House of Glass by Hadley Freeman


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A family’s stories and legends are always a tricky place to visit. What is unsaid often carries more weight than what is. When Hadley Freeman looked into the shoebox of memories left by her Grandmother, Sala, her journey would take her from Miami Beach to Chrzanów, Poland to Paris and to Auschwitz. What she has crafted into the House of Glass can only be described as an enthralling, heartbreaking and haunting book.

The Glahs family were from Chrzanów, Poland. They were born into the Jewish community that lived in the town surrounded by the dark forests the children would escape too. It was a close-knit place where Reuben and Chaya Glahs raised their children, Jehuda, Jakob, Sender and Sala. But it was not an easy life. While Reuben was an educated man, the only man in town other than the rabi who could read and write Hebrew, he struggled to hold down a job. Chaya, who spent most of a decade pregnant and hungry, clearly loved her husband but, as Freeman points out “you can’t eat intellect”. The house they lived in was dark and dank, with Sender falling from open windows more than once. But the children did as children do, this was their life, and they played within it, making it so much more with their friends and cousins as only children can.

The children’s personalities were bright, each with an individuality distinct from the others. The First World War would cripple Reuben’s lungs, and afterwards, their neighbours would turn on the Jews in their midst. Slowly, amidst the increasing anti-Semitism, the family moved to a new life in France. Paris is as much a character in the Glahs/Glass family’s life as any of the individuals. Living in the city, they chose to transform and be transformed by it. First, they moved into to familiarity of the Jewish community in the Pletzl then they changed their names to assimilate with the world beyond the Pletzl. Jehuda chose Henri while Jakob became Jacques, Sender was Alex, and Sala became Sara. They would either embrace their heritage and stay within the familiarity of the Pletzl or chose the romance and beauty of Paris and the opportunities held beyond it.

Freeman structures her book by focusing on each of the siblings in turn over a given period. Through this, each of their personalities comes to the fore, as do their decisions. As they grow and marry, the differences and battlelines that every family draws amongst themselves become clear. These lines stay and entrench and play their parts in the family’s future. While Henri and Alex would make names for themselves in developing document reproduction machines (on microfilm and microdots) and fashion respectively, Jacques would try to make a living as a furrier. He would marry and, like tens of thousands of others, be rounded up by the Vichy government and eventually deported to Auschwitz. Sara would be saved by forgoing her passions and love, following her brother Alex’s somewhat embellished instructions to marry an American. Sara would end up on Long Island, a million miles from her family and the city she adored. Her act of defiance is to return to her name of Sala.

As each of the siblings is brought vividly to life, Freeman also tenderly reveals their characters. Not all were as driven as Alex or as sad as Sala. Their marriages help and then force wedges between them. Throughout Freeman’s journey, the littlest of the family keeps elbowing his way to the front. Alex’s life is captured as richly as Sala’s and through Alex’s forceful personality, and the memoir he left behind, Alex makes sure that his story is as striking as the clothes he designed and the art in which he traded. But Alex does not overwhelm as Freeman manages to deftly balances each of her great aunts, uncles and grandparents as you see her understanding of her family grow as she introduces us outsiders to each of them.

House of Glass is a fascinating insight into a Jewish family living through the great upheavals of the 20th Century. The Glass family found themselves amongst events that swept them up and scattered them in ways that only a family truly understands. Many times, Freeman brought me up cold with the sorrow the family faced, and the pain her Grandmother endured thousands of miles away as her family, was thrown into hiding and killed. For all the Diors and Picassos that pop up throughout this beautiful book, Hadley Freeman’s family shine from the pages. It is a heartfelt love letter to those she remembers and those she never got to meet. It is a pleasure to be invited into her family for even just this short while.

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman is out now from 4th Estate, RRP £16.99

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