I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s paternal grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century – the product of a decade’s worth of meticulous and illuminating research on the part of the author. And yet, it is also a thoughtful meditation on the challenges of being Jewish during this fateful period of history, touching on issues such as identity, immigration, assimilation and social mobility. I’m already saving a place for it in my reading highlights of the year.
My grandmother would sit under an umbrella, separate from us. She was further protected from the sun by a wide-brimmed hat, various Hermès – or Hermès-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. (p. 3)
The discovery of a burnished red shoebox, full of tantalising mementos of Sala’s past, catalyses Freeman’s quest to understand her grandmother’s life and personal history. While the focus of the initial research is Sala, it soon broadens to encompass her brothers, each one possessing an intriguing backstory of his own. The journey is a fascinating one, taking Freeman from Picasso’s archives in Paris to an isolated farmhouse in Auvergne to the concentration camps of Poland.
Sala was born in 1910, the youngest child of Reuben and Chaya Glahs, Polish Jews living in Chrzanow, which at the time was part of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The tension between tradition and progression was already present within the Jewish community at this point. At the age of twelve, Sala’s eldest brother, Jehuda, urges his parents to be ‘less obviously Jewish’, ultimately persuading them to change the family name to the more westernised ‘Glass’ – ‘something simultaneously strong and fragile, able to withstand pressure but prone to breaking’.
In the early 1920s, as pogroms against the Jews begin to sweep through Poland, the family moves to Paris, settling initially in the Marais Pletzl, a rundown area housing many Jewish immigrants – and it is from here that the Glasses begin to establish new lives and personal identities for themselves.
Jehuda becomes Henri, who, following his training as an engineer in Prague, settles in Paris where he works in the garment trade. Marriage to Sonia, a bright, resourceful Polish woman with a talent for languages, soon follows, as does a move into a more lucrative career in photoimaging. In a remarkable turn of events, Henri invents the Omniphot microfilming machine, a device that plays a significant role in the Resistance movement during the Second World War.
Jakob becomes Jacques, a passive, mild-mannered man who finds work as a furrier. A spell in the French Foreign Legion follows in the early stages of the war.
Sender, however, takes a somewhat different path to his older brothers. An ambitious, self-motivated individual at heart, Sender becomes Alex Maguy, a creative genius with a passion for beauty and the best of French culture. Through a combination of artfulness, hard work and determination, Alex works his way up from apprentice in a garment workshop to owner of a couture salon by the age of twenty. It’s a fascinating and successful career, one that brings him into contact with several leading artists and designers of the period, including Christian Dior and René Gruau, both of whom work as illustrators for Alex’s label.
Like Alex, Sara (aka Sala), is captivated by the culture of Paris, a city steeped in art, beauty and fashion. However, just when her life appears to be at its most radiant – she studies art, finds a job and falls in love – political developments intervene, causing the family to take action. In 1937, Alex arranges for Sara to marry Bill Freiman, an American businessman who promises a life of relative comfort and safety. Much to her dismay, Sara must make a terrible sacrifice – to give up her own happiness for the sake of her family, largely in the belief that they will be able to join her in the US.
In what must have been a state close to shock, Sara began to accept that she was going to America to marry a man she didn’t know and liked less. She would never have done it just to save herself. But for her whole family? Of course she went.
[…] The only option open to Sara was the one that countless women had been forced to take before her: marry someone she did not love. It is the traditional form of female sacrifice, so common that it was considered at the time expected and unremarkable. What would have been extraordinary, in the eyes of those around her then, is if she’d refused to do it. (p. 160)
By tracing the lives of Sara/Sala and her siblings, Freeman teases out various differences that prove influential in shaping their destinies. In particular, there are questions around passivity vs action, compliance vs defiance and separateness vs assimilation.
When the authorities conduct a census in France in the early 1940s, Jacques registers as a Jew, firm in the belief that it is better to conform – that his adopted country, France, will ultimately take care of him.
Stay where you are, don’t question things, put your life in the hands of others, just trust – those were Jacques’s natural tendencies. (p. 244)
Sadly, as a consequence of this registration, Jacques is one of the first Jews to be rounded up under the Vichy regime in Occupied France, sealing his fate with a transfer to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, just 20 km from his birthplace of Chrzanow.
Did he [Jacques] wonder why he, alone among his siblings, hadn’t risked anything to stay alive? Why he was the passive one among them and how was this the conclusion to that story? Did he think about the weird irony of his life, how he had always wanted to stay still, but was forced to travel so far, and yet ended up right back where he began? (p. 253)
Henri, on the other hand, is careful to assimilate, quickly seeing the advantages of integration as offering some level of protection. With the help of his wife Sonia – an interpreter fluent in multiple languages – Henri passes as a German during the period of Occupation, thereby enabling him to put the Omniphot to vital use.
Henri and Sonia never registered as Jews. Both of them foresaw the dangers ahead and Sonia, as usual, took charge. She figured out how to buy false identity cards on the black market which claimed they were a Christian German couple, called Class. She also spoke German so fluently she could pass as a native, even to German officers, and Henri could get by. They then rented a tiny apartment on the Avenue des Minimes, under the name of Class, and left almost everything back in their home on rue Victor-Cousin, so it would look to the police who came looking for the Jewish Glasses like they’d simply abandoned it. (p. 209)
Alex, too, takes a different approach, one of outright defiance and self-preservation. Following a distinguished spell in the French Foreign Legion, Alex spends much of the war in the South of France, ultimately hiding out in a farmhouse in the Auvergne for the best part of a year. Once again, it’s a remarkable story, involving a host of anecdotes, brushes with death, and the receipt of favours from friends in high places. Following the war, Alex ultimately becomes a hugely successful art dealer – his friendship with Picasso is something of a highlight, the pinnacle of an illustrious life and career.
By contrast, Sara, who ultimately reverts to being called Sala, is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage, deep in the midst of small-town Long Island. When it becomes clear to Sala that a permanent reunion with her family will not be possible, she throws herself into the lives of her two boys – Ronald, who will become Hadley’s father, and his younger brother, Rich. There are biennial trips back to Paris to see the family – brief opportunities for Sala to re-immerse herself in the wonders of French culture – but these are scant compensation for the opportunities that were passed up.
In summary, then, House of Glass is a wonderfully immersive memoir, one that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility. Topics that remain all too relevant in Europe (and the wider world) today where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.
Freeman presents this story of her family with a blend of humanity, balance and perceptiveness, laying out the siblings’ lives both openly and engagingly. There is a real sense of journalistic rigour here, a thoroughness alongside the insights and reflections. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers with an interest in European history.
House of Glass is published by 4th Estate; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.
Thank you for the excellent review. I just finished this book yesterday and found it very engaging and interesting. The memoir covers a big tapestry of locations, characters and social issues yet the research never weighs it down. It reminded me a little of Hare with Amber Eyes.
Very welcome! Yes, I completely agree with you about feel of the book. The family stories are so immersive – and yet, as you say, they never feel burdened by too much detail or superfluous facts. I’m so glad to hear that you found it interesting too.
I really enjoy her journalism, I think she’s such an engaging writer. I’m sure she would do the powerful and personal story justice, it’s great to hear how much you liked it.
Yes, me too. It was the style of her journalism that drew me to the book. I knew I had to read it at some point, but with everything that’s been happening this year it was just a question of finding the right time. I think it’s a wonderful tribute to Freeman’s family – not just to Sala but to the other siblings too
I’m glad to see you are enjoying more memoirs these days Jacqui, although I know not your fav- ourite form. I see you are also reading Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling. There was a superb review by Julian Barnes in The Guardian a few years ago.
Yes! The Margaret book is terrific, so entertaining and fascinating even for a non-royalist like me. :-)
I shall take a look at that Julian Barnes piece, especially as I probably won’t find the time to write about the book. Thanks for the tip!
I don’t read nearly enough non-fiction but this one’s been on my radar for some time, mainly because of Freeman’s journalism. A deeply personal story of one family which must stand for so many.
Yes, I think that’s a great point. There’s something valuable to be gained from reading about the experiences of one particular family, by delving into their stories in depth, as a means of understanding some of the broader issues at play. What struck me about this this memoir was the questions it raises around cultural integration within communities. For instance, the value of assimilation vs remaining separate. Henri and Alex were mindful of the need to assimilate following their moves to France, albeit for different reasons. Henri was driven by a desire to survive, Alex by a desire to achieve / to make a name for himself. The contrast with Jacques — who declared himself Jewish in the belief that France would offer him protection against the Germans — is very marked. That’s probably putting it a bit too simplistically. Nevertheless, I think these comparisons give us some valuable insights into the issues, many of which remain all too relevant today…
Your final point is all too true. Since travelling more in Central and Eastern Europe I’ve visited museums which explore personal stories in a similar way. It can be a little overwhelming. A book offers a much deeper understanding.
What a wonderful post, Jacqui. The book sounds tremendous and definitely the kind I would read. There are so many stories from the 20th century that deserve to be told and although this is one of many, it sounds remarkably powerful.
I think you would appreciate this one, Karen, especially after your response to East West Street. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some resonance between the two…
This does sound like a fabulous memoir, I like these books that explore a period of time through the lives of a family. A seemingly fascinating collection of people and places, no wonder you rate it so highly. Judging by the quotes you’ve picked out, I can tell it is written beautifully too.
Yes, me too – although I hadn’t read anything quite like it for a while before picking this up. It’s such an absorbing book – absolutely fascinating but also emotionally draining as it’s very hard not to become fully invested in the personal stories. I think you’d really like it if you’re ever in the mood…
I like Freeman’s journalism and this sounds like a really absorbing memoir.
Such a wonderful post Jacqui; though I don’t know Hadley Freeman’s journalism I’d love to read this. The description of the different decisions the brothers took is fascinating. But the assumption that Sala would make the necessary sacrifices and the life she didn’t really want is just heartbreaking.
Thank you. Yes, heartbreaking is the word. The memoir starts with Hadley’s recollections of a family reunion in France (in the mid 1980s, I think), when Sala is briefly reunited with her surviving siblings during a short trip to Europe. It’s such a poignant opening to the book, particularly as Sala is moved to tears by the occasion. All the pent-up emotions come tumbling out… As you say, it’s devastating to learn of the circumstances surrounding Sala’s move to the US in the late 1930. I won’t say much more in case you decide to read it, but the depth/extent of her sacrifices are poignantly conveyed…
I love memoirs but don’t read enough, getting involved in a family is such a great way of finding out about the time from the inside!
Absolutely. I find this kind of memoir much more emotionally involving than a ‘straight’ history book, particularly if I want to learn about experiences at the grass-roots level.
Goodness – another book for the ‘definitely must read’ list.
It’s excellent. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking, if that makes sense.
It does indeed!
This sounds very good. I hadn’t heard of it. Poor Jacques. What a fatal error in judgment. It’s interesting to see how they all chose another way.
I know. Right from the start there’s a sense that Jacques is the unlucky one – the sibling most likely to falter, almost as a direct consequence of his placid nature. I think you’d find it a very interesting read, especially given your war readalongs.
A shoebox, wow, that’s such a wonderful story! I wonder, have you read/heard of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns? It was your use of the phrase “journalistic rigour”, in combination with the obvious engagement and accessibility of this family history, that brought this book to mind. Wilkerson has a way of fully and completely immersing readers in the lives of family members so that you become wholly invested emotionally, in a way which, for me, happens rarely with non-fiction. I’ve put a hold on this one at the library, but there are a lot of readers ahead of me. S’ok…I’ve got a couple of books to read in the meantime.
I haven’t come across the Wilkerson before, so thank you for the recommendation. It’s such a skill to be able to do that, to immerse the reader in a particularly family’s history in a way that feels so emotionally compelling. The other example that springs to mind is Delphine de Vigan’s Nothing Holds Back the Night, in which the author focuses on her mother, a woman who lived a very fractured and troubled life. It’s a tough read emotionally, but very absorbing. The sort of book that doesn’t let go very easily, if you know what I mean…
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