Home Culture Books & Authors The wonderful world of Jewish family histories

The wonderful world of Jewish family histories

Family Papers by Sarah Abrevaya Stein

Having written a couple of books of family histories for various branches of my family, I understand how difficult it is to unite the stories of dozens, or hundreds, of people under a common theme. That is part of the reason why I admire Edmund De Waal’s masterpiece, The Hare With Amber Eyes, which was first published in 2010.

So when I was faced with a trio of new family histories to review, it was only natural that I would go back to The Hare With Amber Eyes, which I consider an exemplar of the form. The narrative covers four or five generations of the Ephrussi clan, a famed Jewish banking family who lived like nobles and aristocrats in Odessa, Vienna, Paris and other European capitals.

Like the Rothschilds, the Ephrussis were an extraordinary family whose experiences contrasted sharply with the poor ghetto Jews who made up the majority of the Jewish world. De Waal captures the personalities and private lives of the larger-than-life worlds of his forebears with poetic and Proustian expansiveness. Through the sheer force of his imagination, De Waal paints a series of colourful portraits of each of his ancestors, especially his grandmother, all the while focusing on the family’s collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese objets d’art that were handed down through the generations, providing the book’s unifying theme.

Having been impressed with this book when it first came out, I reread the more recent illustrated edition and found the experience nicely enhanced by the visual accompaniments. There is an understated tragic irony about this story because these tiny art objects from Japan are pretty much all that is left of the vast Ephrussi fortune after both time and the Nazis, as well as the vicissitudes of the stock market, exercised their destructive powers.

For De Waal, the journey was a sort of detective story: he wanted to explain and understand how these netsuke came into his own hands after his last great-uncle, Jiri, died in Tokyo.

“What is being passed on to me with all these small Japanese objects?” he writes. “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.” Fortunately for his readers, De Waal chose the latter course.

Like De Waal, Sarah Abrevaya Stein, in her book Family Papers, A Sephardi Journey Through the Twentieth Century, conveys an excellent sense of culture and history as she writes about the fortunes of various members of the Levy family from Salonica, Greece.

The book offers portraits of a diverse range of family members, based on a trove of family letters and papers that her relatives possessed. Abrevaya Stein enhanced the content of the letters through research conducted at some 30 archives in 10 countries.


The patriarch of the family was Sa’adi Levy, a prominent publisher and editor born in 1820 who printed two major newspapers, as well as works in the Sephardic language of Ladino. His son, Daout Levy, one of his 14 children, headed Salonica’s Jewish community when the city hosted citizens of three major faiths and was considered one of the most Jewish cities in the world. It was a place where Ladino could be heard commonly spoken in the streets and along the docks.

Like the world of the Ephrussis, the world of the Levys also fell apart cataclysmically. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Then came more upheavals with the First World War and a devastating fire in 1917. The era of multiculturalism and pluralism dissolved into a political culture of competing nationalisms, with the Turks and Greeks engaging in a tug of war that continues to this day.

The final blow came with the Second World War, when about 98 per cent of Salonica’s Jews were wiped out. In November 1942, hammering another nail into the coffin, the Nazis rounded up 1,000 Greek Jews living in Paris, including Daout’s son, Emmanuel Levy, and his family, and deported them to Auschwitz.

Shockingly, one of Sa’adi Levy’s great-grandsons, Vital Hasson, aided and abetted the Nazis as they brutally strangled the Salonica Jewish ghetto and deported the Jews to death camps. This vicious kapo was convicted of war crimes and executed in 1948. Abrevaya Stein asserts that he “was the only Jew in Europe tried as a war criminal and killed by a state, Greece, at the behest of its Jewish community.”

Abrevaya Stein mentions the letters, but doesn’t utilize them enough to give us a sense of the voices they contain. Her book retains a fragmented quality owing to the difficulty of weaving together such vastly different narratives into a cohesive whole.

The discovery of a collection of wartime letters in a desk drawer led Judy Vasos to write My Dear Good Rosi: Letters from Nazi-Occupied Holland 1940-1943. The letters were written by her husband’s grandparents, Hugo and Clementine Mosbacher, to their daughter Rosi, the author’s mother-in-law, during the occupation.

At the start of the war, Hugo and Clementine Mosbacher fled to Holland from their longtime home in Nuremberg. They were awaiting their visas to go to the United Stated, which they expected to receive in only two more days, when Germany invaded Holland. Instead of escaping to the U.S., they became two of the roughly 100,000 mostly Jewish inmates of the Westerbork concentration camp who were deported to Auschwitz or Sobibor. Again, tragic irony pervades the pages of Jewish family histories.

Although Georgia Hunter’s We Were the Lucky Ones is a novel, it is based on a family history that she knew nothing about until she was 15-years-old. She undertook enormous research to uncover the saga of three generations of the Kurc family of Radom, Poland. Her canvas extends from the jazz clubs of Paris to the snowy sweeps of the Siberian gulags.

Each of the four books named in this review handles family history in a different way: De Waal uses novelistic techniques to his advantage, while remaining true to the facts; Hunter takes this a step further to construct a fictional tale that is based on actual events. As in all writings about historical matters, the line between myth and history, fact and fiction, is often blurred in the service of a greater truth.

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