Consider this the non-fiction family history as potential Netflix saga, with dramatic opening scene already written and ready to shoot. The protagonist: Hadley Freeman, a long-time staff writer for the Guardian with roots on both sides of the Atlantic, who makes a pilgrimage to her grandmother's house in Florida and discovers an entire world in the back of the wardrobe.
The grandmother, Sala Glass (originally Glahs), was something of an enigma, a wartime transplant to middle America who never quite fit, and who held fast to her identity as a fashionable and glamorous French resident for the decades-long duration of her displacement. However necessary her exile, she never fully accepted it. Sala lived a life of the proverbial quiet desperation in suburban America, married to a man she did not love.
Hers was a story of tragic salvage: denied her own chosen path, she devoted herself to her children and her husband, subsuming her own identity in that classic 1950s act of wifely self-sacrifice. Even in her autumn years in Miami she still seemed the eternal castaway. "My grandmother would sit under an umbrella, separate from us. She was further protected from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat, various Hermes – or Hermes-esque – silk scarves wound in complicated knots around her neck, mini Dior handbag in her lap. She looked as distinctly French as my grandfather looked American, with the naturally soft, elegant looks of a Renoir painting but now overlaid with the melancholy of a Hopper one."
With that simple metaphor Freeman sums up the schism in her grandmother’s life, and her own heritage. Not that she expected to trace all of this when she found a shoebox in the back of that closet containing a Red Cross telegram, a prisoner’s name plate and a signed Picasso sketch. It was in fact the compulsion to unearth the provenance of these artefacts that sent the writer on an 18-year journey through the bloodlines of her own family. The result, this book, her fourth, is an examination of the pre- and postwar Jewish experience as viewed through the prism of the Glass siblings, her ancestors.
Star of the show
Sala's story is the soul of the book, the melancholy fable that haunts its quieter moments, but the star of the show is her brother Alex. Larger than life, gregarious, resourceful, passionate, tough, quick to anger, this was a man who worked himself – and his siblings – out of near destitution, ending up as a regular patron of the most elegant nightclubs of Paris, a gifted couturier and an even more gifted hustler. When the Nazis stole the spoils of his business, Alex started again from scratch, hauling himself up the greasy pole of high society until he could count Christian Dior and Pablo Picasso among his friends.
“As a salesman,” Freeman writes, “Alex united the schmooze of French designers with the pushiness of the market traders in the Pletz and back in Chrzanow, and it was an extremely effective combination.”
Alex was also an inveterate spinner of yarns, and despite the unreliable nature of his narration, it was his unpublished memoir that provided Freeman with the answers to so many of her questions, and which animated many of the mysteries of her ancestral past, including the tragic fates of the other Glass brothers: Jules (who invented the Omniphot microfilming machine) and Jacques (a French Foreign Legionnaire).
But House of Glass is not always a comfortable read for the modern European. Freeman is measured but blunt in her assessment of how sovereign nations threw their Jewish citizens under the Nazi bus. Polish anti-Semitism was endemic from the first World War on, she contends, and the modern-day spin doctors of officialdom are now engaged in comprehensive retro-historical whitewash operations. As for France, the Vichy government, she reports, didn't just facilitate Nazi surveillance and targeting of Jews, but went so far as to collaborate with the Reich, supplying the architects of the Final Solution with more information than they ever demanded.
In this regard, House of Glass is not just an epic personal odyssey; it’s an indictment of official history and a nuanced investigation into the nature of Jewish identity. As literature, it’s exhaustively researched, with a prose style that weighs in somewhere between professionally scrupulous and unfussily buffed. Sometimes it’s as well to be educated as entertained.
Peter Murphy is the author of the novels John the Revelator and Shall We Gather at the River (Faber)