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Edmund de Waal’s Netsuke and My Dishes
Once upon a time, Edmund de Waal tells us in his bestselling The Hare with Amber Eyes, his family, the Ephrussi, was as wealthy and well-known as another Jewish family, the Rothschilds. Then came the Holocaust, from which his relatives escaped only with their lives and a collection of 264 netsuke. These small Japanese carvings, once used as a counterweight to a man’s moneybag on his kimono belt, were collected by an art historian. Passed down through several generations, they were the only art objects remaining from the Ephrussi’s vast estate after the war. They found their way back to Japan with the author’s great-uncle, who lived there for many years.
De Waal, now a well-known British ceramicist, became acquainted with that great-uncle, the netsuke, and the Ephrussi family history while studying pottery as a young man in Japan. Shortly afterward, the great-uncle died, and de Waal became next in line to inherit the carvings. The small netsuke—“very rich, very simple, very tactile”—inspired de Waal to find out more about his lost family. Where and how were the netsuke displayed? Who chose them? How were they arranged? Who touched them? Owning and fondling the netsuke ties de Waal to his family, to his grandmother and great-aunt and –uncle, who played with them in their mother’s dressing room as she dressed for dinner with the help of her maid, Anna, who played a key role in the little artworks’ survival. They tie him to his cousin Charles, son of the man from Odessa “who transformed a small grain-trading business into a huge enterprise” which became a bank, financing major projects across Europe.
My family was not rich and lacked a vast art collection, but that was a blessing in disguise, as they left Eastern Europe generations before the Ephrussi were forced out by the Nazis. My great-grandparents came to America and lived the American Dream; they acquired nice china, which I inherited. It’s a lovely, old-fashioned set with pink flowers and frilly edges, made in Germany. When they bought it, decades before the German Jews were killed or exiled, there was nothing odd about American Jews buying German china. The set ties me not only to my great-grandmother Hannah, but to a more innocent time. Whenever I use the dishes, which I do regularly, I’m touching what my family touched.
I’ve had these dishes for years, but only moved to Baltimore recently. I grew up in San Francisco, a daughter of Baltimore expats, and moved to New York after graduating from college. Then my husband, a doctor, got a job at Hopkins, and I headed back to a hometown I’d never lived in. So not only am I eating off my great-grandmother’s dishes, but I’m using them only a few miles from where she did, and feeling close to family members I never met. Using my china in the city it was first exported to adds another dimension of physical closeness to family members I never met. I completely understand why de Waal needed to not only touch the netsuke, but to find out where they were placed in every house of his family they’d ever been in.
The value of collecting everyday objects is in their very use and ordinariness. Metaphorically, they retain the patina of someone’s fingerprints. Someone else drank from this cup, fondled that netsuke. Objects are full of meaning: they tie us to our families, to history, to places we’ve never been - but our objects have.
Please join me February 24 at 6:30 p.m., at the American Craft Council Show in Baltimore, where Susan Elliott and I will lead a discussion about The Hare with Amber Eyes and what the book means to collectors of crafts and other objects.
Celeste Sollod writes about Baltimore books, authors, and literary life at CharmCityCurrent.com/BaltimoreBooks. She has a collection of teacups from various sources, and can speak personally about the ability of collected objects to evoke family meaning and memories.