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Posts Tagged ‘Nazis’

Even though I stopped writing my review column for The New Hampshire Sunday News, I still hear from publishers, publicists, and authors. Often a book from Bauhan Publishing will appear in my mailbox — regular readers of this blog know they are one of my favorite small presses, and they are right here in New Hampshire. I can’t get to every book I’m sent, but recently I opened a package containing a copy of Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence and it looked intriguing. Then I flipped the book over and realized that the author, Paul Levy, lives in my small city, and that his wife is a retired librarian. Bookconscious regulars know I’m a librarian, too. So for no more scientific reasons than those, I decided to read this biography/memoir. Plus, I had a great uncle who served in WWII, who was Jewish and the child of Russian immigrants, like the subject of this book.

Finding Phil is the story of Phil Levy, a young American army officer, fresh out of college, newlywed, and full of a sincere desire to rescue France and defeat Nazi Germany. And it’s the story of his nephew Paul Levy, who describes his uncle’s journey but also his own, as he uncovered the story of a man his parents and other relatives almost never mentioned.

Phil died in France in the Vosges Mountains in January 1945, after being among the first American troops to cross into Germany. Growing up, Paul Levy knew about his uncle but never heard stories about him. When Phil’s widow Barbara died in 1987, her sister sent Paul his uncle’s journal, and that inspired him to learn more. As he did research into his uncle’s childhood, young adulthood, and military service, Paul reflected on not only his family and the silence surrounding his uncle, but also on larger themes of heroism, silence, and belief. He writes about all of that as well as what makes men go off to war and the different ways that shapes them, in Finding Phil.

Along the way he muses on the legacy of social justice and service to others that runs through the Levy family, on what his uncle might have worked for had he come home, and on how subsequent generations might process the atrocities of battle, civilian suffering, and genocide that are WWII’s legacy. Levy writes beautifully, and he clearly thought very deeply about his subject. In one passage, in a chapter describing what he learned about some members of the German unit and even the particular man who killed his uncle, Levy writes:

“Through it [the story of one of these men] I could begin to imagine more nuanced human beings beneath my simple stereotype. Some people might worry that such stories give escape routes to those who want to deny responsibility and that they encourage efforts at revisionist history . . . in which nations, cultures, and peoples try to distance themselves from their histories of deep antisemitism and downplay their complicity in the Holocaust. . . . I believe it is vital to insist on full responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust and to come to grips with the profound reality of engrained antisemitism. It is equally vital to see nuanced human faces beneath our stereotypes lest we fail to recognize how susceptible we all are to cultural demons and dynamics like those that fomented the Holocaust . . . .”

Read that passage again, and think about stereotypes for a second. Paul Levy is talking about considering a German man as a whole person in the context of his life, not just his time as a Waffen SS soldier, but it’s pretty easy to substitute other “cultural demons and dynamics” and think about today’s world. About the prejudices, perhaps subtle or even unconscious, each of us may hold when thinking about people who are part of a different religion, class, culture, or ideology than we are, or whose skin is different than ours. Presuppositions abound in contemporary society about people who live in certain places or do certain jobs. It’s different than antisemitism and Nazism, but our culture is still riddled with the kinds of demons that can incite people to hate or act violently towards each other. Or fall prey to fear mongering and hateful rhetoric and respond by allowing laws or regulations that call attention to difference and deny universal human rights. levy provides much to think about, which I really admire.

One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book was that Levy did not try to artificially build and release tension in his narrative — he lets the natural ups and downs of the story carry readers along. I’ve noticed a tendency in some memoirs to jerk readers’ emotions around, and I think that’s a sign of over-writing or over-manipulating a narrative. Levy instead provides space for readers to process what they are reading. I also learned some things about the war and about people who are preserving the memories of that time, and I love a book that teaches me things.

Finding Phil is a good read whether you are interested in history, war, families, or the mysteries of long-ago memories. Reading about how Levy pieced fragments together into a story made me think again of my great uncle and what I could possibly learn about his war experience (he was stateside, because he was a chemist, but that’s about all I know). Maybe I will attempt to put my own family’s fragments together.

 

 

 

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I’ve had this book on my “to-read” list for over a year, and finally read it for Gibson’s Book Club. I’m very glad I did. The hare in the title is a netsuke, a small Japanese carving that attached to the end of a cord on a small pouch that men hung on their kimono sashes to serve as a sort of external pocket. And The Hare With Amber Eyes is about how the netsuke came into the author’s possession, and where it was before.

Edmund De Waal‘s great uncle Iggie owned a collection of 264 netsuke. De Waal, a world-reknowned ceramicist, studied in Japan, and often visited Iggie and his partner, Jiro, in Tokyo. He learned that the netsuke belonged to Iggie’s parents, Emmy and Viktor Ephrussi, and that Iggie and his siblings played with them as children. They had come to rest in their vitrine in Emmy’s dressing room because Viktor’s cousin Charles Ephrussi had given them to the couple as a wedding gift.

When The Hare With Amber Eyes opens, De Waal recalls learning after Iggie’s funeral that Jiro wants him to “look after the netsuke.” He tells readers that back home in London, he carried a netsuke of a medlar fruit around in his pocket. He thought about where it had come from. He wrote down “the bones” — what Iggie told him about the collection. And he realized he wanted to learn the rest of the story.

He knows “my family were Jewish . . . staggeringly rich, but I don’t really want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.” Instead, he writes, “I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object I am rolling in my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been…. I want to know what it has witnessed.” And a few paragraphs later, “I realize that I’ve been living with this netsuke business for too long. I can either anecdotalise it for the rest of my life – my odd inheritance from a beloved elderly relative — or go and find out what it means.”

And so he does. He really goes — to libraries and archives in London where he can hunt down clues. To Paris. Vienna. Tokyo. Odessa. And in the end, home. And what he learns is fascinating, heart breaking, incredible, and finally, life affirming.

At the book club (and in some reviews) some felt De Waal should have told a more complete story of his family, but he never meant to. Some audiences have asked whether the writing of the book led De Waal to epiphanies about his identity or caused him to pursue restitution — his family’s riches were confiscated by the Nazis. I think all of this misses the point. This a book about connections, between generations, between collectors and object, between what has survived and all that is lost.

De Waal’s approach is to chronicle his imposing relatives as a means of tracing the netsuke, because they connect him to the past. The family is part of his story, yes. The way Charles was cut out of Paris society after the Dreyfus affair (and snubbed by anti-Semite friends Renoir and Degas) the way they were robbed of everything, even their names, by the Nazis. The way Iggie, Elisabeth (De Waal’s grandmother) and their siblings were scattered around the world after the war. The way they became  “. . . a family that could not put itself back together.”

DeWaal writes, “I’m not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago.” He learns how the netsuke moved from 1880’s Paris to early 20th century Vienna to post-war England and Tokyo and now back to London. The family are certainly fascinating. Especially Charles, a friend of many of the Impressionists as well as Proust. And Iggie, the great-uncle who passes the netsuke on to De Waal and who ran away from Vienna and the family bank to be a fashion designer before serving in Normandy as an intelligence officer and becoming, after all, a very successful banker in post-war Japan.

Equally fascinating is the Viennese maid, known only as Anna to De Waal, who stayed with her mistress even after the Anchschluss, and even then played a key part in the story of the netsuke while the Nazis made her work in the Palais Ephrussi as its riches were plundered. And Elisabeth, De Waal’s indomitable grandmother, who got her parents safely out of Vienna, and “provided a kind of centre” for the family diaspora from her new home in England. The incomplete nature of their story is the story — this is a family whose story was fractured, repeatedly, by anti-Semitism in several generations.

Through discussions of literature, art, aesthetics, culture and society, De Waal traces the netuke’s path, as well as his family’s, and tells us what the rooms looked like where they were displayed, what the people who held them wore and talked about and what their lives and cities and world was like. But he doesn’t tell the entire story, and he can’t. He explains, “There are the places in memory you do not wish to go with others.” His grandmother, his great-uncle offered some remembrances, but De Waal notes, “I remember the hesitancies when talking to Iggie in old age; hesitancies that trembled into silences, silences that marked places of loss.” Elisabeth would not talk about Emmy.

“Stories and objects share something, a patina….Perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so the essential is revealed . . . . But it also seems additive.” De Waal has added his patina to the story of the netsuke – he has revealed the humanity in the story of these collectible objects. He has added the staggering wealth and staggering loss, the disrupted lives, and the small moments when people — Proust and Renoir and children and Japanese cocktail party guests and faceless visitors to Charles’ salon or Iggie’s apartment — picked up the netsuke and rolled them, like he did, in their fingers.

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