Toward the end of her forthcoming memoir, Hadley Freeman describes a divide between those quietly haunted by her family’s suffering during the Holocaust and those less troubled by the inherited trauma. It’s a demarcation that applies to nearly all descendants of trauma survivors. There are the ones who would rather forget, and the ones who absolutely obsess over their families’ stories, never forgetting where they came from, the truths of the Holocaust boring holes in their chests, reminding them constantly of their mortality and the unrelenting despotism of hate. I belong to the latter camp. As a grandchild of survivors, I am constantly impelled to investigate a suffering I could only imagine, aunts and uncles I could only summon in my sleep. Like Freeman, not a day goes by where I don’t acknowledge that my existence is contingent upon my grandparents’ agony and their enduring loss.
There’s a mostly imagined incentive for generations after survivors to preserve their relatives’ histories, turn it into something real and beautiful and human, rather than allowing it to remain a mystery—a bygone enigma of the most brutal origins. The history I wanted was personal, emotional, and character-driven. I wanted to know who my grandparents had to become in order to survive and who my grandparents’ families were before they weren’t. In her new memoir, House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family, out March 24 from Simon & Schuster, journalist and author Hadley Freeman takes on the harrowing history of anti-Semitism before, during, and after the Holocaust. Freeman gives this history a human face, writing about her supposedly French grandmother Sara and her three siblings: Henri, Jacques, and Alex.
But Freeman’s family wasn’t always French. Born Sala, Jehuda, Jakob, and Sender in what is now Poland but was once the Austro-Hungarian village of Chrzanow, the family grew up poor on a shtetl. By the end of World War I, the family became threatened by a series of violent pogroms against the Jewish community, and so one by one, they made their way to France. Over the course of the book, we encounter stories of extraordinary bravery and efforts to preserve both a family and a culture.
I spoke with Freeman over the phone from her home in London. The timing was uncanny, wedged between two violent acts of anti-Semitism—an armed attack on a Jewish grocery store in Jersey City and a fatal stabbing spree at the home of an Orthodox rabbi in upstate New York. In England, hate crimes against Jews doubled from 2018 to 2019, compared to the previous year. We discussed this rising antisemitism, the challenges of writing about family members, and the responsibilities of grandchildren of survivors.
The Rumpus: In the book, you write about the initial discovery of your grandmother’s shoe box. At what point did you decide to begin your research for this book, and how did you navigate the process of researching and writing it?
Hadley Freeman: It was very much step by step. I don’t think there was ever one point when I thought: I’m really going to commit the next eighteen years of my life to this. I think if I ever thought that, I wouldn’t have done it at all. It was more that I found the shoe box, which was filled with all these memories and photographs, and I thought, okay, I’m going to start asking questions about what some of these things were. I realized that I first needed to know more about World War II and what life was like in Paris then. I found an academic in London who was a specialist in that subject and he took me to a conference where I met this historian/academic who I basically kidnapped and made my researcher. So I definitely had someone with me, this researcher, who was helping me a lot, as well as encouraging me that this was a real thing. It was a journalistic endeavor; I just took things one at a time.
Rumpus: You begin the book in Poland. How much of your grandmother’s life in Poland was a surprise to you?
Freeman: I didn’t even really know that she was Polish; I always thought that she was French. It wasn’t until I said I should really write a book a book about my grandmother—there was something about her sadness that made me want to write a book—that I started asking my dad questions. I realized that she lived in Poland until she was a teenager, which I knew nothing about previously. I later found out more about her life in Poland through my great-uncle Alex’s memoir. There were actually two Polish archivists who helped me a lot, as well as academics who took me to Chrzanow and Auschwitz. That’s how I did all that research and was able to recreate that world.
Rumpus: You went there with your dad, too, right?
Freeman: Yes, with my dad and my cousin Anne-Laurence, which I write about at the end of the first chapter. What’s devastating is that it was fifty-five percent Jewish when my grandmother lived there and now there are no Jews. I don’t think you can really write about these places without going to them.
Rumpus: How much were you able to glean from your uncle Alex’s memoirs? How did it feel to read these memoirs which might have seemed like fantasy and then to find out that so much of it was true?
Freeman: Alex’s memoir is stream of consciousness. He didn’t sit down to write a book; he was dictating it to somebody, so it jumps around a lot. I mostly had to rely on archival research and use contemporary memoirs to try to back up a lot of what he said. I used Dior’s memoir a lot as well as other writings from Alex’s contemporaries. You really can find out a lot in the archives in Paris, especially the city archives in Paris where they recorded day-to-day life in the city back then.
Alex did write quite a lot about being in Paris back then because that was the happiest time in his life. There are things I found out that I never considered about him. I always knew that he had this incredible story because I would go to his house as a twenty-year-old and see these Monets and Van Goghs and Picassos on the wall, which certainly my grandmother didn’t have and was not the life that I grew up with at all. He had this unique and incredible story in our family. When we were growing up, my father and his cousin Daniele would tell us, “Take everything that Alex tells you with a pinch of salt,” but actually it turned out that everything he said was true which makes it even more extraordinary.
Rumpus: There have been lots of stories written about Jews during WWII and the Holocaust, both fiction and nonfiction. Why do you think we need another one and why should it be yours?
Freeman: For me, I don’t really see it as a Holocaust story. I see it as a story of four really interesting people who had these four amazing lives, lives that are unimaginable to us now. You’re American and you’re Jewish like I am—we all grew up reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit or Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, you know, we all know that there are lots of books out there about the Holocaust but I don’t really feel that makes any of them less interesting. Now more than ever it’s important to keep telling those stories because anti-Semitism is alive in Europe on the right as well as on the left. We need to keep reminding people that this is something that happened still just about in living memory, and it happened so suddenly. I didn’t even see it as an instructive thing to write this book, I just saw it as a story of four compelling people with compelling personalities, people I’m still obsessed with twenty years after they died.
Rumpus: In your family, there were people who were killed, people who survived by way of social and professional affiliations, as well as many who remained in hiding or immigrated. Did these differing stories help you to tell a more complete story of your family?
Freeman: Yes, and it made possible the things that you wouldn’t think would be possible to find. For example, in my grandmother’s shoe box she had photos of Jacques, her brother. The photos were taken in the concentration camp and he then got a guard to smuggle them out and send them to her. So, I was able to see stuff that you think couldn’t possibly exist but does exist. I really don’t think my family is unique in that, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we are. I’m sure other people’s grandmothers and fathers and mothers have this kind of stuff in their closets, too. But I think what the key thing about these keepsakes is, and what the retention of these keepsakes says, is that there’s a lot of really suppressed pain in many families about what the older generations went through.
Rumpus: Was it difficult explaining this project to family members, knowing that their lives and their parents’ lives would be discussed at length? Did they offer you any help?
Freeman: It was more that they were wondering why it was taking me so long. Once they knew this was happening, they were extremely supportive and kind of thrilled that their parents would be recognized in some way. Henri’s daughter Daniele was extremely supportive, as was my dad’s cousin Armand who is still in Paris. My cousin Anne-Laurence Goldberg, whose parents were in the resistance, was a great source for finding things because her mother saved over one hundred letters, many of them coded, between family members during the war. I didn’t know Anne-Laurence before I started this book, but when I went to see her in Paris, I asked her if she had anything that might help me and and she went to her cupboard in her little kitchen, opened the door, and a huge box of letters from 1920 to 1950 just came tumbling out.
Rumpus: How do you think the Glass siblings felt when it came to sharing their own stories?
Freeman: Well, Alex had very much intended for his memoir to be published and he sent it to my grandmother just to look at. So, he was fully intending this to be published. During my research I found a bunch of his former assistants who’d worked for him in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and all of them talked about how he wanted to publish a book. Actually, one of the assistants I found helped him type it up, and though it was incoherent, he realized his story was incredible enough to be published.
But for the others, it was the opposite. They were not public people, and I think they thought, not unreasonably, “So many Jews have had incredible experiences, why would we write about ours?” I understand that, and there were times where I’ve felt that, too, but just because other people have had that experience, it doesn’t make yours any less interesting or compelling. Still, there was a lot of self-deprecation and self-consciousness among my grandparents’ generation and also fear of drawing attention to themselves. My grandmother had an emotional firewall around her at all times and certainly Henri and Sonia never got over the fear that the Holocaust would happen again and therefore they shouldn’t draw attention to themselves and their Jewishness.
Rumpus: Is there something you wish you could have included or something that sticks in your head that you can’t let go of from the writing process?
Freeman: What I wish about the book, and I know this sounds like a really pat answer, but I wish I could have included Henri and Alex and my grandmother’s voices. I wish I could have been able to interview them for this book. I feel like an idiot that I didn’t talk to them about it when they were alive and instead had to deal with it posthumously with them. I wish I had been able to ask them questions about their experiences rather than just kind of using what I had at my hands. I tried to find as much as possible to fill out the story, but in the end you can only find so much; you still don’t have the actual person. I wish I had the actual people.
Rumpus: Do you feel a sense of duty as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors to tell these stories? Especially since the second generation is often known for remaining quiet, do you believe that the responsibility often falls on the following generations to record these stories?
Freeman: Probably. It’s interesting that you say that about the second generation because that’s what the end of the book is about; it’s about how painful, how hard I found doing this in some ways because of its effect on my father and his brother and how the children of the four main people in the book, well mainly Henri and Sala, really didn’t get involved in the past at all. This is what the last two chapters are about. And not only did they never get involved in the past, but they never asked about the past, nor spoke about it. And it’s their children, basically me and my cousin Alexandre, who do ask about it and are interested. We basically both feel that since we are the last generation who knew our grandparents, it’s up to us to make sure these stories are told.
Sometimes I feel a little ridiculous writing this book because every grandchild of a Holocaust survivor or Jews who were around during World War II, we all know these stories. Every Jew who went through WWII has an incredible story. I’m certainly not saying every Jew has the most extraordinary story, but I also feel all of these stories are extraordinary, and like you say, all of these stories should be recorded. Certainly over the eighteen years I dragged my feet on doing this I would imagine that if I got hit by a bus and was laying in the road, bleeding and about to die, I would think damn, I really wish I’d written that book. That would be one of my main regrets.
Rumpus: As a columnist for The Guardian, you sometimes write about anti-Semitism in Britain. Did writing this book give you an extra push to write about current issues in a new light?
Freeman: It’s hard for me to separate now what I would have done without the book. It’s made me maybe more aware of how lethal anti-Semitism is and how damaging it is, how the damage caused in our grandparents’ lifetime is still in effect. Some people can be quite blasé about it, they’ll say: “Jews, they’re fine, they’re generally wealthy, well established, high-standing members of society, they’re not a vulnerable minority,” and all the awful stereotypes that people say about Jews. Writing this book emphasized how vulnerable any minority can be. It makes me angry to see how some people could dismiss anti-Semitism as a non-issue. I just want to tell them: “This is one of the most serious issues of the past century.” I can’t believe that we even need to fight this fight again.
Photograph of Hadley Freeman by Linda Nylind.