If you walk along Vienna’s Universitätsring you see them lining the streets – one princely Palais next to another, heralding the pomp and circumstance of the Gründerzeit (Founders’ Era, around 1870-1914). What may be less visible to the eye is that many of these grand palaces were built by Viennese Jewish families, who wanted to share and show off their new success in the booming Habsburg monarchy of the late 19th century.
Only a few decades later, after Austria’s Anschluss to the Third Reich, the Nazi terror put a brutal end to all of this. Jews were persecuted, their property expropriated, and driven out, or murdered if they did not manage to flee the country in time. The Ephrussis were one of those prominent Jewish families, known for their magnificent Palais at Schottentor and their extensive art collection. One of their most exquisite, was a collection of 264 netsuke, carved miniature sculptures which originated in 17th century Japan.
One of the most extraordinary pieces is now back in Vienna: The Hare with the Amber Eye, known from Edmund de Waal’s novel that traces the fate of his family. So too, does the exhibition: “Die Ephrussis. Eine Zeitreise” (“The Ephrussis. A Journey Through Time”), as part of the collection on display until March 8, 2020, at the Jewish Museum Vienna.
A European Jewish Family
The history of the economic and social rise of the Ephrussi began in the port city of Odessa, back then part of the Russian Empire, today in Ukraine. From there, the family gradually spread to the whole of Europe. Soon the Ephrussi were equal in wealth and influence to the Rothschilds.
A branch of the family settled in Paris, where Charles Ephrussi as an art collector and patron promoted French impressionists such as Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet and Auguste Renoir. He was also the one who acquired the Netsuke collection and later gave it to his relatives Viktor and Emmy, de Waal’s great-grandparents, for their wedding. Charles is also credited with inspiring Marcel Proust to write his novel In Search of Lost Time.
Another part of the family moved to Vienna. When Ignaz Ephrussi married Emilia Porges, the Ephrussi sealed their affiliation to the long-established Jewish families of Vienna.
In 1869, Ignaz Ephrussi commissioned Theophil Hansen, the favorite architect of the Viennese upper middle classes, to build a palace at Franzensring 24, now Universitätsring 14. The magnificent building was completed in 1873.
A Homecoming of Sorts
“My father is the only family member still alive who remembers having played in this palace,” said Edmund de Waal on November 5 in Vienna, where he came on the occasion of the exhibition, as did some 40 other family members scattered all over the world. Few of those happy early years were granted, however, to the 90-year-old Victor de Waal, who also travelled to Vienna for the event: The Palais was “Aryanised” in 1938. Humiliated, impoverished and stateless, the Ephrussi fled in all directions.
Only one treasure of the family could be preserved – the tiny Japanese netsuke. This was thanks to Anna, a loyal domestic of the Ephrussis: While the Nazis confiscated and catalogued all the great things in the Palais on the Ringstraße, Anna secretly brought the figures into her room in her apron pocket and hid them in the mattress. After the war she returned the collection to the Ephrussi family, first with the brother of Viktor, Ignaz, who died in exile in 1945, and later with his great-nephew – Edmund de Waal.
Of small things & big changes
A total of 157 parts of this “very large collection of very small things,” as de Waal called it, can now be seen in the Jewish Museum – they are the common thread running through the various stations of the show. The remaining netsuke were auctioned off, with the proceeds to support refugees.
Another core item is the family archive, which was donated to the Jewish Museum last year.
It mainly contains family photos, personal documents, diaries, correspondence, gifts, school photos and reports of theater visits. The archive was somehow saved from the National Socialists – how, is not quite clear. However, Ignaz Ephrussi probably succeeded in sending the archive in a large suitcase from his country estate in Kövecses (Slovak Strkovec) in what was then Czechoslovakia to England in 1939.
Edmund de Waal, who grew up in an Anglican family and had only a vague notion of his family history, spent a lot of time researching in Paris, Vienna and Odessa before he wrote his book. “It was a great journey that changed a lot [for me],” he said in Vienna – and: “Now I don’t quite know anymore where I belong.”
To make this feeling understandable, to show how the big things are connected with very small ones, is the task of this new exhibition in the Jewish Museum.
“Die Ephrussis. Eine Zeitreise.” (“The Ephrussis. A Journey Through Time.”
until 8 March, 2020
Sundays to Fridays, 10.00-18.00