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.