Secrets of a 20th-century Jewish family: Hadley Freeman on her book House of Glass

In a recent HistoryExtra podcast, Hadley Freeman spoke to our deputy digital editor Elinor Evans about her quest to uncover her family’s history through some of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century. Read the full transcript here...

Hadley Freeman.

Note: this is an unedited transcript of our recent podcast Hadley Freeman on a 20th-century family history

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Elinor Evans, deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra: We are talking today about your book House of Glass, which is an account of some members of your family through the 20th century. How did you come by their stories?

Hadley Freeman: I grew up hearing these vague stories – for example, I would hear about my great-uncle Alex and how he managed to escape from a train to a camp, and I would hear that my grandmother had come from France to America to escape the war. So I always had this idea that there was a story in the background, and they all died by the end of the 1990s – which was just when I graduated from university – and I sort of had this idea of just writing about my grandmother – a very melancholic, elegant figure. I knew there was something – I didn’t know what that was, or if I would fictionalise it, or even if there was a story – but I spent five years ‘dicking around’ trying to make some enquiries into what her life might have been like. Then I went to her old apartment, which my father’s younger brother lives in, and he hadn’t thrown anything away of hers, which was very lucky for me. I was just going through her closet, because I had this idea that I might write about her relationship with clothing, and I found this shoebox filled with letters and photos and photo albums – and other keepsakes that didn’t make any sense. And then, at the bottom, this drawing by Picasso – and that was kind of it. That was 2006. So I had these dots that I was trying to join, and I couldn’t figure out how to join them. And then eight years later – eight years after me travelling around the world going through archives in all kinds of places around the world – my uncle found, among my grandmother’s belongings, this unpublished memoir by my great-uncle Alex. This was my line connecting the dots; I could now make the story and I was able to fact-check everything. That’s how it came about.

EE: I would love to talk about these sources later, because how you came to find out about them was so fascinating. But first can you introduce our readers to your grandmother and her siblings in a bit more detail?

HF: Of course. So my grandmother was one of four, and they were all born in Poland. In the 1920s, they all moved to Paris to escape the Polish pogroms – and they changed their names to Henri, Jacques, Alex and Sara. Henri was very tall, very handsome, very stylish and very brilliant – he was a brilliant engineer. Jacques was very passive, very quiet – he lived a lot like his father did and in photos looked a bit like a young Adrien Brody. He was a poor tailor, like a lot of Jewish immigrants. Alex was this incredibly bombastic, very charismatic, 5ft 2 couturier – and a very successful couturier. And then the youngest was Sara, my grandmother, who was this very beautiful, delicate young woman who loved art and painting.

EE: You just mentioned they all grew up in Poland, until a certain point. Can we talk a bit about their upbringing and the violence that informed the rest of their lives?

HF: So they all grew up in Chrzanow, which is 18km from Auschwitz and is actually the sister town. It was very typically Jewish; my grandmother would always compare it to the film Fiddler on the Roof. It was 56 per cent Jewish at the time, and it had a big Jewish marketplace. They were very, very poor; their father was incapable of earning any money – and so the children grew up very poor, very hungry. But they had a very happy childhood – they had a whole bunch of cousins living around the corner, there were at least seven of them. And then World War One started, and everything became very bad. Their neighbours, the Catholic Poles, suddenly turned against them. The country became very nationalistic, as poverty rose. Once the country was liberated, the country turned on the Jews and blamed them for Poland’s troubles. And then Chrzanow was the first town in Poland to suffer a pogrom, which was when Catholics and townspeople would tear through the town and kill Jews, attack Jews, ransack their houses, ransack their shops. One of my Grandmother’s memories from childhood is this pogrom when she had to hide under the bed with her mother and her brothers. Alex, her closest brother, ran out when he was 12 years old to fight against the pogrom – and he saw people he knew (including his brother’s teacher, a close friend of the family, and people who bought sewing machines from his father, and their neighbours). This completely changed him forever – he never trusted anybody ever again. And it also made him a real fighter. And these pogroms eventually drove them to Paris – which was actually a very good thing. If they’d stayed in Chrzanow, they would all have been sent to Auschwitz. In Chrzanow now, there are no Jews at all. This is kind of amazing because it was such a Jewish town. The pogroms saved their lives. 

 

EE: Before we go any further ahead with your family’s story, you visited Poland as part of the research for this book. What was that experience like? What was it like digging into this history?

HF: Poland was actually the last research trip I did. I went to Chrzanow and Auschwitz in March 2018; the first trip I did was in March 2001 and the last in March 2018. I had really put it off, partly because I didn’t want Auschwitz to overshadow the whole book, and also because I was dreading going. I knew this was going to be a really depressing trip – and it was, but in ways I hadn’t expected. First off, Chrzanow itself is a really pretty town and we found the street where my grandmother and her siblings used to live and right around the corner was this anti-Semitic graffiti, which was incredible to see and an amazing validation of my grandmother and her brothers’s decision to leave. And then we went to Auschwitz, which was really eye-opening. I expected, obviously, it to be sad – but it was sad in ways that I hadn’t expected.

The Law and Order party, who are in charge of Poland, have been really focused on changing the narratives around World War II – and insisting that Poland was purely a victim in World War II and had no culpability. Various members of the government have said things like “Auschwitz-Birkenau needs to stop focusing on foreign narratives” (by which they mean Jewish narratives), and that “the camp should really focus on the Polish suffering there”. It’s true that some 75,000 Polish people were killed in Auschwitz, which is terrible, but more than a million Jews were. If you go to Auschwitz now, and take the official tour, you really only see where the Polish people were killed; you don’t get a sense of where the Jews were murdered. And obviously the Polish people did suffer terribly; the Germans considered the Polish as unmentionables – but the fact was that Poland was an incredibly anti-Semitic country – it’s why my grandmother and her brothers left – and a lot of the Polish helped the Germans kill Jews.

It is actually a crime now to state this in Poland – that the country has any culpability. If you say this, Polish government ministers have said things like: “Oh this is just the Jews being embarrassed that their ancestors went so meekly to the camps”. In fact, the Polish were pointing out the Jews to the Germans – and killing them, and killing Jewish children, too. So I was really surprised at the camp by that – and I spoke to people from the Holocaust Educational Trust afterwards – and they said how much it’s changed in Poland, in just the past five years. If you went five years ago, you would get a very straightforward narrative; if you go now, then the focus is really on Polish suffering.

Probably the most amazing thing is when you leave Auschwitz. There is this gift shop in the car park, with all this ‘I heart Poland’ stuff – and I wrote about it in the newspaper after I visited in 2018. I then received these angry tweets from Auschwitz on Twitter about it, saying “this is not our gift shop, this is the local municipality” – and I thought, “oh my god there’s something quite funny about being told off by Auschwitz on Twitter”. This, in itself, is a Jewish joke – as if the gift shop wasn’t a Jewish joke – the idea of being shouted at by Auschwitz on Twitter! The fact that it is the local municipality’s gift shop just makes it even worse; this is the local government saying: “You know what makes me want to buy an ‘I heart Poland’ mug? Going to Auschwitz!” So it’s very strange how that narrative works, and it’s a really interesting contrast with France. France is really coming to terms with its culpability, after having denied it for so long. It started to admit how bad it was in the 90s – and how much it collaborated with the Germans – and now there are sort of monuments around the various concentration camps in France. Whereas in Poland, it’s as if there is a real aversion to it admitting its culpability.

EE: That idea of culpability and collaboration plays such an important part of your family story. But if I can pick up on what you said about narrative – you already mentioned a key source for your book was Alex. There’s obviously a challenge there, with that narrative, and the way that was created. What can you say about Alex’s story?

HF: When my uncle found Alex’s memoir and sent it to me, my dad did say: “Don’t take this too seriously. Alex was always a big braggart, and no one ever really trusted anything he said.” So I went to it thinking: “This can give me an outline, but I don’t know if I can trust it!”

Also, I am not a historian. I didn’t even do history A-Level. I did history of art, I’m sorry. So I knew I’d have to triple check everything, because I felt very insecure about my historical knowledge – and I wanted to make sure that everything was accurate. I didn’t just want to write just about family anecdotes. But the amazing thing was everything Alex wrote, I factchecked and it turned out to be true!

So Alex’s story really is incredible. He was this poor Polish immigrant who arrived in Paris when he was 14. He worked his way up through the couturiers to open his own couture salon at 20, which is insane. He did this all independently with no backers – and he succeeded.

By the time the war started, he was in his late 20s. He joined the foreign legion (because he was still a Pole, he couldn’t join the French army). And in the foreign legion he was part of the Narvik campaign, before France fell to the Germans, and he was awarded a bronze star for his bravery. Then France fell. He then went to Britain to join up with Charles de Gaulle and the free French. But then he wanted to get back to Paris to rescue his mother and his brothers. He went back to France, but he could only get into the south of France. He then opened a salon in the south of France and was living there with a man – a friend, maybe a lover? We really don’t know. He was living this really glamourous life.

I should also mention that when he was working in Paris as a couturier, his draftsman was Christian Dior. Another draftsman was René Gruau, who became one of the most famous fashion illustrators of the 20th century. They were in the south of France with him – so he was living this kind of high life in the south of France. But then the south of France fell, and the Germans invaded Nice.

One night, Alex was arrested at a nightclub after he made a bit of the scene. The orchestra in the nightclub started playing German music. And in a scene straight out of Casablanca, Alex stood up and said, “you should play something else”. And the Germans came and arrested him. They put him on a train to Drancy, which was a concentration camp in France from where prisoners were then sent to Auschwitz. While he was on the train, he saw a hole in the roof, and he got his friend to pick him up – and he punched through this hole and jumped out of the train.

He was then rescued by railway workers, who were communists, who hid him in a pile of manure when the Nazis came looking for him. They knew the Nazis were too vain about their uniforms to go through manure to look for him.

From there, he made contact with someone – I later found out who – who then got him hidden in a place in the Auvergne. He hid in this house for a year with his friend, another fashion designer.

So Alex always told me that he escaped from the train – and I thought “how does one prove that?” And it turns out that you can prove it pretty easily. You just prove the record of who got on the record and who got off. He definitely got on the train – you can see the records – and he definitely didn’t get off the train, the record was in Paris. I went down to Nice to go through the records and he definitely got on. One of the great French Holocaust historians has written a lot about Nice, in particular, and he said there were 93 people who escaped from the train – and Alex is one of them. So, he definitely did escape from the train.

When I figured out he did definitely escape from the train, myself and this wonderful historian who helped me through the book (he’s called Daniel), made contact with various resistance experts in central France (because we knew the train had to go through central France because it was going from Nice to Drancy) to see if they had ever heard stories about some Jewish fashion designer who escaped from a train! It was a real shot in the dark, but incredibly somebody got back to us – this man called Robert, who runs a resistance museum in the Auvergne. He said there is this woman ere who remembers this Israelite who came and stayed at her parents’ house – I think it’s your uncle. So Daniel and I went off to the Auvergne, and we went to this little lady’s house. She lives in the middle of the woods. I just thought: “This is ridiculous!” I can’t believe I’ve been working on this for 20 years, at this point, and there I was sitting in a little house in the middle of the woods. I thought “this is crazy”.

So we’re sitting there, and she’s very sweet – she comes out and she has all these photos… they are photos of Alex at the house! So this is her parents’ house, and she showed me the attic, where he was hidden, and the hidden staircases.

I said to Robert: “Was it the resistance that brought Alex here?” And he said: “Oh no. It was an officer in the Vichy government who had a daughter who had been a client of Alex’s – and he helped Alex.”

That whole story I found really fascinating because we think of Vichy as just basically analogous to the Nazis – and some of them were, definitely. But actually, there are a lot of people in Vichy who were just really old-school French Catholics. And yes, they didn’t like the Jews – but it was because they wanted to protect the sanctity of French culture. It wasn’t that they wanted France to be German, on no level. If there were Jews around who had fought for France, as Alex had done, then they were happy to protect them. I think that’s a really interesting dynamic in the Vichy-Nazi alliance.

There was another man who was in charge of the ‘Aryanisation’ of businesses in France – which basically means taking the businesses away from Jews. He helped Alex open a salon in Cannes; he gave personal permission for Alex to open his salon in Cannes. This is bonkers, it’s like the home secretary saying that some local business can open a newspaper shop. But because Alex had won a bronze star at Narvik, he stepped in and said yes.

Three months after that, he was kicked out by the Nazis – and they installed this guy called Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, who then got his own infamy later. This is perhaps going off on a tangent, but his daughter became a psychotherapist in Britain. I didn’t want to put this in the book, but she then caused other damage. Melvynn Bragg has written about his familial connection to this, because his late wife was a patient of Darquier de Pellepoix’s daughter – and he knew the damage she caused in Britain. It’s really fascinating, and you can go down so many different paths, but I really had to keep a narrow focus when I was writing the book ( and also I obviously didn’t want to intrude on Melvyn Bragg’s family story).

So it’s interesting, all of these shifting alliances within the government… and how they affect the people. Alex was protected, essentially, by two people in Vichy (who suffered for it later).

Anyway, he survived the war. He was doing resistance activity while he was in the Auvergne. After the war, he went back to being a couturier. He stopped in the mid-50s and became an art collector and gallerist – and became the great friend of Picasso, in particular. That’s how the Picasso was in my grandmother’s shoebox.

EE: If we could go back to France, a little. If we go back to your family’s initial settling in Paris after they emigrated. What do their experiences tell us about the lives of Jewish people in France at the time?

HF: When I went into this, I didn’t know anything about what Jewish life was like in between the wars. I worried that this is my ignorance – but it turns out that this is something that isn’t covered in any specialist books and it’s incredibly sad.

So many Jews from Eastern Europe were coming to Paris. Paris, Warsaw and New York – these were the centres that Jews were running to, to get away from the pogroms. Warsaw was in some ways to close to where the pogroms were happening, whereas New York was too far away. So Paris was the logical choice and suddenly Paris and France were getting this huge influx of Jewish immigrants. The reaction of France and other Jews already living there was really interesting. At first, France was delighted because they needed a workforce; they had lost many men during World War One. And then the Great Depression happened, it bit into France. As happens when there’s economic trouble; immigrants are blamed. Suddenly Jews are being blamed for taking jobs; Jews were suddenly being restricted in certain professions. Immigrants were suddenly being treated with suspicion.

The antisemitism that France had in the 19th century that had formerly abated started to flare up again. It’s really hard not to think of parallels with certain right-wing factions (and maybe some left-wing factions) today, and how they talk about Muslim immigrants, when you read about how the Jewish immigrants were talked about 100 years ago. Even assimilated Jews in Paris were looking at these Jewish immigrants with the view that they were going to “drag us down – we’re showing that we can be bourgeoisie here and you’re here with your dark clothes, your curls and your stupid customs – this is dragging us backwards”. So that’s always very interesting – and it’s also interesting because the same thing was happening in New York, so the Eastern European Jews that went to New York, there was a similar antagonism with the assimilated Jews there (and also the American governments there). So what was happening in Paris was also happening in New York

EE: Alex’s story is one that is essential to your narrative – it’s a rip-roaring tale. Someone whose story wasn’t as successful (in terms of his memoir being published) was your grandmother’s, but I found her story a really moving part of your book. Could you tell us a bit about her story?

HF: I suddenly realised I gave away all the Alex’s story!

Well, the thing with my grandmother was that she was this very melancholic, very distant figure to me – but also someone who wanted something from me, at least it felt like that as a child – and I didn’t know what it was, it scared me. I felt overwhelmed. The story of my grandmother is… I was actually writing her story and I was thinking “will anyone be interested in this?” And I’ve been so touched that so many people are.

Because the truth is her story is one that is very common to women, and it’s one that’s not told a lot. I was really thinking of Dorothea in Middlemarch when I was writing this book, because, as George Eliot says, in Middlemarch the story of the hidden lives – the domestic, the pride of the feminine – these are stories that are not written about really.

So, Alex’s story. For obvious reasons I was able to track this down in archives, because he was constantly being spied on by the Vichy. With my grandmother, on the other hand, she was the youngest child. She was often sick – she was in sanatoriums for pleurisy for a long time. She then got out in her late twenties and her life is just about to begin in Paris. She was probably about to get married. But Alex knew that the Nazis were coming (because he was involved with people in the art world, and he saw how the French art establishment was turning against Jews). He knew that France was not going to protect the Jews. He really tricked my grandmother into marrying this American guy, who was my grandfather. So my grandmother went up to America and spent her life is an unhappy housewife, really.

I don’t want to over-egg this. I don’t want to make it sound like she was crying all the time. She made a life for herself: she had friends and she had two sons. It wasn’t like my grandfather was a terrible person, but it wasn’t the life that she wanted and she was always waiting for her life to begin. She wanted to go back to Paris, but she did not get that for multiple reasons – I will leave that for the readers to discover.

Her story is one of emotion, whereas the men’s stories are tales of action. And I think that’s true for people up to relatively recently in terms of historical tales, because women were not allowed to do things; they were not going to war, they weren’t working – so this is why women stories don’t get told because it’s very hard to research emotions. I was able to research emotions because I knew her; I knew her friends, children and the people that she talked to (so I was able to describe those emotions). It’s hard. This is why women’s stories don’t get told.

EE: I definitely felt that when reading it. I’m really interested in your experience while writing that story, looking at the sources. The phrase you used was “rummaging around in closets that have long been closed” – there is a peculiarity there for you. What can you say about that?

HF: Even now I sort of think, “what have I done?” I’ve unleashed all of these photos on the world. Especially the oldest brother, Henri. He was a big photographer. I did not know what I was going to find out about him – I had no idea what he was doing, or his wife Sonia’s story, during the war. So I went to talk to his daughter, Danielle. I said: “Did your dad leave anything?” I was really expecting not very much, but she took me down to the basement and there were like four suitcases full of everything – receipts, memorandum, records of everything he was doing during the war. It was a sign of how unstable he felt that he believed he had to account for everything. He thought the Nazis were going to come back, and so he had to prove everything was in order.

That may be why he also took hundreds and hundreds of photos. He was a great photographer, and he really felt very deeply in love with his wife, Sonia, when they met in 1941. He took so many photos and he was very attracted to her. There is this series of photos – and I still think “oh my god I can’t believe I put that in the book” – and Sonia is kind of doing a little strip for him. She’s wearing a jacket in one photo, and then in the next photo she’s taken the jacket off and she’s wearing a vest top, and then the third she’s lying on a bed with her legs akimbo. It is very sexy. I don’t think they meant for these photos to be published. There’s nothing shameful, but I do think “what have I done?” I don’t know what they would have wanted to be known.

I know Alex would have wanted his achievements to be known, although I don’t think he would have loved his ex-employees speculating on his sexuality. But this is a full story and is trying to get the full human range of experience. I really hope I didn’t do anything disrespectful. I knew almost all of them and I love them. But, of course, they will have been dead for almost 30 years, in some cases. They would not believe that people are interested in their stories; it would be a huge shock to them.

EE: You just mentioned there – even with four siblings in the same family, there is a huge range of experience in all of their four lives. So what did you take from looking more broadly at these periods and atrocities through individual lives?

HF: One thing that was really helpful; I spoke to another historian called John O’Cummings, who lives in Israel. I told him the story and said that I couldn’t figure out how to basically structure it – because there’s so much. He said it’s interesting because these stories seem to reflect the Jewish experience in the 20th century – and that was the final lightbulb moment! I’ve got it! Because you have Henri, who hid during the war; Jacques, who was captured; Alex, who escaped; my grandmother, who went to America; and then their siblings who were either killed or went to Israel. I was like “okay, this gives me the structure”. And it meant that the book wasn’t entirely rooted around World War II, which I didn’t want it to be. I wanted it to go from 1901 to 1999.

Their range of experience was fascinating. Also, like you said earlier, how much their personalities affected their outcomes is really fascinating to me. So, Jacques was very meek, and that did not work so well; Alex was this very defiant individualist, and he fought his way to life. It’s amazing how much their temperaments determined their outcomes.

EE: I wanted to talk about garments in your book. You mentioned that you came to this story initially thinking it would be about fashion. What role did garments play in this history for you?

HF: Probably a lot, although I didn’t really think about it. But definitely for the Glass siblings. Their father was very stylish, even though he was this poor sewing machine salesman in Poland. When I was looking for a book in this memorial in Paris, I was able to recognise Jacques getting on to a train to the concentration camp because he was dressed stylishly, while everyone else was dressed like a worker.

For them, clothes were part of their identity. Certainly, when they moved to Paris, they wanted to emphasize their French identity by dressing in a very French way. So Henri would wear these three-piece suits; my grandmother would wear very Chanel-esque outfits. And Alex is obviously making these clothes – making French clothes – making very French exaggerated styles. So clothes for them was about fitting in, assimilating and leaving behind Polish ghetto. I just saw it in terms of identity, I didn’t think of it as fashion – I never thought about the fashion thing – it was more of an expression thing.

EE: What legacy endures from your family?

After the Glass siblings died, my family drifted apart – we didn’t stay in touch. Some of my cousins and I found each other again because we all happened to be working in the fashion industry. We hadn’t known each other, although we might have heard of each other. But it’s funny that we went into fashion – our grandparents all worked in clothing, and then we all did too without consciously thinking about it. Obviously, we were influenced by our grandparents.


Listen to the full podcast interview with Hadley Freeman here

Elinor Evans is the deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra

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Hadley Freeman is an American British journalist based in London.