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House of Glass

The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family


About The Book

Writer Hadley Freeman investigates her family’s secret history in this “exceptional” (The Washington Post) “masterpiece” (The Daily Telegraph) uncovering a story that spans a century, two World Wars, and three generations.

Hadley Freeman knew her grandmother Sara lived in France just as Hitler started to gain power, but rarely did anyone in her family talk about it. Long after her grandmother’s death, she found a shoebox tucked in the closet containing photographs of her grandmother with a mysterious stranger, a cryptic telegram from the Red Cross, and a drawing signed by Picasso.

This discovery sent Freeman on a decade-long quest to uncover the significance of these keepsakes, taking her from Picasso’s archives in Paris to a secret room in a farmhouse in Auvergne to Long Island to Auschwitz. Freeman pieces together the puzzle of her family’s past, discovering more about the lives of her grandmother and her three brothers, Jacques, Henri, and Alex. Their stories sometimes typical, sometimes astonishing—reveal the broad range of experiences of Eastern European Jews during the Holocaust.

This “frightening, inspiring, and cautionary” (Kirkus Reviews) family saga is filled with extraordinary twists, vivid characters, and famous cameos, illuminating the Jewish and immigrant experience in the World War II era. Reviewers have asked: “is there a better book about being Jewish?” (The Daily Telegraph) Addressing themes of assimilation, identity, and home, House of Glass is “a triumph” (The Bookseller) and a powerful story about the past that echoes issues that remain relevant today.


Chapter 1: The Glahs Family—The Shtetl Chapter 1 THE GLAHS FAMILY–THE SHTETL
Austria-Hungary, 1900s

Sender, Sala, and an Ornstein cousin in Chrzanow in about 1916

Henri, Jacques, Alex, and Sara Glass loved being French, and the reason was that they weren’t French and their names weren’t Henri, Jacques, Alex, and Sara Glass. They were born Jehuda, Jakob, Sender, and Sala Glahs in what is now Poland but was then still Austria-Hungary. This caused further confusion about the nationality of the Glasses in life and death: Alex was often described in newspaper articles in his lifetime as “Austrian,” and Sala’s death certificate states her place of birth simply as “Austria.” This was echoed by several of her friends from later in life who told me that she spent her early years “in Vienna, I think.” In fact, Sala grew up more than 250 miles from Vienna, and the Glahs family probably never visited what is now Austria at all. They were from Chrzanow, once a busy market town whose name derives, with a memorable lack of romanticism, from the Polish word for horseradish (chrzan), a local specialty. Its region was more elegantly named Galicia, in what is now Poland’s southwest corner.

Chrzanow was a typical early-twentieth-century eastern European shtetl, or Jewish village, the kind that’s so familiar from popular culture that even those who lived there describe it through the prism of art, flattening reality to something close to cliché. The very few times my grandmother referred to her childhood she talked about it in reference to Fiddler on the Roof, and the memoir of a townsperson who lived there at the same time as the Glahs siblings described its picturesque side streets as looking “like those in Chagall’s paintings, poor and crooked.” 1 When I visited Chrzanow in 2018 my guide compared it to the towns in stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. But Chrzanow has its own unique qualities that lift it beyond the generic. Back when the Glahses lived there, it was known for its surrounding dark forests of densely packed silver birch trees where the children would hide to avoid their parents and schoolteachers. It also had an exceptionally pretty central square, fringed with colorful houses and shops, where people from miles away would come to do their shopping. Today it is better known for the more dubious accolade of being only 12.5 miles from Auschwitz, so close the two towns considered themselves to be sisters.

None of the Glahs siblings ever spoke about their childhoods, and if they mentioned Poland at all they’d spit with disgust and move on, no elaboration necessary. So, without personal anecdotes to act as my starting point, I turned to historical documents. If my family had been one of the famous Jewish dynasties—the Rothschilds, say, or the Freuds, or even the Halberstams, a wealthy family who lived in the region at the time—this would have sufficed. But they were not, and it did not. There aren’t many records of the individual billions of poorer lives from Europe’s past, people who leave only footprints in the sand that blow away as soon as they are buried; people who leave, at most, unidentifiable black-and-white photos behind them—their faces blankly solemn for the photographer’s studio, the flash bleaching them of personality—or perhaps a brief mention in a census locked away in an obscure government vault that proves they once existed and nothing more. These people are merely referred to by history as “the poor,” “the peasants,” “the illiterate,” even though their lives are far more revealing of the times in which they lived than those of the grander families whose lives are faithfully recorded ever after by historians.

My father mentioned that back in the 1970s my great-uncle Alex claimed to have written a memoir, which was never published, but my father couldn’t remember if he’d ever even seen it, let alone read it. If it existed at all, it had surely long been thrown away, but it seemed more likely that this was another one of Alex’s many implausible boasts, that he once wrote a memoir that somehow no one had ever seen. The idea that Alex could have ever had the patience to sit down and write an entire book seemed about as likely as my hanging out with Picasso. But one day in 2014, my father’s younger brother, Rich, emailed from Florida: he had found Alex’s memoir among my grandmother’s possessions. A week later it arrived, a bulky FedEx package, the pages untouched for at least twenty years, since my grandmother died. It was typed in French on loose-leaf paper and Alex had almost certainly dictated it to an assistant who then typed it up, because it read just as Alex talked, in his gruff, colloquial, rat-a-tat stream of consciousness: “I still have my Yiddish accent. I’ve never tried to correct it. I love Yiddish. It is my mother tongue. The language I spoke when I knew hunger. When I fought those degenerate Poles who wished me dead,” he wrote on the first page. It was like he was standing in front of me in his flat in Paris, shaking his finger wildly, as if jabbing it at invisible opponents. (The first time I saw Joe Pesci in a movie I nearly fell off my seat in shock because, if you swap the Italian heritage for a Jewish one, Pesci looks—and talks, and swaggers, and gesticulates—a lot like my great-uncle Alex did.) My father, with characteristic heroism, translated all 250 pages of Alex’s memoir for me from French to English. (My French is fine, but in no way is it strong enough to handle Alex’s punchy slang with occasional swoops into Yiddish.) But before he sent the translation back to me, he warned me to read it with at the very least a skeptical eye: Alex’s tendency toward self-mythology was infamous, and not even those closest to him ever really believed the things he said about himself. So, while this memoir was an astonishing find, I opened it expecting to read a somewhat deadening litany of Alex’s triumphs. Instead, I was amazed to discover that the first thirty pages or so was a detailed and humble account of his childhood in Chrzanow, a period of his life he certainly never discussed with any of us. Instead of focusing on himself and his glories, he wrote heartfelt descriptions of his family and their struggles, and lives that had been hidden in darkness for over a century burst into the light.

Jews had lived in Chrzanow since 1590, when the town’s first Jew, a man called Yaakov, settled there.2 Yaakov clearly had quite an impact, because by the beginning of the twentieth century more than 60 percent of the town’s inhabitants were Jewish,3 and one of its main industries was manufacturing Judaica, such as Torah scrolls and mezuzahs.4 The town square was bordered by 120 specifically Jewish shops, their signs written in both Hebrew and Yiddish, while the open market within was where women shopped for kosher food and headscarves. When the Glahs children were born, Chrzanow even had a Jewish mayor, Dr. Zygmunt Keppler, a lawyer. From its top office to its lowest social order, Chrzanow was a Jewish town.

This was the tail end of what was a brief and relatively golden age for Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Anti-Semitism certainly existed there, most infamously in the Hilsner Affair, a series of trials that took place in 1899–1900, in which a Jew, Leopold Hilsner, was accused of blood libel and spent nineteen years in prison before finally being pardoned. But Emperor Franz Joseph I had a fondness for the Jewish religion, and under his rule, Austro-Hungarian Jews emerged from the ghettos and became part of society as the emperor gave Jews equal rights, and financed Jewish institutions. This is why there seems to have been such a flourishing of Jewish productivity in the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1848 and 1916, from such people as Theodore Herzl, Stefan Zweig, and Sigmund Freud: it’s not that this generation of Jews was uniquely talented compared with previous ones, it’s that they were granted a then-unique amount of freedom.

The Chrzanovian Jews were mostly poor, but their lives were better than they ever had been or would be again. They had a friendly relationship with the Catholic Poles in the neighboring countryside who came into town to go to church, do their shopping, and take their children to school, where they were taught alongside the Jewish children.5 Chrzanow also had a great financial advantage in its proximity to the Three Emperors’ Corner, the border dividing Russia, Germany, and Austria, and the city lay on the main highway that connected eastern and western Europe, meaning traders from all over came through it. So, although it was a very Jewish town, it was also a very international one, and the townspeople regularly mixed with many other ethnicities and nationalities. Back then, this was a wonderful financial advantage for the town’s Jews; very soon, it would become one of their greatest misfortunes.

One person who never trusted her neighbors was Chaya Rotter. Born in 1873 and the youngest of three children, she grew up in Chrzanow. Despite her lifelong closeness to multiple other countries, she spoke only Yiddish and Polish. She had little interest in mixing with anyone but her own kind.

On March 13, 1898, when she was twenty-five, she married someone who was ostensibly her kind in a wedding arranged by her parents. Reuben Glahs was a Jewish scholar five years younger than she and also from Chrzanow. But in truth, they were a deeply unlikely couple, in looks as much as temperament. In the very few photos that remain of her it is clear she was a large woman, solid rather than fat, with much-remarked-upon large feet and a face not even a poet could describe as beautiful. But her most extraordinary feature was her eyes. On her medical notes later in life they were described simply as “blue/gray,” a description that suggests either enormous self-restraint or irony on the doctor’s part. In fact, they went in two different directions at the same time, which made her look both wild and watchful.

Reuben, by contrast, was dark haired, delicate, shorter than Chaya, and strikingly handsome, like a young Adrien Brody. Unlike Chaya, he was fluent in multiple languages—German, Polish, Russian, Yiddish—and the only person in Chrzanow other than a rabbi who could read and write Hebrew. Where Chaya was tough, practical, and energetic, Reuben was gentle, scholarly, and slow. In his memoir, Sender—Alex, as I knew him—draws frequent comparisons between his parents, invariably to his mother’s disadvantage, no matter how neutral the differences were he was describing: she liked to debate furiously in the market square, washing the family’s dishes around the central well where the townswomen gathered, while he preferred to sit with his friends in the cafés, listening and nodding and drinking coffee. She was ambitious for more, whereas Reuben thought you should be happy with what you have. Between them they represented the different attitudes peasant Jews had about their place in the world at that time: Should you fight for a better life than the one you were born into, or should you meekly sit back and be grateful for what you were given? Chaya and Reuben never really resolved this difference between them, and their marriage was less than blissful.

“She believed herself, quite falsely, to be from a higher social class than his. So she treated my father with indifference. I saw her coolness to him. It pained me, for my father was a man of deep goodness, of noble heart and intelligence,” Sender wrote in his memoir, in one of many passages laying out at length his mother’s flaws and his father’s perfection.

As the daughter of a poor tailor, it’s unlikely Chaya really thought of herself as being in a higher social class than anyone else, and Sender’s allegation almost certainly says more about his feelings for his mother than it does about Chaya’s feelings for Reuben. (And these feelings were also somewhat ironic, given that, in temperament and ambition, Sender was much more like his mother than his father.) But it is also likely that Reuben was a disappointment to her. When they met, he was a handsome man celebrated in the town for his intellect, but Chaya soon learned you can’t eat intellect. He worked diligently from the day of his wedding, but life only got harder for them because of his unfailing inability to earn any money. He tried his hand at being a tailor, a glassblower, a potato picker, a translator, and, finally, a Singer sewing machine traveling salesman. Each career was less successful than the last. They were desperately poor, and became more so with each child born. After an initial stillbirth in 1900, Jehuda, Chaya’s favorite, was born in 1901, followed shortly by Jakob in 1902, then Sender in 1906, one more stillbirth, then a little girl, Mindel, in 1908, who died from illness as a child, and finally Sala in 1910. For a decade, Chaya was almost continually pregnant and hungry.

The children’s early years were both difficult and blissful. They were in a constant state of near starvation, dreaming of food that wasn’t even available to buy, not that they could have afforded it anyway. One day, a piece of cheese appeared in the window of one of the shops in the town square, beneath a glass bell. The town’s children, including Jakob and Sender, stared at it in wonder: cheese! With holes! Several inches thick! No one had ever seen such a marvel, and they watched longingly as one of the wealthy Chrzanovians from the town’s poshest street, Aleja Henryka (Boulevard Henry), went into the shop, bought it, bagged it, and walked home with it, without giving any of them even a crumb. But Sender got his own back on his rich neighbors: Whenever he smelled good cooking in one of their houses, he would sneak around the back, look through the kitchen window, wait for the cook to step away, then climb in, pocket a meatball, and run into the forest to eat his prize. His mother, secretly pleased at her youngest son’s pragmatic approach to life, pretended not to notice the grease stains on his trousers.

They lived on a street called Kostalista in a ruin of a building, in a two-room apartment on the second floor, so dark you could barely see more than three feet in front of you in the daytime. (Chrzanow didn’t get electricity until 1912.) The windows looked out onto a barren courtyard filled with firewood for the long, bitter winters. The apartment was cold, dirty, and dangerous, and the children, particularly Sender, occasionally fell out the unprotected windows, crashing down headfirst onto the paving stones outside.

Despite all the hunger and near-death tumbles, life for the children was happy. Little Sala, sickly from birth with weak lungs, would stay at home with her mother during the day, contentedly cooking and sewing. Occasionally when she was allowed out, she would play with her pretty cousin, Rose Ornstein, who was about the same age as her. The two would make dolls out of clothespins. The boys nominally went to the local grammar school with non-Jews in the morning and then Hebrew school in the afternoon, but only Jehuda actually attended classes. He especially liked his Catholic Polish teacher, who taught him in the morning, and the teacher liked him, even coming over to the Glahses’ home for the occasional kosher dinner. But Jakob and especially Sender preferred to run through the streets and play football with their seven Ornstein cousins, Rose’s brothers, who were roughly the same ages as they were: Maurice, the eldest and therefore the leader; Josek, who was two years younger than Sender but so brave when it came to stealing food that Sender graciously considered him an equal; quiet and shy Arnold; and Alex Ornstein, the baby of the boys. (As well as Rose, there were two other Ornstein girls, Anna and Sarah.) The Ornsteins were the children of Chaya’s older sister, Hadassah, who managed to produce eight children in a decade, all sweet-natured and easygoing despite having to fight for a spot around the dining table at every meal. They lived around the corner from the Glahs family, on Aleja Henryka, named after a converted Jew,6 because their father, Hirsch, was comparatively wealthy. But Sender never mentions feeling socially inferior to, or jealous of, his cousins in his memoir. Instead, he describes the thrill of dashing up Aleja Henryka with his brother and cousins, Sender and Josek pocketing some meatballs on the way and heading into the birch tree woods, where there was a large sandpit, a stone quarry, and a lake. They would eat Sender and Josek’s takings and hide from their parents for hours, playing make-believe and kicking a “football” that was a rolled-up bunch of rags.

The Glahs family kept kosher, and Reuben, like all the Jewish men in Chrzanow, went to prayers every Shabbat and on the holy days, walking to the Great Synagogue off the market square around the corner from their house. They were Orthodox, but not ultra-Orthodox, like many of their fellow townspeople who dominated the town’s local politics, in their heavy black clothes, long beards, and side curls. In the very few surviving photos of the Glahs children from this period, which I found in Sala’s and Henri’s albums, the boys often wear yarmulkes, but they don’t have side curls or wear traditional clothes, and Sala is generally wearing pretty, frilly dresses, while Chaya never covered her hair, as ultra-Orthodox women do. Their lives were informed by Judaism, but not controlled by it, and compared with many of their neighbors they were almost scandalously modern.

Throughout Galicia at this time there was a growing schism among the Jews regarding tradition versus progress, with the heavy-coated conservatives on one side and the less tradition-bound Jews on the other. The latter argued for a modern approach to Judaism, influenced by the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment, which emerged in the late eighteenth century and argued that Jews should maintain their secular distinctiveness but should also take more part in the modern world, such as adopting modern dress and broader education. It looked at Judaism as an evolving cultural identity rather than a restrictive religious one. Ironically, this ideology that pushed for integration would later contribute to the rise of Zionism, partly because many Jews later realized that, no matter how much they assimilated, they were still persecuted, and therefore Jews needed a Jewish homeland.

But in Austria-Hungary in the early twentieth century, the idea of a Jewish state was so far away it might have been on the moon. Given that traditional Jews far outnumbered progressive ones in Galicia in general and Chrzanow in particular, the whole debate was ostensibly moot for Chrzanovian Jews. But Jehuda, a talented scholar from an early age who would likely have read about the Haskalah, argued for his family to adopt a more progressive approach to Judaism. In his memoir, Sender describes, with palpable retrospective awe of his big brother, how at the young age of twelve Jehuda urged his parents to be less obviously Jewish and to assimilate more with the Germans or Poles—to try to speak their language more instead of always relying on Yiddish, for example. Chaya waved her son away and continued to speak Yiddish loudly in the town square. Reuben similarly couldn’t countenance giving up what he saw as his primary identity. But as a compromise, he allowed himself to be persuaded by Jehuda to change the spelling of their surname from Glahs to the more westernized Glass—something simultaneously strong and fragile, able to withstand pressure but prone to breaking. Jews’ names as a whole in this period were unfixed, mutable—a sign it seemed to them at the time of their adaptability. But it was also an indication of the instability of their lives, and was seen as part of the “rootlessness” that would soon be used against them.

All four of the children idolized their gentle, loving father, who raised his hand only once: to Sender (of course), when he announced at age four, on the way to synagogue, that he didn’t believe in God, and the strike was so half-hearted it felt more like a pat. Although Chaya was undoubtedly the more assertive parent, it was Reuben’s looks that were dominant. Jehuda, Jakob, and Sala all inherited Reuben’s delicate, pretty appearance—Jakob in particular, whom Reuben named after his beloved late father,I looked so similar to him the neighbors used to joke they probably had the same fingerprints. He was also the most like his father: gentle, passive, and easily pushed around—Jakob skipped school only because Sender told him to do so. Jehuda, quiet and self-contained, inherited his father’s intellectual curiosity, but he was more reliable and practical. As for baby Sala, her father loved to buy pretty dresses for his little daughter, while Chaya, judging from photos, would not have recognized a pretty dress from an ugly one if it hit her in the face in the marketplace. But Reuben always took care over his appearance, even when he was reduced to wearing almost literal rags. The Glass children all inherited his appreciation of aesthetics, and for the rest of their lives they dressed carefully and stylishly, a lifelong show of love for their father.

The only child who resembled and acted like Chaya was Sender. According to family lore, Sender was “born fighting,” because when he came out of his mother he was silent, so the midwife slapped him. It was the last time in his life Sender lost a fight. From the age of six he was getting into scrapes at school daily. He wasn’t bothered by the blood and bruises as long as he won the battle, and he always fought until he won. Sender was born on December 25 and his mother referred to him as “little Jesus,” a teasing reference to his dominating personality, which was in inverse proportion to his physical size. Unlike his brothers, Sender was short, something he later put down to “deprivation,” although he never explained why his brothers both grew to over six feet, about a foot taller than him. But Sender wasn’t just a stubby little fighter—he was also a dreamer, and what he dreamed of was escape. He loved to hear his father describe places he’d read about like Paris, London, Venice, cities of such beauty they made the Chrzanow synagogues look like nothing, Reuben said. Sender loved his father, but he would never be like him, slaving away for no recognition. What was the point of working hard without reward? At the age of eight, Paris was far beyond his reach, so he came up with a plan to go to the closer and yet almost equally exotic Trzebina, a town a little more than four miles away where people from Chrzanow went when they needed a dentist. Sender told his mother he had a terrible toothache and Chaya let him take the train on his own with his favorite cousin, Josek Ornstein. The town itself was something of a disappointment, but the freedom of travel thrilled Sender so much he was, for once, almost speechless. Even though it meant the boys had to suffer a hideously painful tooth extraction by the dentist, the journey was worth it. So much so, they did it again, costing them another tooth. Still worth it.

“It was a world of superstitions, of quarrelling rabbis, quarrelling Hasidim, where thousands of Jews lived, twenty synagogues, where the air was so fresh. I sometimes felt, in lieu of food, I was nourished by the Carpathian air,” Sender later wrote. But then World War I started and everything that had been good about the children’s lives instantly turned very, very bad.

When Chaya waved her husband off to war she must have had few hopes of ever seeing him again. Reuben couldn’t even walk up Aleja Henryka without losing his breath, and that one time he gave Sender a smack he, rather than Sender, had cried—how on earth was such a man going to survive life in the Austro-Hungarian army? But like many Jewish men, Reuben felt intense loyalty to Emperor Franz Joseph I because of his kindness to the Jews. An educated man like Reuben would have been all too aware that it was very much in his best interest, as a Jew, to defend the emperor. So he signed up to fight pretty much as soon as his country declared war on Serbia. But there were, surely, few more unlikely soldiers than Reuben Glass.

Chaya was now, essentially, a single mother at the age of forty-one, with four children aged thirteen, twelve, eight, and four. There was no way she could look after them on her own. Her older sister, Hadassah, was busy enough with her own seven children and her brother, Samuel, was busy with his four. No, she needed a man to take charge of the household, one who would look after the family and look after her. She didn’t have to search too far to find just the one she needed.

Jehuda was only thirteen, but when his father went off to war he became the head of the household. Chaya relied on him, not even like a wife on a husband but a daughter on a father, and this was to be their dynamic for the rest of their lives. It was an obligation Jehuda quietly shouldered with enormous patience. “Jehuda,” Chaya would say proudly to her children and, later, her grandchildren, “iz die beste.” (Sender, on the other hand, she would describe as alternately a pshakrev—dog’s blood, a Polish curse—or a mitzvah, a blessing, depending on his notoriously changeable mood.) Despite still being at school, Jehuda, as he later recounted in his own notes, supported the family, working for the library in the evenings and on the weekends, and he tried, with minimal success, to get his brothers to go to school. He, too, started missing school: his 1916/17 school report says he missed 145 hours that year, but he still got straight A’s. But as Chaya became more demanding, and life in Chrzanow became more difficult, what he really wanted was to get out. Whereas Sender looked to schemes and tooth extractions as his means of escape, Jehuda realized academia might be his ticket.

Food became increasingly scarce in Chrzanow as the war went on, and the Jews were used as the scapegoats for everyone’s suffering; Polish authorities started confiscating their goods, claiming, falsely, that they were trading on the black market. The local halls in town, where the Jews had often held cultural committee meetings, were suddenly off-limits to them.7 Both Sender and Jehuda watched all this, and started talking more openly about leaving the town. Jakob laughed at their concerns, and insisted the Jews would be safe in Chrzanow, as they always had been. Little Sala, who had Jehuda’s quietude and Jakob’s gentleness, revered her three older brothers, and agreed with whichever one seemed to be taking charge, which in this case was generally Jehuda. But any talk of leaving Chrzanow could only be talk for now: they weren’t going anywhere until the war ended and their father returned.

But it was becoming almost impossible for them to stay. In late October 1918 there were rumors that a pogrom was being planned, organized by the Polish authorities. On November 5, 1918, six days before the end of the war, the first town in the newly liberated Poland to suffer such an attack was Chrzanow.8

They came at night. The townspeople heard them before they saw them, “a savage screaming crowd that seemed like a monster. They were attacking animals, wild beasts from the guts of hell. From their distorted snouts came cries of a horrible hatred which I found impossible to understand,” Sender wrote. Polish men and women tore through the town, ransacking the synagogues, smashing the Jewish shop windows. The Jews ran to their homes, frantically locking the doors behind them. The Glass family hid under a bed, both Sala, who was eight, and Chaya, forty-five, clinging to seventeen-year-old Jehuda in terror. After an hour or so of listening to the terrifying noises outside, twelve-year-old Sender scrambled out from under the bed and, ignoring the cries of his family, ran out to join the few Jewish men who were attempting to fight back. In the dark, he tried to make out the faces, but they were so obscured by hate and fury they looked more like wild boars than humans to him—except one. As he watched the group charge up his street, he looked at the leader and realized he recognized him: it was Jehuda’s former tutor, the Christian Pole who came over for dinner occasionally. As he looked closer, he recognized some more: people who came in every Sunday to go to church, the man who occasionally gave him a bit of cheese in the market, women who had bought sewing machines from his father. He saw a well-respected judge, Court President Wierszbyicki, he saw scholars, and he saw peasants and thugs—all sectors of Polish society—and here they all were, beating up his friends, trying to burn down his house and kill his family.

“Something in me died in the face of this inhuman explosion of savagery,” he later wrote. “From that day, my childhood was over.”

The pogrom lasted twenty-four hours, and Sender did as much as a young boy could to fight back, tripping the men as they charged in to ransack the empty stores, kicking their horses. At one point he was slashed across the forehead with a knife and, decades later, Sala could still remember her terror when her brother stumbled through their door in the morning, blinded by blood pouring down into his eyes from his deep head wound, half-crazed with adrenaline; for the rest of her life she associated Poland with that vision of violence. In one night, almost all the town’s Jews were left destitute, their money and livelihoods taken from them by their own countrymen. When the war ended six days later, few celebrated.

From then on, attacks on Jews became common in Chrzanow and in the surrounding area, especially from the so-called Polish liberation army, which emerged after Poland’s liberation at the end of the war. Its members were known as “the Hallerchiks” in honor of their leader, General Haller, and they would roam through Chrzanow, ripping the beards off any Jews they encountered, tearing the skin and laughing at the bloodied faces, and if they came across a clean-shaven Jew, they would beat him for his lack of religiosity. They justified these attacks by citing the increasingly popular theory that Jews were not loyal to Poland, but were instead Bolsheviks, plotting to overturn the government. Neither the Hallerchiks nor the Chrzanovians could have known it at the time, and certainly the Glass family didn’t, but they were at the emerging forefront of a relatively new kind of anti-Semitism, one which would shape the twentieth century and their lives. And it would linger, like a strange stray black cloud, over the lives of their children and grandchildren.

The theory that Jews are political destabilizers, working against whatever country they live in, is a more modern and politically inflected form of anti-Semitism than the traditional and religiously based one, which held Jews responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion. It emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a reaction against the social and economic changes in Europe stemming from the French Revolution, when the old monarchical hierarchies were toppled, followed by the spread of industrialization and urbanization across the continent. These two enormous shifts combined to create a new liberal, capitalist social order, one in which citizenship was based on civic participation and equality, as opposed to bloodline and history—forward-looking rationalism over backward-looking nationalism.9 Thus, Jews could be seen as citizens as opposed to outsiders. Opponents of the Enlightenment, however, argued for national purity, celebrating a country’s heritage as opposed to its modern future, and during the nineteenth century there was a rise in anti-Semitic sentiment as those who failed to benefit from the new economy blamed the Jews. In 1845 the French writer Alphonse Toussenel claimed, “Protestants and Jews… have controlled public opinion in order to favour trafficking and rigging the market, blocked every defence of royalty and of the people, put the producer and the consumer at their mercy so that in France the Jew reigns and governs.”10

These beliefs found validation in the infamous 1903 document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which emerged just as the Glass children were being born. It claimed that a mysterious Jewish cabal was controlling governments and the media, and even though The Protocols was quickly exposed as a hoax, it shaped the dominating anti-Semitic narrative of the twentieth century. This really began to take hold after World War I, when nationalism escalated in response to the economic devastation across the continent, although specific takes on it slightly differed. In one version of this theory, Jews are greedy money-hoarders who control a country’s government through their connections and wealth, puppet masters pulling the strings. In the other version, the one promoted by the Hallerchiks, Jews were communist revolutionaries looking to overthrow a country’s government. But the message of both versions is the same: Jews are political disruptors working against the people and for themselves, which is just a new take on the old idea that Jews are not really citizens of the country in which they were born, so cannot be trusted. In other words, anti-Semitism becomes another form of xenophobia.

This theory has retained a tenacious hold on the popular imagination despite everything Jews endured in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century it can be seen in the right wing’s demonization of George Soros, the Hungarian American philanthropist and Holocaust survivor who has been vilified by the American,11 Hungarian,II and British far rightIII as a suspicious manipulator plotting to control the global order and bring chaos into the lives of peaceful citizens.IVV

The campaign for Brexit—which went on near simultaneously with the vilification of Soros, and crossed left and right party lines—would have appealed to the Hallerchiks with its dreamy-eyed talk about hard borders, heritage, and national purity. Nigel Farage, Brexit’s most influential architect, has long talked darkly about “the new world order” and argued that “globalists have wanted to have some form of conflict with Russia as an argument for us all to surrender our national sovereignty and give it up to a higher global level.”12 It is hard not to hear the echoes of the Hallerchiks’ insistence that Jews, those citizens of nowhere, were working against Poland for some kind of greater global domination, but Farage determinedly stuck his fingers in his ears and insisted any suggestion of anti-Semitism was “wide of the mark.”VI From “bolsheviks” in the 1920s to “globalists” in the 2010s, the euphemisms for anti-Semitic and nationalist beliefs might shift over time, but the underlying stories remain remarkably constant.

Contrary to everyone’s expectations, his wife’s presumably most of all, Reuben did return from the war, but only barely. He had fought in the Second Battle of the Piave River in June 1918, in which the Italian army crushed the Austro-Hungarian army. This battle was the beginning of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearly 230,000 men were killed, but Reuben was not one of them. He was, however, gassed badly, and his lungs were damaged irrevocably. Somehow he limped through the rest of the war, further depleting whatever strength his lungs had left, and got home, where he walked in the door and collapsed in the front room.

But when Reuben realized how poor his family had become in his absence, with Sender stealing food for the family table and Sala wearing rags, he forced himself to return to work. Reuben didn’t have a pension from the army, and the family desperately needed the money, so he went back to hawking Singer sewing machines around the countryside. But there aren’t many worse careers for a man with broken lungs than that of traveling salesman, schlepping through sooty towns on dirty trains in cold nights. “My father was very, very ill, and there was no medicine for him. As if we could afford medicine. He had to return to work, to continue his endless travels as a sewing machine salesman for a miserable little salary. Great sadness infected our home,” Sender wrote.

Reuben did not last long at his job, but the sadness did. One night Reuben came back to the apartment after another trip, went to bed, and never got up again. For the next few years he lay there, sick, in horrendous pain, racked with a violent cough that seemed to rip his lungs apart with every hack.

After the war, the Glass family was still in their old home but in an utterly unfamiliar land. The deeply anti-Semitic National-Democratic (ND) Party was on the rise in Poland. At the Versailles Conference in January 1919, the Polish delegation, co-led by Roman Dmowski, cofounder of the ND Party, fought unsuccessfully against signing the minorities protections section of the Treaty of Versailles. Dmowski and the Polish politicians complained that it suggested Poland and the Polish people were oppressors as opposed to victims, which was how they saw themselves, and not without some merit. Poland was decimated after the war, after German, Austrian, and Russian troops had marched back and forth across it, destroying railways and agriculture, and the ensuing poverty led people to look for targets to blame. Dmowski insisted, in familiar rhetoric, that “international Jewry” was plotting Poland’s destruction, and the Catholic Polish media repeatedly and openly associated Jews with evil.13 This didn’t do much to stem the attacks against Jews in Poland.

The Ornstein cousins had already left Chrzanow to go to Paris, and after the first pogrom the Glass family knew they had to go, too. Like a strikingly high number of Jews in the early 1920s, Jehuda went to Prague for university,14 which the family somehow managed to pay for. So Jakob was the first of the family to go to Paris, in 1920 when he was eighteen years old, followed shortly thereafter by fourteen-year-old Sender. But Chaya and Sala stayed behind with Reuben, as he could not survive the journey, and the three of them alone endured the terror of multiple pogroms and increasing anti-Semitism. Finally, in 1925, after years of pain, Reuben died.

For the rest of their lives, the Glass children referred to Reuben’s death as one of their most formative and traumatic experiences, despite all they later endured. Jakob and Sender were both living in Paris at this point, and the former wept for the only adult he knew who never berated him for his deficiencies, while Sender, who idolized his father, both despite and because he was so different from him, raged with fury against his death. Fifty years later, he dedicated his memoir to his father, “the man I loved most in my life.” Sala, still only fourteen at this point, cried for her father, who had made her feel pretty and loved and safe. Chaya leaned on Jehuda more heavily than ever, demanding he come home from university to help her.

Jehuda didn’t cry when his father died. It was perhaps at that point that he learned not to cry because he pretty much never did so. And yet, he was utterly bereft by the loss of his father, who was the only member of his family who saw him for who he was and not what he was, the oldest, most dependable son. But he tucked his grief behind his implacable exterior, like the creased photo of his father that he hid inside his stiff wallet for the rest of his life. Almost thirty years after Jehuda died, I found that wallet in a storage box in the basement of his daughter Danièle’s building. It had slipped into the lining of an old suitcase and I happened to discover it by accident. I pulled it out and looked through it, hoping to find something that would reveal a little of Jehuda’s later life: receipts, perhaps, or scrawled notes. But the only thing in it was the photo of Reuben, a century old by that point, the only memory Jehuda kept on him at all times, until he, too, was a memory.

Almost as soon as Reuben died, Chaya and Sala went to Paris. The world in which the Glass children had grown up, the eastern European Jewish shtetl, based on community but also dependent on peaceful interactions with outsiders, was dying. Like Reuben, it had no place in this harshly emerging modern era. So both he and it were buried in Chrzanow’s Jewish cemetery, filled with other Jews whose families, if they were lucky, were forging new lives across Europe, leaving behind neglected gravestones and much more.

None of the Glasses ever returned to Chrzanow, except one, once. In the 1970s, Sender—now known as Alex—visited Poland on a trip organized by some of his fellow veterans of the Foreign Legion. He went, very reluctantly, back to a country he associated only with death, pogroms, and hunger. But he went because he was interested to see how many Jews were left where he grew up, and how they were living. What he saw devastated him. The town that he remembered as surrounded by forests and countryside was, he wrote, now “an open, heavily polluted field.” The only things he recognized were “the brutish mugs” of the Polish people he saw in the marketplace—otherwise, everything from his childhood was gone: his home, the synagogues, the Jews.

Chrzanow fell into German hands almost the day World War II was declared, September 1, 1939. This was not a surprise to the Chrzanovians: the month before, they’d watched the long caravans of desperate people marching down the long highway between Katowice and Krakow that ran through Chrzanow, as civilians who lived near the German and Polish borders fled into the countryside for safety. Adolf Hitler had been pushing the myth that communism was a Jewish plot for almost a decade, borrowing the story from anti-Semitic nationalist movements in various countries, including Poland. Meanwhile, the theory that Polish Jews were working for the Soviets, and had even been responsible for the Great Purge of 1936–1938, in which up to 1.2 million people were killed in Russia, had become so widespread it was generally assumed to be fact, and Polish nationalists referred to Jews collectively as traitors.15 Chrzanow was infused with panic, and the wealthier and cannier sent their female relatives, children, and valuables out of the city to safety.16 But many did not. Because so many of the town’s Jews knew and did business with the Germans, they refused to believe that the Germans would actually hurt them, their longtime neighbors, friends, and colleagues.17 For neither the first nor the last time, the Jews were overoptimistic about the benevolence of outsiders. On September 4, 1939, the Nazis entered the city and immediately began to terrorize the Jews. But as much as the actions of their neighbors and former colleagues shocked them, an even bigger surprise to the Chzarnovian Jews was how keen their countrymen, the Poles, were to betray them.

“They were the ones who pointed out the Jews to the German soldiers, who couldn’t tell the difference between Jews and Poles. They didn’t know any German but with sign language they pointed out ‘Jude!’?” one resident of the town later recalled.18 More than 15,000 Jews—almost the entirety of Chrzanow’s Jewish population19—died in the Holocaust, rounded up and sent just down the road to their sister town, which many of them would have visited before, where they were murdered.20 Ironically, the pogroms that had so terrified my grandmother and her family actually saved their lives, because they propelled the family out of Poland before the 1930s. Had they stayed, they all almost certainly would have been killed.

I went to Chrzanow in the spring of 2018, forty years after Alex visited, almost exactly one hundred years after the Glass family started to leave. My father traveled there with me, as did my father’s cousin Anne-Laurence Goldberg, Anna Ornstein’s granddaughter. Chrzanow itself wasn’t quite as grim as when Alex had visited, when it was still under communist rule: there were typical Eastern European tower blocks around the outside, but also pretty streets in the center, bordered with houses freshly painted in dusky pinks, yellows, and greens as they had been back when the Glasses lived there. Yet it still feels like a town from which something’s been sucked out, and what’s been sucked out are the Jews. In 1920, Jews represented 55.5 percent of the town’s population. Today, they officially represent less than 1 percent, although our guide admitted that number was more likely to be closer to zero.

My father, Anne-Laurence, and I walked around the town, retracing the stories Alex told in his memoir. The square where Chaya used to wash the dishes and do the shopping is still there, but none of the Jewish shops that bordered the square remain. Of the town’s twenty synagogues, not a single one remains. The Great Synagogue, where the Glasses prayed, was destroyed in the 1970s to make room for a parking lot. All that remains of it is a broken concrete wall, heavily graffitied. In fact, the Jewish cemetery where Reuben is buried, which somehow survived the war, is pretty much the only sign that Jews ever lived there at all. He lies in a quiet corner, shaded by the former Galician forest where his children once ran. He is near his daughter Mindel, who died as a child; his father Jakob’s gravestone lies on the other side of the cemetery, next to the great family tomb for the wealthy Halberstam family, like a humble sentryman keeping guard. Reuben was not one for making public statements in life, but in death the deeply carved Hebrew letters on his tombstone act as an uncharacteristically defiant show of Chrzanow’s Jewish legacy.

The week before my father and I booked our tickets to go to Chrzanow in 2018, the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, signed into law an antidefamation bill making it illegal to attribute responsibility or complicity for the Holocaust to the Polish state.VII This law, President Duda said in a national broadcast, “protects Polish interests… our dignity, the historical truth… so that we are not slandered as a state and as a nation.” In a century-spanning echo of Dmowski’s complaint in 1919, Duda objected to the idea that Poland was ever an oppressor. Instead, he said, stories about Poland during World War II should focus on Poland’s suffering and glory.

This bill was not a surprise to anyone who had followed the Law and Justice Party since they came to power. In 2016, President Duda threatened to take away a national honor from Jan Tomasz Gross, an American citizen born in Poland and one of the world’s experts on the Holocaust.21 Gross wrote in an essay that the Poles killed more Jews than the Germans did, a claim other historians have backed up as correct. Yet Duda insisted this was “an attempt to destroy Poland’s good name,” and while in Poland, Gross was hauled in for five hours of questioning.22

No doubt, Poland endured one of the most brutal occupations of any country invaded by the Germans, and the Poles, whom the Nazis considered to be untermenschen (inferiors), suffered horrifically. Yet it is also true that part of the reason 90 percent of Poland’s Jews were killed during the war, one of the highest percentages in Europe, is that they were denounced, hunted, and killed by the Poles themselves, before, during, and even after the war. Just one year after the end of World War II, on July 4, 1946, soldiers and civilians led an attack on the Jews in the Polish town of Kielce, killing more than forty. They had survived the Holocaust and returned to what was in many cases their homeland, only to then be killed by their fellow citizens. After what became known as the Kielce pogrom, many of the surviving Polish Jews left the country and few have ever returned. Before World War II, more than three million Jews lived in Poland, the biggest Jewish population in Europe; today it is estimated to be about ten thousand. By comparison, more than fifteen thousand Jews live in Miami Beach. More than fifty thousand Jews live in the north London borough of Barnet.

Poland had been a deeply anti-Semitic country long before the Nazis turned up, as the Glass family knew well. So while there certainly were brave Polish individuals who tried to help the Jews during the war, they were very much the exceptions.23 Even after the war, many in Eastern Europe, including Poland, continued to refer to Jews as Bolsheviks, suggesting that what happened to them was in some way their fault, and certainly not Poland’s. That mentality still exists today: by outlawing suggestions of Polish complicity, President Duda and his Law and Justice Party are trying to create “a narrative of heroic Polish victimhood,” the New York Times said,24 one that absolved them of any wrongdoing in World War II. An official to the president said any Jews who criticized the law, who claimed that Polish anti-Semitism helped to enable the Holocaust happening on Polish land, were merely “ashamed [that] many Jews engaged in collaboration during the war.”25

Just down the road from Chrzanow is the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial. While my father, Anne-Laurence, and I were in Chrzanow, the nationalist and pro-government Polish media was accusing the museum of downplaying the deaths of Poles in the camp and focusing instead on what was described as “foreign narratives”—in other words, the Jewish stories.

“Foreign, and not Polish narratives reign at Auschwitz. Time for it to stop,” wrote Barbara Nowack, a former local councillor for the Law and Justice Party. The home of at least one guide at the site was vandalized in March 2018, with someone spray-painting “Poland for the Poles” across the outside alongside a Star of David equated with a swastika.26

None of this would have surprised the Glasses. It did, however, surprise me. Because I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau before visiting Chrzanow with my father and Anne-Laurence (whose grandparents had been killed there), what struck me was how much emphasis was placed on the Polish victims. Seventy-five thousand non-Jewish Poles were killed in Auschwitz, which is shocking, but so were the 1.1 million Jews, and looking around at the exhibitions, signs, and tours I felt like the memorial was suggesting some kind of equivalence between the Polish and Jewish suffering in the camp. There is even a gift shop in the car park outside, run by the local municipality, which sells Polish tourist tat. Because nothing makes one more desirous of buying an “I Heart Poland” coffee mug than a trip to Auschwitz. “An Auschwitz gift shop” is surely the ultimate Jewish joke, and its intention is clear: Auschwitz, it is saying, is about Polish victimhood and triumph. The Jews were a side issue.

“In all Holocaust sites there is a tendency to emphasize the nation’s suffering and German culpability,” Martin Winstone from the Holocaust Educational Trust told me in 2018:

Auschwitz was one of the very few concentration camps where non-Jewish Poles were killed, so it’s not surprising Polish suffering is emphasized there—although, of course, far more Jews were killed there. But so much depends on political and social climates. Even just five years ago people would have said Poland was being really honest about its history. But with this government in power they are trying to limit discussions of Polish culpability, and these efforts aren’t actually aimed at the international community, but at the people in Poland—teachers, academics—who are trying to tell the true story. A huge amount of Polish identity is based on the idea that Poles were victims of the German occupation, but that doesn’t mean some of them didn’t also perpetrate it. Every country wants to have heroic narratives of the war, and what this all shows is how vulnerable historical truth is.

Back in Chrzanow, we found the building where Anne-Laurence’s grandmother, Anna Ornstein, and the rest of the Ornstein cousins lived on Aleja Henryka. It was large and imposing, with fretted ironwork around the balconies, preventing any children from rolling off. It was painfully different from the crumbling semi–death trap where the Glasses lived, as described in Alex’s memoir. We eventually found the Glass family’s street, after figuring out it had been renamed from Kostalista to Lipstada. Their house had long since been torn down, which wasn’t a surprise—I hardly expected a condemned building from a century ago to still be standing. But what I saw around the corner made me stop and stare. There, on the side of a building just behind where the Glasses once lived, was fresh graffiti: “Anty Jude.” This was a tag from a fan of the Wisla football team, whose supporters refer to themselves as the “Anty Jude gang,” in opposition to the Widzew team, which is associated with the Jewish community in the way Tottenham Hotspur Football Club is in England. The Anty Jude label is defended by supporters as mere larky banter—only the most po-faced seeker of victim status could confuse it with real anti-Semitism, they say. At a Polish league game in 2013 between Wisla and Widzew, there were chants of “Move on, Jews! Your home is at Auschwitz! Send you to the gas chamber!” A Polish municipal prosecutor decided these were not criminal offenses.27

Not even being less than four miles from Auschwitz made this graffiti artist rethink leaving this tag. If anything, it may have encouraged him. My father winced when he saw it and looked away, but I think the Glasses would have appreciated the aptness of seeing this on their neighbor’s building in 2018. Almost a century after they left everything they had and knew to go to France, their old town—their old country—was still very much vindicating their decision.

I. Reuben is the son of Jacob in the Old Testament, so the name is traditionally translated as “son of Jacob.”

II. During his 2017 campaign for reelection, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban claimed that Soros was planning to resettle a million refugees in the European Union and give them thousands of euros each, and claimed “[Soros] wants to transform Hungary into an immigrant country.” “Hungary Says EU’s ‘Irresponsible’ Migrant Policy Poses Threat to Jews,” Reuters, April 16, 2018.

III. Nigel Farage has made many claims about Soros, including that he “wants to break down the fundamental values of our society and, in the case of Europe, he doesn’t want Europe to be based on Christianity.” “Farage Criticised for Using Antisemitic Themes to Criticise Soros,” The Guardian, May 12, 2019.

IV. President Trump repeatedly implied in October and November 2018 that Soros was funding the so-called migrant caravan, a group of thousands of desperate Central American migrants seeking asylum in America. Various other Republicans and far-right commentators also pushed that allegation, and many people believed it. One believer was US citizen Robert Bowers, who reposted a comment that said, “Jews are waging a propaganda war against Western civilization and it is so effective we are heading towards certain extinction.” On October 27, 2018, Bowers shot and killed eleven Jews in a synagogue. This did not stop President Trump from continuing to endorse the entirely unfounded theory that Soros was funding the caravan. (“Trump says he ‘wouldn’t be surprised’ if unfounded conspiracy theory about George Soros funding [migrant] caravan is true,” John Wagner, Washington Post, November 1, 2018.)

V. And this mentality is not limited to the right. The former leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has been repeatedly criticized for what many see as flirtations with anti-Semitism. One especially egregious example hit the news just as I was starting to write this book in 2018, when it emerged that in 2012 he appeared to express support on Facebook for a mural that depicted stereotypically Jewish-looking bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of slaves. (Corbyn insisted that he “did not look more closely at the image.”) “Jeremy Corbyn Regrets Comments about ‘Anti-Semitic’ Mural,” BBC, March 23, 2018.

VI. Similarly, in her first Conservative conference speech after becoming prime minister soon after the referendum, Theresa May attacked “global elites” and claimed, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Vince Cable, the then leader of the Liberal Democrat party, said at the time, “It could have been taken out of Mein Kampf. I think that’s where it came from, wasn’t it? ‘Rootless cosmopolitans’?” “Vince Cable: Theresa May’s Tory Conference Speech ‘Could Have Been Taken Out of Mein Kampf,’?” Anoosh Chakelian, New Statesman, July 5, 2017.

VII. Five months after this bill was passed, after international outcry about this law, Duda downgraded it from a criminal offense to a civil one. So it’s still wrong to suggest Poland was complicit with the Nazis, but you probably won’t go to jail for saying so.

About The Author

Linda Nylind, the Guardian newspaper

Hadley Freeman is a staff writer for The Sunday Times in the UK. She was born in New York and lives in London. Her books include Life Moves Pretty Fast and the bestselling House of Glass, and her work has appeared in Vogue US and UK, New York magazine, Harpers Bazaar, and many other publications.

Why We Love It

“The Glass siblings, and their various choices throughout the Holocaust, illustrate a broad range of human experiences. It is a story of survival—of courage, but also of cowardice, of compassion, but also of cruelty. In that way, it makes the reader ask: in uncertain and very scary times: what would I do?” —Emily G., Editor, on House of Glass

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 23, 2021)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501199202

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