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House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman
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£13.99 £16.99

Hadley Freeman’s family memoir, triggered by the discovery of a shoebox full of memorabilia at the back of her grandmother’s wardrobe, took her 20 years to write – and “I don’t hesitate to call it a masterpiece”, said Tanya Gold in The Daily Telegraph. House of Glass is a “near-perfect” study of Jewish identity in the 20th century, of “the anguish of Jewish survival”. Freeman’s grandmother, Sala Glahs, and her three brothers, Jehuda, Jakob and Sender, were born in Poland but driven to Paris by the pogroms that erupted after the First World War. They wanted to belong, and changed their names – to Sara, Henri, Jacques and Alex. Each had a very distinctive character and tragedy, and it is these – as much as the broader story of the Holocaust – that make the book so gripping.

“Adventurous” Alex and “beautiful” Sara were “teenage Francophiles”, who immediately took to their new home, said James Marriott in The Times. Alex, a pugnacious five-footer – “tough like a bullet” – was determined to become a couturier. At 20, he opened a salon. By 30, “he employed 60 people (including a young Christian Dior) and was spending his evenings in nightclubs with Marc Chagall and Édith Piaf”. In the late 1930s, he became so desperate to save his sister from the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe that he forced Sara into marriage with a “coarse” American. Alex told her that her new husband was a millionaire from Manhattan. In fact, he owned a petrol station on Long Island, where she was “heartbreakingly out of place”. Alex also escaped the Holocaust: he leapt from the train taking him to a death camp, and hid out in an Auvergne farmhouse, surviving the War to became a millionaire art dealer. Studious Henri – a successful businessman who invented a microfilming machine – also went into hiding, in Paris. Only gentle Jacques – a furrier who made a pittance from piece work – turned himself in to the local police, “refusing to believe the French state would harm him”. He died in Auschwitz.

As a child, Freeman was unsettled by her grandmother Sara’s “melancholia”, said Victoria Segal in The Sunday Times. It was only 12 years after Sara’s death that she overcame her unease and “set out to answer painful questions” about these emotions and their roots in the past. The result, House of Glass, is a “chilling” work, but also full of love. “It triggers the same shock of recognition that comes from colourised film; black-and-white history flooded with bright detail, human warmth.”