I will read anything Hadley Freeman writes as a journalist, as she is witty, sensible, has a piercing eye for the unnoticed-but-telling observation, and is always entertaining. Her House of Glass is probably the best biography / memoir I’ve read all year so far. It’s the story of Freeman’s Jewish grandmother and her family, emigrating/escaping from Poland to Paris in the 1930s, and then what happened to the four siblings during the Second World War. The three men moved to Paris one by one in their teens and early twenties. Sala and her mother left last. The four children changed their names, urged on by Alex Glass, because they had already experienced a pogrom in their town at the end of the First World War, and knew that Jews will always be visible to those who want to hunt them down.
Much of House of Glass is about assimilation: what it means, if it ever works and the practical effects of changing your name and leaving family behind, when being Jewish is to be part of a vast network of close family. The other question, of why Jews assimilate, is down to anti-Semitism. Freeman cites events from the recent US presidency several times to illustrate the resurgence of the Right in a country that is a byword for successful Jewish culture. I think this was thinking too small, and draws focus from the stories in this excellent book by making us dwell on that recent inglorious past. Current Polish, Hungarian and Austrian far-right politics are actually more pertinent. The country that the Glass family escaped, and where Jacques was sent back to be murdered, is becoming fascist again. American fascism and anti-Semitism has a greater chance of being quelled than that which is re-emerging in central Europe. Freeman’s analysis of how anti-Semitism works using the case histories of her family members is a real education for those of us who have never experienced it ourselves. For that alone House of Glass should be widely read.
The eldest Glahs son, Jeshuda, later Henri, was an engineer and invented the microfilm: his firm and inventions was eventually sold to Oce, whose name you may have seen while waiting for your photocopying to do done. Without him travelling around France secretly filming and shrinking municipal archives, bank records and historical plans, much of French history and the essential records of millions of people’s lives (eg bank accounts, property deeds, birth, marriage and death certificates) would have been lost to the Nazis.
Jacques, the middle brother formerly called Jakob, became a furrier in Paris but was happier sitting in cafes with his friends. His loyalty to his friends led to his death at Auschwitz. Sender, the younger brother, became the successful couturier Alex Maguy. He fought in the Resistance, escaped from a death camp train, and became an art dealer and a friend of Picasso. Sala, now Sara, the youngest and the only Glass daughter, managed to overcome pleurisy as a teenager in sanatoria that her brothers paid for. She was engaged to be married and developing a career as a fabric designer in Paris in the late 1930s, when Alex introduced her to Bill Frieman, a visiting American. Bill fell in love at first sight, and with great reluctance, over several months, Sala was persuaded to marry him and get to America before the war began, because once she was there she would be able to get the rest of her family out to America and safety. She had two sons, the elder of whom is Hadley Freeman’s father. War came too quickly for Sala to be able to get any of her relatives to safety. She was never fully happy in America, and lived out her life waiting for her duty to Bill Frieman to end on his death, so that she could return to Paris and the life of art and culture that she craved in exile in small-town America.
House of Glass is absolutely brilliant: compulsively read-on-able and beautifully written. It is objective, with Freeman considering and fact-checking the claims from the family letters, memoirs and diaries that she found, and making it clear when she can’t substantiate a claim or a reported event. (Alex was a spectacular showman.) Again and again, when she sets out to fact-check a claim that can’t possibly be true, she and we are surprised and delighted by its veracity. (Alex giving I M Pei a Modigliani? His sons confirmed to her that they’d found the drawing. Alex causing a sensation at a Danish fashion show at which he had no fabric with which to make designs, by creating an evening dress on stage from pins and two metres of cotton? It’s in the newspaper reviews.)
Alex’s showy and astounding career does rather grab the reader’s attention. His own (unpublished) memoir was such a rich source there was simply far more easily available material for Freeman to draw on for his life, or at least the parts that he wanted to tell. The record of his Resistance career is still rather smudgy, and as Freeman notes often, war was a grey zone, and it is impossible to say definitively who was completely good and honourable, and who was not. Collaboration is a slippery accusation: Alex was both accused and accusing.
Freeman is also assiduous in finding out what there was to be found out about her quieter great-uncles and her extremely private and secretive grandmother, by digging and asking and visiting. She discovered relatives she had no idea existed; her father’s family were equally welcoming and informative; and she reconnected with cousins she had forgotten or never knew, working like her in the fashion industry in which Alex, Sala, and Jacques had worked. Her research (there is a long and careful list of people who helped her over many years of researching this book) was made easier by having bases in Paris, London and in the USA, by being bilingual and by having a journalist’s eye and good contacts. She was the perfect person to write this biography. It will stay with you for weeks. Go buy it.