As a child, journalist Hadley Freeman was never emotionally close to her paternal grandmother, Sala Glass, who died in 1994. She frankly found her “weird.” It was only later that Freeman understood that what her grandmother exuded was an unarticulated, profound sadness.
The key to deciphering Sala was a shoe box hidden at the back of her closet in her Florida apartment, in which Freeman’s uncle Richard later lived. The box held Sala’s keepsakes— Glass family documents, letters, photographs and memorabilia from before, during and after the war.
“I knew I had a bigger story when I found my grandmother’s shoe box. It was no longer just about trying to understand my grandmother’s sadness,” Freeman told The Times of Israel on the phone while on lockdown in her London home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2006, Freeman, then assigned to The Guardian’s fashion desk, stumbled upon the dust-covered box while combing through her always-chic grandmother’s beautiful clothes, which were left untouched since her death. Freeman thought she would come away with a sartorial article, but the box’s mysterious trove pushed her to take a deep dive into the entire Glass family saga.
Among the curiosity-piquing items discovered was a photograph of Sala with a young man whose face had been scratched away, and photos of a young man with round glasses — including some of him standing next to other men near what appears to be some kind of hut or cabin. Freeman also found a letter in French saying that “la famille Glass” was hiding in Paris under an assumed name, photos of Alex (who went by the last name Maguy professionally) with Pablo Picasso, and a sketch of a man holding a gun to his head signed, “Avec amitié, Picasso.”
The Glass family had arrived in France following pogroms in their Austro-Hungarian hometown of Chrzanow (now in Poland). Sala, her mother Chaya, and three older brothers — Henri, Jacques and Alex — immigrated to Paris, France in the 1920s. The family’s father had died earlier of complications from gassing after volunteering to fight in WWI.
Sala, her mother, and two brothers later made it through World War II and the Holocaust alive. In Sala’s case, it was because her brother Alex made sure to get her to America before the war. Because she escaped the Holocaust, one could attribute the beautiful Sala’s sorrow to survivor’s guilt — but that would be a mistake.
After a 20-year-long research journey into her paternal family’s past, Freeman discovered that what Sala most mourned her entire adult life was herself: She mourned the culture-filled Parisian life and artistic career she was forced to permanently exchange for a pedestrian existence in suburban New York. There, she was saddled with a husband whom she could not make herself love.
Freeman, 41, shares Sala’s story, as well as that of her great-uncles, in her newly published family memoir,“House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family.” It’s an accessible, fascinating study of how historical circumstances, personality, choices and luck intersect to determine life trajectories.
Freeman, a longtime columnist and feature writer for The Guardian, traces the Glass family — a microcosm of the 20th-century European Jewish experience — from the shtetl through to post-war triumphs at the pinnacle of the fashion, art and business worlds.
Surviving in a man’s world
The family’s great success stories were written by the surviving men — Sala’s brothers Alex and Henri. However, it was extremely important for Freeman to also highlight Sala’s quiet, domestic life story‚ so characteristic of women of her generation. Once Freeman came to understand who her grandmother really was, she wanted others to, as well.
“The story of my grandmother confused people, especially Jewish Americans, who understandably assume that any story about escaping the war to the US is a happy one… Sala had done what she had to in order to survive, but in saving herself she lost everything that had made her life worth living,” Freeman wrote in an essay for The Guardian.
Later, when Freeman’s uncle discovered Alex’s unpublished memoir in 2014, she was able to connect many of the dots established by the shoe box items and the archival research she had done to that point with the help of historian Daniel Lee. Subsequent research substantiated the anecdotes recorded by Alex — many of them astonishing and grandiose. (It turned out they were all true.)
Siblings often differ from one another, but the characters of Henri, Jacques and Alex varied so greatly that they significantly influenced each of the brothers’ fates during the war.
Cautious, sensible elder brother Henri and his resourceful wife Sonia remained in Paris using false identification papers. They had to move from apartment to apartment to avoid detection, especially after being denounced by neighbors. Prior to the war Henri, the only sibling with higher education, had invented an early version of a machine that microfilmed and shrunk down documents. During the war he traveled secretly all over France with his machine, saving public and private archives from the Nazis and the Vichy government. Later, Henri’s machine made him a very wealthy man, but in a holdover from the war, he continued to keep a low profile.
Second brother Jacques, with the round spectacles, had always been the most docile in the family. He worked rather unsuccessfully in the fur business, and was happiest hanging out with friends in the cafés in the Pletzl (now the Marais), the Jewish section of Paris. Jacques unquestioningly married his first cousin Mila at the direction of his mother.
At the outbreak of the war, he fought with the French Foreign Legion and was imprisoned for a period in 1940 by the Germans in Cambrai. He escaped from the war prison and returned to Paris, which makes it surprising that he soon thereafter unquestionably obeyed orders for the Jews of France to register with the authorities.
“It didn’t even occur to Alex to put his name on the census, and Henri, after careful deliberation with Sonia, decided against it, too. But Jacques was always different from his brothers… So even though he had had to flee his hometown because of anti-Semitism, and he had just escaped from a Nazi war prison, he still had a submissive soul… No, Jacques felt, it was always better to obey authorities. After all, if you did what they said, why would they try to hurt you?” Freeman wrote.
Jacques was sent to the Pithiviers labor-concentration camp during the Rafle du billet vert (green ticket roundup) in May 1941. At the camp, he was assigned administrative work, and shockingly granted a short leave on December 30 to be with his wife in Paris when she gave birth to their daughter Lily. Jacques’s brothers urged him to flee, but he chose to return to Pithiviers out of a sense of solidarity with the other men there, who could have been severely punished had he not returned.
Jacques was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on July 17, 1942, dying there on October 6 of the same year.
The diminutive Alex (Freeman describes him as “small, bald and tough like a bullet”) was by far the most colorful member of the family. Defiant by nature, he recklessly went out into the streets of Chrzanow as a boy to fight anti-Semites during pogroms. Despite the odds and with no financial backing, he established himself by his early 20s as a couturier in Paris, and managed to relocate his business to the French Riviera during the war. The Nazi and Vichy authorities kept close tabs on him, but he was able to avoid arrest thanks to ties with top military brass under whom he served bravely during a stint in the French Foreign Legion.
When Alex eventually got into trouble, he fled and hid in the countryside of Auvergne in central France with the help of the Resistance. Notwithstanding his fierce post-war criticism of wartime collaborators, Freeman discovered that Alex had not been averse to collaborating with the enemy himself if it mean his survival. “Life-saving pragmatism took precedence over his loyalty to a greater cause,” Freeman wrote of her great-uncle.
After the war, Alex continued to work in the high fashion world, but he couldn’t adapt when the industry shifted from couture to ready-to-wear. Never one to give up, Alex reinvented himself as a successful high-end art dealer. Already friends with famous artists like Marc Chagall and Moïse Kisling, he added other luminaries such as his idol Pablo Picasso to his circle.
Sala, on the other hand, continued to live as an American housewife until she was felled by strokes and died, never having fulfilled her dreams of one day returning to live in her beloved Paris. Supported well by her husband Bill, she poured her energy into dressing fashionably and keeping a beautiful home, and also into her children and grandchildren. She loved them fiercely, but this did not make up for her suffering.
“In her eyes, we were not the compensation for what she had left behind, but the explanation for it,” Freeman wrote.
A calculated risk
“It was emotionally difficult to write this book. I wanted to do it, and I didn’t,” Freeman said. “I was afraid how this would affect my dad, uncle and other relatives.”
“I was afraid I would uncover terrible secrets. But the story is really about good people who lived in terrible times,” she said.
Freeman never got to really know her grandmother, and she regrets having never asked Alex — the last sibling to die — more questions before it was too late. However, by writing “House of Glass,” Freeman has broken through her family’s tradition of silence about the past. She did it for herself, and also for her three children.
“I never thought I’d see a resurgence of anti-Semitism in my lifetime like the one we are experiencing, but I want my kids to know how lucky we are to be Jews living now and not during the war. I want my sons and daughter to have a cultural and historical sense of their Jewish heritage and know what their ancestors went through so that they could be here,” Freeman said.
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