Hadley Freeman’s latest book begins with a hidden shoebox of her grandmother’s photos and trinkets, but its scope reaches far beyond the family story of one woman. Over the course of four hundred pages, Freeman describes in intimate detail the childhood, war-time, and post-war experiences of her grandmother, Sala/Sara Glahs, and her three brothers: Jehuda/ Henri, Jakob/Jacques, and Sender/Alex.
The tale of the Glass, Glahs, Ornstein, Freiman, and Freeman families is the story of the twentieth century. The siblings grew up in Chrzanow in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before moving to Paris to escape growing anti-Semitism. The four siblings had varying approaches to assimilation and French culture, but nothing could shield them completely from the rise of fascism and the Nazi invasion. The only sibling to partially escape the hardship of the war in France was Sara, who was – almost forcibly – married to an American to ensure her safety. Even on Long Island, she could not escape anti-Semitism completely.
Freeman tracks the four siblings and their families in minute detail throughout the course of the war. Each decision they make – such as to register as a Jew in Paris or to make the choice to evade the authorities – is told respectfully and sensitively. It is so easy to see the ‘right’ decision in hindsight, but the desire to ‘be French’ and respect the French authorities led many immigrant Jews to register their address and put their trust in the government. The story continues after the war with the siblings who survived in France enjoying a positive change in fortune.
Freeman initially wanted to write a straightforward book about fashion and her grandmother Sara, who was always exquisitely dressed and, in the photos which pepper the text, resembles the paradigm of a sophisticated French woman. Her life may not have had the heroism or dramatic action of even her brothers’ tales, but Freeman handles her story with great deftness and grace.
She takes George Eliot’s concept of “a hidden life”, and makes the time and space to record her grandmother’s unrecorded sacrifices. Sala married an American man because she thought he would rescue the rest of her family from Paris; she stayed with him after the war because she believed he needed her; and she gave up her dream of living in France when it was clear he had no plans to return to Europe.
Sometime after the war, and fed up of their small town in Long Island, she bought a bigger house in a neighbouring town with better schools, all without consulting her husband. Freeman’s careful attention to Sara’s life feels like a labour of love; a devoted attempt to discover the cause of her continual sadness, and her bravery too.
Despite Freeman’s familial focus, she never forgets, or lets her readers forget, that Jewish persecution affected millions of families throughout the twentieth century and continues to do so today. She expends huge energy in explaining some of the foundations of anti-Jewish sentiment – the modern form of anti-Semitism that holds that ‘Jews are political destabilisers’ can be traced to the fundamental Christian belief that Jews were responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion – and identifies echoes of centuries-old oppression in the speeches and actions of politicians today. It is sad to say that a book which charts the destruction caused by fascism and the holocaust is ‘timely’ in 2020, but Freeman makes it undeniably clear that education about anti-Semitism and its roots is much needed.
Throughout, names are in flux: each of the siblings has their birth name and their French name. One of the brothers had pushed their father to change their name from the Jewish “Glahs” to the more unplaceable “Glass” back when they lived in Chrzanow.
For Sara, “Glass” becomes “Freiman”, before changing further to an Americanised “Freeman”, and Alex adopts “Maguy” when establishing his fashion business. In later life Sara returns to Sala; there are fewer issues with having a Jewish first name in eighties America than thirties Paris. Each of these changes reflects the family’s continual movement; languages divide rather than unite them as different generations struggle to speak French, Yiddish, and English. One of the most subtly poignant moments comes near the end of the book when Freeman describes her Great Uncle Henri dying with a “teach yourself English” book on his bedside table; he had wanted to be able to speak to Freeman and her sister when he saw them next.
Freeman tells the story of a family uprooted, tormented, and pulled apart by twentieth century history. Her family history is one propelled by global change, but individual resilience and bravery does not go unrecorded. House of Glass is tender, compelling, and relevant; it deserves every bit of praise it has received.