House of Glass by Hadley Freeman (4th Estate, £16.99)
Plenty of Jews have probably had the same idea as that which propelled Hadley Freeman to write House of Glass. Surely, after all, there’s a book in many of our family histories, whether it’s the pogroms, the Holocaust, or merely the refugee experience? But even if most of us have a story or two to tell, substantially fewer would be equipped to do so with the skill and intelligence of Guardian writer Freeman.
Moreover, not too many of us have a family history quite as fascinating as hers. House of Glass follows the four Glahs siblings — the youngest of whom, Sala, was Freeman’s grandmother —over the course of the 20th century. Born in abject poverty in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire, they and others from their extended family eventually made their way to Paris to escape antisemitism, only to find themselves caught up in its flames once again when France fell to the Nazis.
However, although some family members perished in the camps, this is broadly a tale of survival. As Freeman notes, ironically, the pogroms that terrified her ancestors into exile were what saved them decades later. She also provides a glimpse of how life for Jews in occupied France was far from easy — for every member of the resistance, scores more collaborated against their Jewish neighbours.
Her book is a compelling, if well-trodden tale, that opens up the issues of immigration and assimilation. What elevates it from other, similar stories is the extraordinary and diverging personalities of the Glahs quartet, from the beautiful, unhappy Sala — who flees to America, where a different Jewish story is playing out — to the larger-than-life Alex Maguy, a couturier who was a close friend of everyone from Picasso to Christian Dior, and a major force in the French fashion industry both before and after the war. House of Glass is as much about a set of outstanding individuals as it is about the victims of Nazi persecution.
Freeman writes beautifully and, although she evokes the historical context, she doesn’t allow it to overload her story. I lapped up the scenes of broiges amid the more sombre episodes, and found myself referring repeatedly back to the introductory family tree to check who was who — which is not a negative reflection on Freeman’s narrative powers; it was just that I was constantly eager to know more. And, by the end, I felt I knew her family history better than my own; it left me envious that I haven’t undertaken the same process with my relatives.
Jennifer Lipman is a freelance journalist