The Hare with Amber Eyes in Vienna – Review of The Ephrussis at the Jewish Museum
The Hare with Amber Eyes, an international bestseller by Edmund de Waal, deals with the story of the Ephrussis, a Jewish family originally from Odessa who later on established themselves in Vienna in Vienna and Paris. They not only made their way into the Viennese society but also left permanent traces of their success such as the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna’s first district. Moreover, they were considered peers of the Rothschild family.
Like many Jewish families, their family history is also marked by the expulsion from the German Reich, a life in exile and a constant fight for restitution – the Ephrussis lost almost everything when the Nazis aryanized their property. This fight for justice, is still ongoing, with many issues still unresolved. The Jewish Museum is currently not only hosting “The Ephrussis. Travel in Time” but also supports the family with their restitution claims.
This current exhibition is a must-see for all those who have read The Hare with Amber Eyes. But I also recommend it to anyone who has not read it as yet. Maybe the exhibition about this really interesting family inspires you to head to the bookstore and get learn more about their incredible story and about the fate of many other Jewish families.
The Hare with Amber Eyes deals with the art collection of the family – just like all their property including the banking house, the majority of their collection was aryanised. The collection of 264 Japanese netsuke figurines was restituted in 1950. Japonisme was a major art movement in Europe in the late 19th century. Charles Ephrussi started to collect Japanese art and acquired the now world-famous collection in Paris. Netsuke are miniature sculptures made of ivory. The collection has been passed down over five generations – the potter Edmund de Waal received it in the early 1990s. He traced down his family history with the help of the collection and also turned it into the main story thread of the book.
The exhibition is located on the upper floor of the Jewish museum’s main branch at Dorotheergasse. It starts with an introduction of the Ephrussis and their family tree. I actually walked back and forth between the rooms and the family tree. The Ephrussi family is quite big and if you are like me and bad with names, the family tree really helps. (The layout of the exhibition is quite compact, therefore, walking back and forth is easy but you can also take a snapshot of the family tree and use it when you walk through.)
The family’s wealth goes back to Chaim Ephrussi (also called Charles Joachim Ephrussi), who established himself as a successful businessman in Odessa in the first half of the 19th century. The city had more liberal laws than other European counterparts and, hence, allowed Jews to move up in society. (In many other European cities, their roles in society were limited.)
Chaim traded in wheat and also founded a bank. Because of their success and wealth, the Ephrussis and many other families were the target of jealousy. Consequently, pogroms (ie. organised massacres) were carried out in Odessa in the 19th and 20th century. At the same time, the Jewish community and culture was still thriving. Chaim’s son Ignaz moved to Vienna and established a bank while the other son Leon founded branches of the Odessan bank in Paris. The family emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1939.
I particularly enjoyed learning more about the Ephrussis and their social standing, especially in Paris. The Ephrussis moved to Paris in the late 19th century. I imagine that many visitors are unaware that the the Ephrussis had the same social standing as the Rothschild family in the late 19th century. Today, however, only Rothschild has prevailed a household name even though they were art patrons. They supported artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas (the latter became an outspoken anti-semite later on). Furthermore, one Rothschild member even married an Ephrussi: Béatrice Rothschild married Maurice Ephrussi.
Of course, the original Hare with Amber Eyes is displayed as well. There are a few hares and the exhibition display did not point out which one was the one from the book. To help you find it: it is the one which lifts one paw while glancing towards the side.
Whether you have read the book or not, the exhibition is an interesting introduction to an incredible family story. In my case, the exhibition helped me to let the characters of the book come to life – some I remembered from the book, some I may have forgotten or not noticed. I especially enjoyed the part about Emmy von Ephrussi who was also called the “Last Fashionable Woman” thanks to her extravagant fashion style.
Even though the exhibition deals with a very personal story of one family, it is also a reminder that even 75 years after the end of the Second World War, many families still have to keep fighting for restitution. Moreover, it mirrors how the Republic of Austria is still dealing with its past. Not only the Ephrussi family is still fighting for justice, many others are as well.
In addition to visiting the actual exhibition, I highly recommend a virtual tour as well. During the coronavirus lockdown measures, the Jewish Museum was among the most innovative museums in Vienna and published brief videos on their Facebook and Instagram channels. (You can read my review about the online presence of Viennese museums here.) Danielle Spera, the director of the museum, takes you on tours through the exhibition and gives unique curatorial insights and facts about the family. It almost feels as if you walked through the exhibition with a private and exclusive tour. The museum keeps posting these types of videos and there are many more with curators and experts as well.
Tickets and Opening Times
Branch Dorotheergasse 11: Sunday to Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Branch Judenplatz 8: Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Friday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Note that the times deviate from the “usual” museum times. While most museums in Vienna are closed on Mondays, the Jewish Museum is closed on Saturdays due to Shabbat.
A regular ticket is EUR 12 (about USD 14) and allows entry to both locations within 4 days from issue. Children under 18 enter for free; concessions are available.
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All information as of the date of publishing/updating and based on the personal visit of Elisabeth Steiger, the information available at the sights and the official website Jewish Museum Vienna. We cannot accept responsibility for the correctness or completeness of the data, or for ensuring that it is up to date. All recommendations are based on the personal experience of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received by the recommended places above.