The sorrow of exiles returning to ruins

The sorrow of exiles returning to ruins

In the 75 years following the Anschluss, artist and author Edmund de Waal has published The Exiles Return – his Jewish grandmother’s beautifully written novel, which is semi-autobiographical, writes Rebecca Wallersteiner.

“This is a novel about being Viennese, about exile and return, the push and pull of your love, anger and despair and about a place, which is part of your identity – but which rejected you,” says Edmund. “My grandmother, Elizabeth, spent her life in transit between countries and kept only the things that mattered most to her – and this book, which was not published during her lifetime, did.”

Elizabeth de Waal (born 1926) Courtesy of Edmund de Waal (2)
Elizabeth de Waal. Courtesy of Edmund de Waal

The Exiles Return is about five people forced to flee their homes, and reflects different aspects of Elizabeth herself. The two principal protagonists, Professor Adler, an exiled academic, and Resi, a beautiful girl who resembles her mother, dramatize Elizabeth’s life.

“And it was a life of great drama,” says Edmund. He tells me that Elizabeth’s mother, Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla married Victor Ephrussi, a rich banker, when she was just 18. The couple enjoyed a life of luxury until the Anschluss.

The characters who most resemble Elizabeth are Professor Adler, an academic, who returns to ruined post-war Vienna and Princess Nina, who dreams about going to university, rather than getting married.

Professor Adler is Jewish and fled from Vienna to New York after the Anschluss. As a research scientist, he returns to try and take up his old life once more. As the train approaches Vienna, he remembers his ancestors and the home he left behind.

Elizabeth examines the ambiguous reactions of people he encounters and the embarrassment of those who bought the possessions of emigrants dirt-cheap at auctions. She explores the idea that it was hard to know who had behaved well during Nazi occupation and who was a fascist sympathiser. These thoughts were based on Elizabeth’s own heart-rending personal experience of returning to Vienna and her attempts to regain her family’s looted house and possessions.

Elizabeth had been born into a very different world. In 1899, as the oldest of four children in the rich, dynastic and Jewish Ephrussi family, Elizabeth seemed to be destined for a future as the pampered trophy wife of a rich man, just as her mother had happily been.

Along with her sister, Gisela, and brothers Iggie and Rudolf, she lived in the gilded and marbled Palais Ephrussi, on the newly constructed Ringstrasse.

Assorted cousins and family lived nearby and the street was derisively known as Zionstrasse, by those who envied the banking fortunes of its mainly Jewish inhabitants.

Elisabeth de Waal with her brother Iggie in Japan in 1960. Courtesy of Edmund De Waal
Elisabeth de Waal with her brother Iggie in Japan in 1960. Courtesy of Edmund De Waal

Her family had adopted Vienna as its home 30 years before and their tragic history was brilliantly captured in Edmund’s internationally best-selling The Hare with Amber Eyes. But Elizabeth’s mind was not on acquiring the newest couture fashions or glittering jewels.

From her bedroom she preferred to read serious books, gazing wistfully across at the city’s university and longed to be a law student. She begged her mother to be allowed to study with teachers from the boy’s school across the street and managed to attain the grades necessary to graduate and gain admittance to the university’s law faculty.

Studying hard, writing and building her inner resources proved her salvation in life. While at college she met the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. They corresponded and she sent him her poems, which he then read and commented on.

After graduation she escaped her gilded Ephrussi Ringstrasse cage, took the train to Paris and married a sensible Dutchman, Hendrik de Waal.

In 1928 she began writing for the Parisian-based publication, Le Figaro. Very aware of the growth of fascism throughout much of Europe, the couple worried about Elizabeth’s ageing parents, now at risk of internment, back home.

In 1938, she bravely returned to Vienna, just weeks after the Anschluss to rescue her parents and grandparents. She managed to get her father safely to England in 1939 and returned as soon as the war ended to find out what had happened to the rest of her family. Elizabeth found them in exile scattered around the Diaspora, as far afield as America, Mexico and England.

The Palais Ephrussi had been ransacked and emptied of its furniture and paintings by the Nazis and was now being used as American army headquarters.

It was in the ruins of her family’s mansion that she was given the only part of the family collection that had survived – the collection of 264 Netsuke, miniature Japanese sculptures, which had been rescued by her mother’s maid, Anna, after she had hidden them in her mattress.

Elizabeth used her training as a lawyer to fight for justice and battled against the contempt of the post-war Viennese authorities. She did eventually secure some compensation for her family, but as Edmund says, “it was very limited and late in the day”.

Life was better in England – as an academic Elizabeth didn’t seem to have missed the Downton luxury and servants of her childhood life very much.

The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal
The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

From 1939 onwards she and Hendrik lived with her father and children in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. Her husband took the train to London every day to work for the Dutch government in exile and Elizabeth, who didn’t even know how to boil an egg, learnt to cook and clean. She also taught her children, in such subjects as Latin.

Their two sons, Constant and Victor, became thoroughly English.

Her former cook used to send recipes for Schnitzel and Salzburger Nockerl, a traditional Viennese sweet soufflé.

As well as being a post-war wife and mother, Elizabeth wrote four novels and continued working as a journalist, including writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement.

Edmund decided to bring his feisty grandmother’s novel into print as a tribute to her resilience and fortitude and has written a moving prologue to the first of her novels to be published.

Although it is about the sorrow of returning to the country that has rejected you and your people, it is as much about courage, survival and building a new life in a different country.

The Exiles Return, by Elizabeth de Waal, is published by Persephone Books Ltd, priced £12.

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