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: 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.
“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.”