Picasso, Dior, Auschwitz and an Ayatollah: Uncovering a Secret Jewish Family History

A chance find sent writer Hadley Freeman on a near-two-decade quest to discover the truth about her Jewish family. She talks here about the resultant memoir, ‘House of Glass,’ and why she’s not expecting it to be published in Poland

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Vichy France leader Marshall Philippe Petain shaking hands with Hitler in occupied France, October 24, 1940.
Vichy France leader Marshall Philippe Petain shaking hands with Hitler in occupied France, October 24, 1940. Credit: AP
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

With a cast of characters that includes Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Pablo Picasso, Elizabeth Taylor and hordes of Nazi collaborators, you could be forgiven for thinking that Hadley Freeman’s new book sounds like quite the novel.

Yet not one sentence of “House of Glass” is fiction. Instead, the American-British journalist uncovers her Jewish family’s hidden past in a beautifully told, touching memoir that is so cinematic, it should come with a complimentary bucket of popcorn.

That cinematic nature is apparent from the very first paragraph: Freeman recounting how she happened upon a shoebox, at the back of a closet, that belonged to her late grandmother, Sala Glass. Its contents shed a new light on the family history, offering tantalizing pieces of a puzzle that would take the writer the best part of two decades to solve.

It is also the starting point for a remarkable tale that encompasses the entire 20th century, taking in Polish pogroms, Parisian neighborhoods resembling shtetls, a new life in the New World, a perilous existence in occupied Paris, the Auschwitz death camp and remarkable second acts that suggest F. Scott Fitzgerald should have spent more time in France.

Overshadowing it all, of course, is the Holocaust, whose murderous clutches the Glass family and their cousins the Ornsteins desperately tried to evade. Their experiences shine a particularly dazzling spotlight on the shameful role Vichy France played in the Shoah.

"House of Glass" author Hadley Freeman.Credit: Linda Nylind

“House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family” is full of heartbreak, regret, heroism and, ultimately, triumph, recounted in a warm, relatable and, when appropriate, witty style that will come as no surprise to anyone who has read Freeman’s fashion columns and features for British daily The Guardian over the past two decades.

It is a big departure from her previous works, which include the self-explanatory “Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies” (2013) and the super-fun “Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from 80s Movies” (2015), about the films of her youth (yes, John Hughes does loom large).

Freeman writes toward the end of her family memoir, “As perhaps Jews know better than most, you can never entirely escape your past.” It is our good fortune that she discovered hers in such unusual circumstances, vividly bringing to life the memories of Sala (aka Sara) Glass and her brothers Jacques, Henri and Alex (their Gallicized names after moving to Paris in the 1920s).

‘Incredible story of survival’

If the book’s story spans a century; its writing took the best part of a fifth of the next one.

“I wanted to write a book about my grandmother,” the New York-born, London-based author tells Haaretz in a phone interview, explaining the roots of the project. “I knew Sala had come to America from France to escape World War II, and I knew there was some sadness in her past that I didn’t know about. And as I spent 18 years researching it, it expanded out to her and her three brothers – only two of whom I had known about before.

"House of Glass" by Hadley Freeman, featuring a torn photograph of the author's grandmother, Sala Glass, on the cover.Credit: Simon & Schuster

“It’s also about Jewish survival in Europe and in America across the 20th century,” the 41-year-old adds. “I really expected it to be a small story about my grandmother, and it became this sweeping thing.”

To quote someone you admire – Nora Ephron – everything is copy. Did you feel comfortable making yourself part of the story when exploring your family’s past?

“I was really resistant to putting myself in, to be honest. But my editor did keep saying, ‘People want to read about you in this.’ And I just thought, Me?! My life is nothing when you think about what my grandmother and great-uncles went through. What am I going to say? ‘Oh, that time I went to the supermarket and it was shut’?

“My life is just entirely comfortable thanks to them. I was worried that I was butting into their incredible story of survival. But I realized that I had to say how that survival perpetuated itself, and obviously it perpetuated itself in the third generation, which is me, [my sister] and my cousins.”

“House of Glass” may have started off more as a hobby, a chance for Freeman to find out more about the mysterious family on her father’s side. But two discoveries made her realize she actually had a book on her hands: in 2006, Sala’s stash of family keepsakes – which included, remarkably, an original drawing signed by Picasso – and, eight years later, a memoir penned by the author’s late great-uncle, Alex. Much more on him anon.

A still from the 1956 film "The Mystery of Picasso," a French documentary about the Spanish artist whom Alex Glass became friends with in the 1960s.Credit: French Institute

One of the first problems Freeman encountered was that her grandmother had led a “hidden life,” to quote George Eliot. The solution was to talk to as many people as possible who knew Sala, “which in some ways is the most emotionally painful way. It’s much easier to go through dusty files and archives, where there’s not that kind of emotional risk,” Freeman says.

Her research would reveal many things about her family – from simple facts like the siblings all hailing from Chrzanów, Poland, which they fled as soon as humanly possible after tiring of suffering the anti-Semitism, to the shocking truth about what happened to the Glasses and the Ornsteins (also in Paris) during the war.

Freeman’s research gave her “an enormous amount of empathy” for her grandmother – someone she had never felt particularly close to during her lifetime – and the sacrifices she made in moving from France to the United States in the late ’30s. Sala was basically forced out of Paris by her elder brothers and into a marriage with a complete stranger. It may have saved her life, but she spent the rest of it thinking about that European life not lived.

Joining the Foreign Legion

Although it is Sala’s face on the cover of “House of Glass,” the book’s most compelling character is undoubtedly Alex, a tough, short-statured Polish Jew who arrived in Paris with nothing and swiftly established himself as a top fashion designer. His wartime escapades were even more legendary – joining the French Foreign Legion and later the Resistance – and he followed that by becoming a hugely successful art dealer. There were a lot of stories to tell in the 250-page, unpublished memoir he wrote, and which Freeman’s American-born father Ron translated from the original mix of Polish, French and Yiddish.

The liberation of Paris in August 1944. Of the 330,000 or so Jews living in France at the start of World War II, some 75,000 were deported by the French authorities.Credit: AFP

“At a certain point I did think, should I just make this book about him, because I did worry about him overshadowing everyone else,” Freeman says of her great-uncle. “But to be honest, I couldn’t extricate one from the rest of them because they were so intertwined.

“I always knew he was a biographer’s dream – you knew that as soon as you went to his apartment in Paris and there were all these Monets and Van Goghs [on the walls]. Here was this pugnacious, 5 foot 2 inch, very Yiddish-accented Frenchman, but I had no idea about the extent of his story – that [Christian] Dior worked for him, that he was hanging out with [Marc] Chagall, and all this stuff about him in the war.”

In many ways, Alex was the archetypal scrappy Zionist – the kind of person Israel likes to foreground when discussions about Jewish passivity during the war arise. That recognition of his resilience “was one of the reasons he had this close affinity with Israel, and he went to Israel many, many times,” Freeman notes.

I apologize to Freeman in advance, but say that in many ways Alex reminded me of another small Polish-French Jew: Roman Polanski.

“I know what you mean, completely,” she says, much to my relief. “I had to read Polanski’s memoir as I was starting to write the book in January ’18, and it was funny reading it alongside Alex’s unpublished memoir because there was definitely a lot of that fighter [mentality]. I think there is a whole generation of people who escaped from those circumstances who have that kind of attitude, and who will do whatever it takes to survive.”

Alex Glass donated many of the paintings he accrued over the years to Israel. Indeed, Freeman says that when the Tel Aviv Museum of Art sent her a list of all the paintings he donated while she was researching the book, it filled two pages. The artworks included paintings by his Parisian friends Jules Pascin and Maurice “Kiki” Kisling, which he hurriedly dispatched to British Mandatory Palestine in October 1939 as the war in Europe intensified and he opted to join the Foreign Legion.

Family sagas, Holocaust pamphlets

Freeman is a self-declared fan of all kinds of Jewish memoirs, dating back to the first one she ever read – “When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit” by Judith Kerr, who turned her own experiences into a children’s novel – but it was a different connection to Hitler that proved a surprise inspiration for “House of Glass.”

“I was thinking of those kinds of family sagas that I loved to read in my teens and twenties: things like ‘The Forsyte Sage’ or even – and this is a terrible reference to make – the Mitford sisters,” she says, referring to the aristocratic British family.

“Now, the Mitford sisters would not have been very happy, I think, to have influenced this Jewish memoir as at least two of them were friends with Hitler! But I always liked these kind of family sagas where the siblings were all really different and you get really immersed in one story, and then you switch to the next chapter and read a totally different story, and you just get carried along by these very different personalities.”

Another inspiration came from further afield. “My father went to Jerusalem, I think it was in the ’60s, and he bought all of these pamphlets that were self-published Holocaust memoirs from people who had survived,” Freeman recounts.

“So, I was thinking of these weird, sprawling, familial sagas, while at the same time always remembering the pain and the courage of the actual Holocaust memoirs that I’d read growing up in New York.”

Not such a promised land

One of the interesting choices Freeman makes in “House of Glass” is to include the story of her grandfather, Bill Freeman (née Freiman), and his family’s experience on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s and, later, in Farmingdale, Long Island – a small town with a big anti-Semitism problem, albeit one that seemed par for the course in America at the time.

Crowded tenement buildings in Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1933. Bill Freeman escaped the slum housing in the 1930s, but encountered anti-Semitism on Long Island.Credit: AP

The author admits that some people told her they would have omitted the chapter detailing her grandfather’s life, but for her it offered a stark reminder that everyday life wasn’t so different for Jews on either side of the Atlantic in the decades leading up to World War II.

“I grew up in New York and the story we were told – or the story I was told, anyway – as Jewish Americans is that America was the promised land; immigrants were so lucky to come here, they were escaping this kind of dark, backward Europe that was getting taken over by this Nazi wave,” Freeman says.

“But the thing about America in the ’20s and ’30s is that it was pretty bad. There were quotas on Jews, how many Jews businesses could have. I mean, my father went to college in Pennsylvania in the ’50s, and I think only 10 percent of the class was allowed to be Jewish. I thought that was a really interesting parallel: to see how similar attitudes in America were to France in the ’20s and ’30s.”

The French connection

As well as the Glass siblings (we don’t have space here to discuss the fates of Henri and Jacques, to say nothing of the jaw-dropping appearances of Liz Taylor, Richard Burton and Ayatollah Khomeini), the book’s other dominant character is not a person but a place: France, where the family had fled in the hope of building a better life.

Elizabeth Taylor and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, just two of the unlikely names who make cameo appearances in Hadley Freeman's "House of Glass." Credit: AP

The book’s reporting on what took place in wartime France proved a real eye-opener for this reader – especially the hate-filled “denunciation letters” written by as many as 1 million French citizens, spying and informing on their Jewish neighbors to the authorities. There was also the manner in which Vichy France had, as Freeman notes, so eagerly thrown the Jews, particularly the foreign ones, “under the bus – and also how it had done things that the Germans hadn’t asked for and overreached. It is kind of amazing,” she says.

Indeed, one of the most shocking things Freeman found in her grandmother’s shoebox was a copy of a denunciation letter that had been attached to the front door of her brother Henri’s Paris home, telling the authorities where he and his wife were hiding – all written in the most beautiful penmanship.

Freeman admits she isn’t sure how the French will react to her book, but concedes that the country “has become better about acknowledging its [wartime] culpability.” However, she is certain that her damning portrayal of anti-Semitism in 20th-century Chrzanów means her memoir won’t be published in Poland any decade soon, “which I’m fine with!”

Natalie Portman, call your agent

I can’t help but mention the book’s cinematic flourishes to Freeman – from that discovery of the shoebox, to a classic “meet cute” when Henri falls instantly in love with his future wife, Sonia, as she is serving him with bankruptcy papers, to daring escapes from trains and even a showdown at a family funeral – and wonder if we should expect “House of Glass: The Movie” (or TV series) anytime soon.

She confirms there has been some interest, “but everybody keeps saying to me, ‘Well, there’s been a lot of World War II movies recently,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, is World War II passé? I need to get more with the Zeitgeist.’ I think some producers are looking at it, but I’m just tuning out a bit. You can’t get too caught up in these things because you’ll just be disappointed.”

But you must have thought about who you would like to play you or your family members?

Natalie Portman arriving at the premiere of "Vox Lux" in Los Angeles, December 5, 2018.Credit: Jordan Strauss,AP

“You know, I really hadn’t thought about me being in it; I thought about them and who I’d cast,” Freeman laughs. “My sister is always emailing things like ‘Sonia could be Kate Winslet!’ And my mother is determined that Sala should be played by Natalie Portman.”

Although “House of Glass” was for a long time a labor of love, and Freeman admits that curiosity was her main driver in those early years, she says she never felt compelled to follow in Judith Kerr’s footsteps and turn her family history into a work of fiction when some of the facts were proving elusive.

“It’s funny, my dad said to me 17 years ago when I was flailing around in the dark with this, ‘Why don’t you just do this as a novel?’” she recounts. “That always makes me laugh, as if novel-writing is so easy. It’s like when someone says to a person when they’re thinking of having a kid, ‘Why don’t you just adopt?’ I don’t think adoption is that simple!

“Also, I just knew there was a real story here and, as much as I love real stories that have been turned into fiction, I just thought this is a true story and if I can just find enough answers, I can tell it. I guess I also felt that if I turned it into a novel, people actually wouldn’t believe it. I mean, these four siblings – it’s so neat the way they did this. It reflects the options that were open for Jews in France at that time: You hid, you were captured, you fought or you escaped. If that was in a novel, people would say: ‘This is simplistic, this is structurally absurd’ – and yet it’s true.”

In a sense, Freeman has finally reached the end of the line with the book’s publication. In other ways, though, her project is still continuing to reveal new secrets.

“I get a lot of people emailing me their family stories, which is very sweet,” Freeman says. “You sort of imagine this whole world of people keeping these stories to themselves, and all these experiences that their parents and grandparents went through. It’s amazing that the world can contain so many of these very complicated, emotional stories. And yet it does.”

“House of Glass,” published by Simon & Schuster, is out now, $26