Hadley Freeman’s grandmother and great uncles grew up in Eastern Europe in a place which was Poland after WW1 but which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They lived in Jewish settlements but faced regular discrimination and danger from their non-Jewish neighbours and the state. This built on a history of ill treatment and exposure to the pogroms of Russia and its satellite states. This is the world of The Bielski Brothers (see my review here) but in House of Glass the author tells the story of her family who chose to leave their home and make a new life in France between the wars.
I have a great weakness for family memoirs and particularly enjoy those where the author has to investigate the past to find out what has happened to their family – a recent book with similar themes is The Secret of the Notebook which I review here and you could also read The Hare with Amber Eyes which I have read but not reviewed and The Missing which I review here.
Emigrating to France seemed a sensible move at the time and the family began to prosper in different ways including the fashion industry. As war beckoned, however, they had to make decisions about what to do. The author’s grandmother went to America but her brothers remained in France with differing results. The author gives a clear outline of what happened in Vichy (Occupied) France and how the French authorities chose to prioritise passing to the Germans those Jews who had been born outside France. It isn’t a pretty story and some of those who were given power abused it terribly. Mary Doria Russell has written about this time in her novel A Thread of Grace which I highly recommend.
Not all of the family survived and those who did had to do some things which were not completely honourable to stay alive – there is a chilling description of the fate of one brother who chose to do the right, decent and honourable thing and suffered for it. After the war the surviving family had to remake their lives and live with the continual reminder of what had happened to their relations. The war and the family’s rejection by France affected each one of them and relations between the survivors.
The author writes sympathetically about her family but doesn’t gloss over their flaws. She shows the reader what it was like always to be the outsider and never to be completely welcome. She shares the history of these times and how it affected people. Her family come alive to the reader.
I really enjoyed this book. I thought that the history was well told and the family story was fascinating. The book is a reminder of what it means to be a minority community and how vulnerable and risky it can often be..