When Hadley Freeman came across some photographs of men being hustled on to a train to the Pithiviers internment camp, south of Paris – from which they would be transferred, just over a year later, to Auschwitz – she was immediately able to pick out her great-uncle. The other men – all, like him, impoverished Jewish immigrants to France – wore rough working clothes, but he looked as though he had just come from his tailor’s. Dark trousers; a trench coat debonairly half-buttoned; a white shirt, its collar starched. “It was the spectacles that caught my eye first,” Freeman writes, “those round wire spectacles. But it was his clothes that proved this was Jacques.”
Readers of her column in the Guardian will already know how much Freeman can read into, or extrapolate from, a garment. They may have wondered how such an astute, witty writer came to choose fashion as her subject matter. Her family history explains it, demonstrating how clothing – from a child’s frock bought off a market-stall, to a couture gown created on the spot in seven minutes by a virtuoso with a packet of pins and a swathe of fabric – can be an art-form, or the foundation of a fortune, or the token of a prisoner’s self-respect.
When Freeman first thought of writing about her grandmother (by then dead for 12 years) she planned to structure a narrative around the old woman’s dresses. But then, at the back of her wardrobe, Freeman found a shoebox containing photographs, a telegram, newspaper clippings and letters – all speaking of danger and desperation. “I had a story now,” she writes, “and it wasn’t about fashion.”
But actually, it is. It is the story of Sala Glahs (later Sarah Freeman), her three brothers and their extended family. It follows them from a Galician shtetl to Paris, and then variously to Resistance hideouts in war-time Provence, to a death-camp, to the small-town US and to a grand hotel in Deauville. It encompasses dire poverty and sudden wealth. It probes unresolvable questions. If your jailers have been decent enough to allow you a brief visit home to meet your newborn daughter, and you have given them your word that you will return to captivity, do you really have to keep that promise? If a high-ranking officer serves a corrupt regime like Vichy, but uses his position to protect Jews, is he in the right or the wrong? Tough questions raised by warfare and genocide. Freeman does full justice to the seriousness of the story she has to tell but, yes, fashion keeps coming into it.
Reuben Glahs, Sala’s fine-featured, frail father, was a sewing machine salesman, schlepping around the Polish countryside in the first years of the 20th century, until, his lungs in tatters, he took to his bed and died. His second son Alex, whose memoir is one of Freeman’s main sources, remembers how stylishly he wore his rags, and that he loved to buy frilly clothes for his little girl.
In November 1918, as the Austro-Hungarian empire crumbled, a pogrom swept through their town. A Catholic schoolteacher, who had been particularly encouraging to the eldest Glahs boy, was among the people rampaging through the streets, smashing windows and beating up Jews, looking “like wild boars”. It was time to leave. The Glahses made their way to Paris, changed their name, becoming Glasses, and worked in the garment industry. Gentle, unambitious Jacques Glass was a furrier, making a pittance from piece-work. Sarah modelled, and studied to be a textile designer. Alex, who seemed to his great-niece Hadley, when she met him decades later, “tough like a bullet”, resolved to become a couturier.
He didn’t know how to sew on a button but “not for a second did he see this as a possible impediment to becoming a world-famous fashion designer”. He taught himself. He worked 24-hour shifts. By the time he was 20, he had his own salon.
Freeman follows each of the siblings, allotting them alternating chapters. Usefully for her, they took different paths. Jacques embedded himself in a familiar community, living and working in the Marais among other eastern European Jews.
Henri chose the way of assimilation. Once again clothes are crucial. He bought second-hand suits and velvet-collared overcoats. Alex made him pocket handkerchiefs from offcuts: Henri would iron them meticulously and put them in his breast pocket. A gifted engineer, he invented a micro-filming device. A chance meeting with a man from the Sorbonne and he had a professional-level job to match his impeccably bourgeois appearance. Another chance meeting, with a sympathetic businessman, and he was selling his machines to major institutions and growing rich.
Henri’s French was refined and accurate. Alex spoke with a marked Yiddish accent all his life. Henri strove to conform. Alex was up all night in Montmartre, hanging out initially with the Jewish artists around Marc Chagall (who tolerated him as “our youngest friend”), later with up-and-coming fashion people, like his assistant, an excellent draughtsman named Christian Dior. As Freeman remarks, “Alex struggled at times as a designer, but his skill at talent-spotting was pretty much unsurpassable.” So were his feel for the market, his eye, his chutzpah as a salesman and his courage. When war broke out he joined the Foreign Legion – never mind that “a short, heavily-perfumed couturier” was hardly a typical legionnaire.
Alex the “bullet” is such a vivid character that he threatens to overbalance Freeman’s narrative, but though he provides the pizzazz in her story, his quieter siblings provide the strong undertow of melancholy that gives this book its poignancy. As a child, young Hadley avoided her grandmother, thinking she was “weird”. Now she uses a different word – Sarah was “sad”. By 1937 the youngest sibling was happy in Paris, surrounded by beauty and beautiful herself (the photographs confirm it), with a handsome young dentist who loved her. But, though there were plenty of European Jews who just couldn’t believe what awaited them, the Glasses had lived through a pogrom. They knew.
Alex sold patterns to an American couple. On one of their buying trips they brought along a single male friend. Alex said – apparently joking, but not really – “You should marry my sister.” The man, Bill Freeman, came to supper and declared then and there that he was in love. Sarah found his jokes coarse. His proposal seemed ridiculous. And what about the dentist? But each of her family, in turn, told her she should seize this chance, if not for her own sake, then for theirs. “You’re going to kill us,” said Alex. “Your marrying this guy is our last chance.” She married him.
Alex had told her Bill was a millionaire with a house on Park Lane. In fact he ran a petrol station in a Long Island suburb that didn’t welcome foreigners, especially not Jewish ones. Sarah’s life shrank, and when she asked Bill when and how her family would be joining them he was astonished – that had never, so far as he was concerned, been part of the deal. She stayed, loving her two sons but wistful, wearing the beautiful coats that Alex had made for her that seemed, to her American neighbours, too fancy by half.
Freeman has laid aside the caustic humour of her newspaper columns to write soberly, but with a nice balance of sympathy and exasperation, about her relatives – honouring courage, lamenting obstinacy, folly and spite. (Adversity, she demonstrates, does not make families kinder.)
She is best when focusing on the particular. When Henri and his wife were surviving under assumed identities in occupied Paris, their neighbours – shockingly – repeatedly pinned letters to their former front door denouncing them as Jews and revealing their new address. As Freeman says, “writing about a country behaving badly can feel abstract… the wickedness of individuals is piercingly personal”. This book is at its best when she follows that principle. The passages in which she labours to place personal stories within a bigger picture, with statistics and generalisations and parallels drawn between anti-Semitism then and now, feel bland and unnecessary.
Her family’s stories, though, scintillate in her telling, and her responses to them are subtle, non-judgemental and illuminating. Alex’s flash self-fashioning, Henri’s quiet achievement and the gutsiness of his bossy wife, the tragi-comedy of Sarah posing in her furs by the petrol pump, Jacques’ terrible end: these stories add up to a nuanced and compelling picture of life in the diaspora.
Hadley Freeman appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 17 April. Tickets are available here.
House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family
Fourth Estate, 464pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy