When the author and journalist Hadley Freeman was five, her father brought her to France from the USA to meet her European relations. These were the uncles, aunts, cousins and a grandmother, all of them Jewish, who had fled Poland in the wake of the First World War as anti-Semitism spread across eastern Europe and for the most part made Paris their home. Her grandmother, in particular, struck Freeman as deeply, uncomfortably sad. Something lodged in her mind.
Clearing out her grandmother’s cupboards after her death some two decades later, she found tucked at the back of one of them a shoebox filled with photographs, notes, drawings, telegrams and newspaper clippings. The discovery sent her rummaging through the past in an attempt to trace the history of a family whose odyssey was never discussed or alluded to. But this is more than the tale of one family. For, alongside her relations’ often painful stories, Freeman explores the rise and spread of anti-Semitism and xenophobia across modern Europe.
The Glahs family – who renamed themselves Glass and took on French first names – came from the market town of Chrzanów, in what before 1914 was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The three brothers, Jakob, Jehuda and Sender, and their sister, Sala, were thirteen, twelve, eight and four respectively when their physically frail father went off to fight in the First World War. Although against all the odds he survived, by the end of the war the family was very poor and often hungry. In 1920, Jakob left for Paris (where he became Jacques), to be followed after his father’s death by his mother and siblings. France during the years of postwar reconstruction was welcoming to foreign workers: Paris alone received over ninety thousand Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Sender, calling himself Alex, went into fashion; his brothers went into the garment trade. Sala became a painter. They loved France and felt safe.
But France too was drifting into anti-Semitism, encouraged by viciously xenophobic writers such as Céline. With the German occupation in the early summer of 1940, Jews became subject to increasing discrimination. Not long afterwards they began to suffer internment and deportation, many French giving assistance to the Nazis in order to speed up the process. Freeman is rightly harsh about the haste with which the French moved to dispossess and dispose of their unwanted Jews. Three to five million letters denouncing Jews, she reminds us, were written to the authorities during what became known as les années noires. By this time Sala was Sara and had emigrated to the USA, abandoning a fiancé and a country she loved for a long, unhappy marriage. ‘In saving herself’, Freeman writes, ‘she lost everything that made her life worth living.’
Henri (as Jehuda became) invented an early microfilm machine and survived the war in hiding. Alex, a ‘short, heavily perfumed couturier with a taste for the finer things’, joined the French Foreign Legion and later escaped, miraculously, from a train taking Jews to Drancy, the way station to the extermination camps in the east. Only Jacques, persuaded that he needed to obey the laws of his new country, allowed himself to be interned. He was deported to Auschwitz, on the same train as the writer Irène Némirovsky. He was dead by the autumn of 1942.
Freeman is a meticulous, dogged researcher, deftly pulling the strands of these many stories into a narrative and going on to trace the family members’ postwar lives. Sala remained a sad exile and became the mother of two boys, one of them Freeman’s father. Henri went on to make a considerable fortune from his microfilm machine, as did Alex, who refounded his salon and then became an art collector with a prestigious gallery in Paris. Although animosity and simmering resentment kept some members of the family estranged from each other, their lives were for the most part, Freeman writes, ‘successful, quiet and largely anonymous’, as were those of their growing numbers of descendants.
As she travels to the many places from where her relations came and where they settled, Freeman pauses at every step to consider the wider history of the Jews during the 20th century, their migrations and hopes, their accommodations with their new countries and their battles with assimilation. She finds little of comfort as she follows them and their heirs into the 21st century.
With his attacks on Muslims, Donald Trump, Freeman notes, comes from a long line of ‘white men who have set out to make America racist again’. Chrzanów, now in Poland, is a place ‘from which something’s been sucked out’: there are just a handful of Jews in a place where there was once a flourishing Jewish population, and not one of its twenty former synagogues remains. In France, anti-Semitic acts rose by 74 per cent between 2017 and 2018 alone. These facts are well known, as is the history that underpins Freeman’s story; what makes her book so affecting is the weaving of them together. This intelligent and lively book could not be more timely.