Growing up in the US, Hadley Freeman noticed that her glamorous grandmother Sala was often sad, but she was only prompted to investigate the reason for this by the discovery, after her death, of a shoebox containing a motley collection of mementos: photos of Sala ripped into quarters partly taped together, or in the company of an unknown man whose face had been erased; a metal POW tag from 1940; a drawing on a “scrappy piece of paper” signed “Avec amitié, Picasso”.
Hadley Freeman’s often poignant account of what turned out to be her father’s family history from the turn of the C19 will strike a chord with many Jewish readers: poverty in a Polish shtetl (Jewish village), driven to emigrate by a pogrom in the aftermath of World War 1, finding opportunities in Paris, but feeling the bitter sense of rejection when forced into hiding, or to move on yet again in order to survive when France was overrun by the Nazis.
In fact, the Glass family suffered less as a result of the second World War than most ordinary Jewish families. What sets the Glass family apart is the remarkable success and wealth ultimately gained by two of the author’s great uncles. Handsome, self-effacing Henri invented the Omniphot, a machine capable of copying a variety of documents at different scales, including the reproduction of blueprints on microfilm – clearly in demand during wartime. Pugnacious, volatile Alex possessed an unlikely artistic streak which enabled him to become a successful producer of “high fashion” and later a collector and dealer in art to celebrities, who cultivated the friendship of people in high places, including Christian Dior and Picasso.
This biography has been hyped by readers who seem undeterred by the way it is padded out with repetition, a fair amount of trivia, and some rather superficial and subjective analysis. The space given to speculation is perhaps inevitable since the narrative often seems to revolve round Alex, who proved an inveterate “myth-maker”, concealing and rewriting his past to suit his purposes. Did he really escape from a moving train bound for the death camps, by trading on the good will of a tall companion (whom he left to perish) to lift him up to a convenient hole in the carriage roof? Did he find a safe hiding place by exploiting a connection with a comrade-in-arms from his days in the Foreign Legion, who ironically was engaged simultaneously in deporting Jewish people from France to Germany? Is it an exaggeration to claim that post-war, “despite the surface fabulousness of Alex’s life, his business was crippled by debts, and he would go for days without eating in order to pay his staff of 150”? Particularly in the light of Alex’s unreasonable detestation of his sister-in-law’s fluency in German, which she had acquired long before the rise of the Nazis, the author takes an indulgent view of his willingness to work with suspected wartime collaborators, designing costumes for a Parisian ballet director “for the career-saving sum of 500,000 francs”. Such details are hard to follow and “square up” at times, and frankly somewhat wearisome.
It is a pity that, in the paperback version, the numerous family photos embedded in the text are generally too small and dark to see the details clearly. The focus on a particular family may help readers to empathise with their situation, but if the underlying aim was really “to know the past in order to understand the present and plan properly for the future”, to paraphrase Chaim Potok’s observation which Hadley Freeman cites, there are too many important broader aspects e.g. political aspects concerning Israel, which this overlong story omits to explore.