- 30 May 18
With the recent rise of the far right in Europe and the US, Edmund de Waal’s classic memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes offers a chilling warning from history.
Edmund de Waal’s memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes did the rounds up here on Hog Heights after it was published in 2010. It has a special resonance for us. Our late beloved chatelaine took it with her when she set out on a mission not unlike de Waal’s – to uncover the story of her grand-aunt Elizabeth, who died in Istanbul in the 1930s.
It had been a lifelong interest, piqued by a small file of documents, moved from one house to another over 70 years. Elizabeth had worked as a governess in fin-de-siecle Paris, then Biarritz early in the Great War, followed by Madrid in 1917, the Basque country in the early 1920s and finally Istanbul in 1926. She died there in 1930 at 59 years of age.
Her last employers were an Italian Sephardic Jewish family, Matteo and Suzanne Tazartes. The couple were married in the Italian synagogue in Constantinople. They had two children. Aldo was born in 1924 and Giorgio in 1927. Elizabeth lived with them in the Karakoy Building, at the north end of Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn across to Eminönü. It is still there, full of financial services. Matteo Tazartes ran a large tobacco company. But he was also a Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur, an award conferred for services rendered to France, and the Couronne d’Italie.
De Waal is one of the best known potters in Britain, famed for his porcelain bowls and beakers. In his book he tells of inheriting 264 Japanese netsuke from his great uncle Iggie. These are wood and ivory carvings of animals, plants and people, none larger than the palm of his hand. They were bought from a dealer in Paris during the craze for japonisme in the 1870s by Charles Ephrussi, a relative of his great grandfather, Viktor.
Like the Tazartes, the Ephrussis were a Jewish family, though much richer. Fabulously successful bankers, for centuries they rivalled the Rothschilds. Charles liked beautiful things but tired of the netsuke: he sent them to Vienna as a wedding present for his cousin Viktor.
War came, the Austro-Hungarian empire imploded. The ’20s and ’30s saw economic collapse and, in turn, the rise of the far right. One day men with swastika armbands raided the Ephrussi home, taking many things but not the little carvings.
The family fled after the Anschluss. Viktor’s wife Emmy committed suicide in their country house in Czechoslovakia. He and his children made their way to Britain. After the war his daughter Elizabeth, de Waal’s grandmother, returned to Vienna to see what was left. A maid had hidden the netsuke in her mattress.
We can’t say if the Ephrussis knew the Tazartes. Perhaps they did, as two Jewish business families might. Then again, maybe not. But there are parallels. Both even had business in Istanbul at the same time.
As for the Tazartes, Matteo proved a generous employer. After Elizabeth’s death, he paid for her funeral and ensured that her affairs were in order and her possessions returned to her family in Ireland. That being so, it came as a dreadful shock to our chatelaine to discover that the Tazartes went to live in Paris before the war and had moved to Nice as the Nazi grip tightened, hoping to evade deportation. It was in vain. They were rounded up, probably sacrificed by the spineless Vichy government that Marine le Pen admires.
Detailed documentation can be found online for Camp de Drancy, an internment camp near Paris. Matteo’s occupation is described as Import – Export director. There are even copies of the carbon receipts issued for the family’s jewellery while they were detained. On June 30, 1944 the whole family were deported from Drancy to Monowitz-Buna, a concentration camp near Auschwitz. All perished there in July 1944.
Along with 76,000 Jewish people, deported from France, they are commemorated on the Shoah Memorial in Paris. As we contemplate the rise of the far right across Europe we must not forget what happened. Their decency, kindness and conscientiousness proved no protection in the face of the exterminators.
Antisemitism has a long and dishonourable history in Europe and not only in eastern parts. Martin Luther was notoriously hostile to Jews. Sephardic Jews like the Tazartes were expelled from Spain in the late 15th century.
Leopold Bloom, whose peregrinations around Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses are famous, was a Jew of Lithuanian descent. Like many of immigrant background, he too comes up against sneering prejudice in the person of The Citizen, who asks Bloom “What is your nation, if I may ask?” It is a telling exchange. The Citizen embodies a narrow, sectarian nationalism, that flourished here until the end of World War II, and which has risen again like the undead. Its targets now include Muslims, refugees and Africans.
We must never stop looking into the hell where that poisonous, cancerous ideology led. We must resist its call here, in Europe or America. But nor can we ignore other painful truths. Just as Jews wandered through history, so too have Palestinians over the last 70 years since Israel was established.
Israel was planned long before the Nazis rose from the slime. But the Holocaust drove the establishment of the new state, fired by a determination that such a thing could never happen again: the state would be a haven for persecuted Jews worldwide.
It seems incomprehensible, then, that Israelis would create the conditions we now see in Gaza. With their history, knowing what they know, how can they justify what’s happening?
Do they not understand that the establishment of their state in 1948 meant the disenfranchisement of the Palestinians, their separation from land and place? From their own ancestral experience, do they not understand that the anguish of the dispossessed echoes in the very rocks and stones of the land that has been sequestered?
With their own history of extermination, how can they massacre innocent children?
On Hog Heights, we have always accepted the need for a Jewish homeland. What happened to the good and generous Tazartes simply reinforced that core belief. But what that homeland has become and what is being done right now in its name, is indefensible. It has become a rogue state and should be treated as such, boycotts and all. Fuck Trump, fuck Netanyahu. We should not move our embassy to Jerusalem. As for Eurovision 2019, either send someone to sing a simple pro-Palestinian protest song or don’t enter.