March 30, 2020

Hadley Freeman Shares Mysteries of a Family History in ‘House of Glass’

The opening pages of “House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family” by Hadley Freeman (Simon & Schuster) set a scene out of an exotic romantic thriller, and yet it is an authentic family chronicle, deeply poignant and often heartbreaking. I confidently predict that “House of Glass” will find its way to the motion picture screen, but you don’t have to wait to see it on Netflix or Amazon. The story is told with elegance and intensity right there in Freeman’s book.

After the death of her grandmother, Freeman found a shoebox hidden away in a closet. The contents are clues to a mystery: a snapshot of her grandmother in the embrace of a man whose face has been scratched out by “someone’s — presumably my grandmother’s — fingernail”; a telegram from the Red Cross that refers ominously to “distressing news” from war-torn Europe; a drawing bearing the signature of Pablo Picasso and depicting a man with a gun to his head; and a metal tag inscribed with her family name: “Glass Prisonnier Cambrai 1940.” Freeman spent the decade that followed her discovery on a self-appointed mission to flesh out her hidden family history, an enterprise that caroms from Auvergne to America to Auschwitz.

Born in New York and now based in London, Freeman is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom and a contributor to Vogue, New York magazine and Harper’s Bazaar, among other periodicals. She is the author of “Life Moves Pretty Fast,” “The Meaning of Sunglasses” and “Be Awesome.” It turns out that her own cosmopolitan life is precisely the right preparation for the work to be done in revealing the life story of Sala Glass, her beloved grandmother.

At the outset, Freeman confesses that she comes from “a family of anecdotalists,” and she frankly entertains the notion that the stories she remembers are only “lightly penciled.” She wonders aloud: “Am I remembering actual memories or are they memories of memories?” Thanks to her own efforts at fact-checking over several continents and decades, however, she is able to paint an extraordinary colorful and detailed tapestry. 

The starting point for Freeman is France in the 1930s. Even in America, Freeman’s fashionable grandmother carried the traces of the time she spent there: “Her dresses were still carefully preserved in the dry cleaners’ plastic wrap, and still smelled of Chanel perfume and Guerlain face power (even her cosmetics were strictly French).” As she digs even deeper, she finds that the Glass family, which claimed to have come from Vienna, actually originated in a Polish backwater called Chrzanow, which was under the sovereignty of the Austro-Hungarian empire. 

After World War I, the family reached Paris, where one of Sala’s brothers wholly reinvented himself as a couturier and befriended Marc Chagall, among other artists. The Glass family fully embraced the pleasures of life in the City of Light, as Freeman found out for herself when she discovered a collection of photographs that another one of Sala’s brothers took of the enticing young woman who would become his wife. 

“She is lying on the bed and spreading her legs, looking to the camera with a sexuality so frank it is unnerving,” Freeman writes. “You don’t expect to find eighty-year-old evidence of your great-uncle and great-aunt’s sex life.”

After the death of her grandmother, Hadley Freeman found a shoebox hidden away in a closet. She spent the decade that followed her discovery on a self-appointed mission to flesh out her hidden family history, an enterprise that caroms from Auvergne to America to Auschwitz.

Freeman also inquires into the sexuality of the great-uncle who changed his name from Sender to Alex and established a Paris fashion house. “The question of whether Alex was gay or bisexual was one that was raised in his lifetime by his friends and colleagues, but always behind his back,” she writes, and never by his own family. One of the sketchers who worked for Alex recalled: “[Alex] was such a dandy, you know? Always in heels, always heavily perfumed, but he talked about his girlfriends, so we in the studio could never figure it out.” 

A third great-uncle, Jacques, served in the uniform of the French Foreign Legion when Germany invaded France in 1940 and ended up a prisoner of war, as evidenced by the metal tag that Freeman found in her grandmother’s shoebox. (The meaning and destiny of that metal tag is yet another mystery that Freeman manages to solve.) After the French surrender to Germany, Jacques found himself the target of the anti-Semitic laws that were quickly adopted, losing his fur business and submitting his identity card to be stamped with a the word “Juif.”

“When he joined the Legion to risk his life for France, he had little,” Freeman observes. “[N]ow, after fighting for his country, he had even less.”

Only one member of the Glass family —– the youngest sister, Sala, now known as Sara — was able to escape from France before Germany tightened its grip on the Jews of Europe, but she stand outs among the cast of endearing and beguiling characters who populate the pages of “House of Glass” for more reasons than her survival. The photograph of the man with the scratched-out face is a clue to yet another mystery, the one that is almost literally the heart of Freeman’s book.

“The story of my grandmother confused people — particularly, I noticed, Jewish Americans who generally, and understandably, assume that any story about escaping the war by coming to America is a happy one,” Freeman writes. 

All of these stories are carefully placed into their historical context by the author. Indeed, she always seeks to remind us that the intimate personal lives of various family members were lived under the weight of war and pogrom, conquest and occupation, and the machinery of mass murder that we called the Holocaust. Indeed, Freeman shows us exactly how the war against the Jews — the betrayals and denunciations, the roundups and deportations — was actually experienced on the ground in occupied France.

While “House of Glass” is, above all, a highly accomplished, compellingly readable and deeply romantic family memoir, it also honors the victims of the Holocaust by showing us that each one of them was a unique human being whose personalities and passions were not, and could not be, erased by those who sought to kill them.

Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.