I just heard an absolutely compelling interview with Edmund de Waal, author of the memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2011). De Waal, one of England’s most respected ceramicists, a the fifth-generation heir, inherited an exquisite collection of Japanese carvings. De Waal knew very little about his Jewish roots until he started to explore his family’s history. (He was raised in an Anglican British family.) Listening to him telling his story I realized how much my own story is connected with my family’s Jewishness, with antisemitism, with WWII, and, of course, with wealth. De Waal talks about discovering deep wells of hiddenness in his family history, and that the hiddenness arose out of their place in Viennese society as wealthy, art-collecting, assimilated Jews. Everything came crashing down after Hitler came to power.
My own family, assimilated Jews in the United States, were both active supporters of a synagogue and deeply antisemitic. If this sounds like a contradiction, it is. But it is true nonetheless. I now believe that their antisemitism arose from a profound shame of their Jewishness. I have my mother’s diaries from trips to Europe during her childhood and young adulthood: with her parents she visited her Jewish cousins in various cities in Germany. She wrote fondly of how kind they were, the rich foods they ate, and their “cute” children. Many years ago I started to wonder why my mother had never mentioned any of these people who clearly meant something to her. My conclusion was startlingly obvious and painful: they died in the Holocaust. I will never know the details, but in my heart I know this to be true. Yet my parents never mentioned antisemitism or the Nazis. I grew up in complete ignorance. Hiddenness was a mute but powerful theme in my family, and I learned to hide so much of who I was. I too experienced antisemitism growing up but lacked the emotional maturity to deal with it. And I felt deep shame about my wealth, which I tried my best to hide.
Writing this is risky for me: I have not yet been so personal, or revealed so much, in this blog. I am starting to understand that the wealth was both a source of pride — especially for my father, who grew my mother’s modest inheritance into a fortune. But there was also ambivalence and paranoia. My parents used to speak disparagingly of various Jewish couples they new, describing them as “nouveau riche.” To them, this meant “vulgar.” My parents were confident that they themselves were not nouveau riche, and they prided themselves on their “good taste.” But they were ostentatious, just like the people they disparaged, and their good taste was more apparent than real.
There is more to say about this subject, but not today. I am leaving in a few days for two weeks, and I am too distracted to explore this further. But I’ll be back with this fascinating subject.The interview with De Waal is not yet on the Web site of the CBC radio program called Writers and Company. If it shows up before I go away I will pass it along.