and by a circuitous route – inherited, long after the Nazis had thoroughly pillaged the art works once owned by his mother’s people.

Because Nazis are conceded – even by people who deem all values subjective and relative – to be evil, they have a continuing fascination.  We don’t have experience of anyone or anything that is good unqualifiedly.  But thanks to Hitler, we have at least one moral certainty:

Nazis or Nazism

 — what they believed and acted on —

was evil.

Inevitably, three chapters of my book, A Good Look at Evil, deal with Nazis and Nazism.  In preparing it, I read trial transcripts, memoirs, propaganda, and many of the major works dealing with the Holocaust.  I found this research depressing.  Once, talking in French to a survivor whose large eyes signaled indelible surprise and the permanent anticipation that no one would believe her, I was in tears.  Sometimes, reading about the clergy that went along with Hitler, I was angry.  But I never once felt that I’d been kicked in the chest by a horse.

The Ephrussi, maternal relatives of the author, were among the great Jewish banking families of Europe.  Like the Rothschilds.  They emerged out of Tsarist Russia in mid-nineteenth century, stopping long enough in the port city of Odessa to slightly alter their names along lines more elegant and international.

My mother was born in Odessa.  Her father, my grandfather, was chief rabbi in Odessa, probably some decades after the Ephrussis had emigrated.  I never asked mother about Odessa, though I have a sepia photograph of her from Tsarist days, a soulful Russian schoolgirl, leaning on the shoulder of her teacher.  By the time she was in her teens, the family had moved to Switzerland.  Mother went to high school and university in Lausanne.  But that’s another story.

So my family brushed by the Ephrussi, but we were never as rich or as secular as they.

The Ephrussis had branches in Vienna and Paris, with great mansions in both cities.  The eldest son in each branch was dedicated to the firm.  The younger ones could pretty much march to the beat of their own drummers, personal and idiosyncratic.  Typically, they became avid collectors and, to some extent, tastemakers.  In Paris, Charles, the youngest son, was probably the model for Swann, the hero of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (In Quest of Lost Time).  The family mingled with the beautiful people in the best circles.  They gave stupendous dinners.  They changed clothes three times a day.  Charles patronized and advised the new painters: Degas, Renoir and the rest.

That is, they did all that until the Dreyfus Case, wherein a young French Jewish officer was convicted — on charges later shown to be fabricated — of treason.  L’Affaire divided France.  Needless to say, in the best circles, the anti-Dreyfusards predominated.  Suddenly and uniformly it was “discovered”: the Ephrussis were, after all, Jews!  Their sumptuous dinners, their tasteful at-home teas … were declined.

Meanwhile, all the while, a dull, muffled growl of resentment at Jewish success –in all the walks of life where Jews had any presence – was growing louder.

How predictable!  By any sociological measure, a foreign people — who show more skill than the natives in mastering the arts, sciences, manners and attitudes of the host culture – will be resented.  Now factor in two thousand years of rancor theologically rationalized, but struggling to find new channels in a newly secularized Europe – and one knows that this cannot end well.  It will only be a matter of time.

The kick in the chest to which I allude occurs in the Vienna chapters, where the Nazis have taken over the government and public life … more or less from within.  Here, for want of time and space, I have omitted the author’s loving portrayals of that branch.  The break-in, first by wild, raucous mobs, then by the more orderly Gestapo, is described only in Vienna.

To watch the hate-filled mob tramp through the meticulously ornamented portals and stairways, wresting paintings from their frames, tossing out a collector’s library, throwing majestic pieces of furniture down the stairwell, confiscating or smashing items precious and rare – was extraordinarily shocking.  It sent my whole system reeling.

What does it all mean?  I omit the author’s description of a family terrorized and deprived of every social help.  One has read such stories.  How should the unique features of this one be comprehended?  Why am I so kicked in the chest?

Should it not have been obvious to these faux-Parisians and faux-Viennese that their way of life wasn’t prudent?  If outsiders emulate the mores of the ancient families of Europe – no matter how perfectly they do it – they invite a day of reckoning.   Certainly my grandfather would have known it, intuitively and thoroughly!

But the secularism, the aestheticism, the European-ness of these newly-arrived families was quite sincere.  It was not an affectation.  They were happy to change clothes three times a day and they did it well.

In thy name shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

In what did “the blessing” that God laid on Abraham consist?  Precisely in this: to be a witness to the world of what happens between God and humankind.

The Ephrussi family was situated in one peculiar sector of the European scene — to which they were present unreservedly.

Their presence helps

to make what happened


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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6 Responses to The Ephrussis of Paris and Vienna

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  3. Macon Boczek says:

    I was just reading today about the “scandal of particularity”—the problem of the seeming favoritism of God choosing this tiny, not very important nation for a special role in the redemption of the whole world of human beings. This is not something the Jewish people can escape and they will be instrumental for helping humanity continually even if they are not conscious of it. God’s ways are not our ways. This story reminds me of this role of the Jews as God’s chosen people.

  4. Jerry Schmoyer says:

    Good conclusion! Indeed they were, and still are (those in history and those living today), witnesses to the world of God. Thanks for sharing this writing with us.

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