Edmund de Waal is no stranger to unusual inheritances. In 1993, the British potter received 264 elegantly carved Japanese netsuke from the estate of his great-uncle Iggie. The functional sculptures were among the last vestiges of a vast trove of artwork owned by the Ephrussis, a rich and cultured Jewish family who were stripped of their Viennese property in the wake of the Austrian Anschluss. Fascinated, de Waal began to research the netsuke (saved from Nazi plunder by a loyal servant). What he learned became the basis for an internationally bestselling memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss (2010).
While de Waal plumbed archives to piece together the complicated story, his father gifted him with a parcel of documents he never knew existed. They belonged to his grandmother, Elisabeth de Waal (née Ephrussi), who died in 1991. This second inheritance contained letters, photographs, a Viennese high school certificate and an unpublished manuscript.
To grasp that yellowed stack, dotted with correction fluid, was both tremendously exciting and “terrible,” says de Waal. “Terrible for two reasons: One, you read something that substantive with fear and trembling, in case it’s dreadful. You don’t want to be let down by someone you love...by finding out that [their work is] third-rate,” he says. “The second thing was that at this point in my research I’ve spent all my life in archives and finding traces of things, finding gaps [that represent] people effacing or destroying evidence. To find this was, of course, incredibly poignant because it’s a survivor.”
It was, in fact, the story of survivors. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal tells of displaced persons converging on Vienna, finding their former home markedly altered and recognizing a change within themselves. Theophil Kanakis, a wealthy Greek businessman, seeks to snatch up postbellum properties at bargain basement prices. Prince Lorenzo “Bimbo” Grein hopes to make an advantageous match that restores meaning to his title and finery to the family palace. Their paths are crossed by Marie-Theres, known as Resi, a beautiful 18-year-old American seeking personal development in her noble family’s homeland.
Professor Kuno Adler, a Jewish scientist whose wife has become a prosperous seamstress in New York, feels out of touch, out of time, out of place there. He returns to his former job to find the laboratory is now headed by “an unrepentant Nazi.” “What, he asked himself, had he expected?... That he would be welcomed with open arms, as if they had been waiting for him for fifteen years; as if they had been longing for him to return, enriched by experience...? ” she writes.
Was it what de Waal expected? Having spent early years living in the grand Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse, she was part of the family’s forced relocation to the United Kingdom. After the war, she attempted the return that lends The Exiles Return its keen autobiographical edge. “What I find absolutely compelling at the heart of the book is the need to return,” says de Waal. “What do you do if you’ve made another life somewhere else, but you know that you’re not a complete person unless you’ve returned? How do you work with the memories and the encounters that will happen? I think [Elisabeth] took that on in a novel because that was exactly what she was trying to live through.”
Among the many horrors Elisabeth was forced to face on return was news that a beloved aunt and uncle had died in the Nazi labor camps. “When she went back it was bloody awful. She met with horrible experiences, and chose to make her life as someone elsewhere,” says de Waal. She was able to forge a fulfilling and stimulating life in the UK: An extremely well-educated and capable woman who spoke and wrote in five languages, Elisabeth studied political science, philosophy and law at university, and carried on an extensive epistolary friendship with Rainer Maria Rilke, who mentored her in poetry. The Exiles Return is only one of five unpublished novels she wrote: two in German, three in English.
“I think The Exiles Return is a significant record of the literature of survival and memory,” says de Waal. “Obviously it’s an act of familial piety to bring something that is unpublished to the attention of others. That doesn’t explain why, as a writer, why I should do it, and that’s more complicated for me.” The novel was written in the 1950’s by a woman who “was writing very openly about the Holocaust, about the camps, as well as those extremely powerful scenes of confrontation between a survivor in Vienna (Adler) and someone who actually had been a scientist in the camps. That it is publishable now is very interesting.”
The Exiles Return is a unique and important artifact that sheds light on a dark history, one that some would rather forget. “It’s interesting there’s been so many attempts to kind of close things down, close history down. ‘It’s late on, we can’t find anything more, there’s no memory left, the last survivors are elderly,’—but my take on this is that it’s not too late. We haven’t the history and it’s very, very alive and powerful,” says de Waal. Like the cache of 1,500 paintings recently discovered in a Munich apartment, hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt, son of a German art dealer with Nazi ties, de Waal believes there will be more discoveries, more triumphs in the quest to know and understand the past. “I find an unpublished novel by my grandmother and it gets published sixty-something years after it’s written, and thousands of works of art are discovered in an apartment in Germany,” he observes. “It’s going to keep on going like this. It wouldn’t surprise me if the great discoveries aren’t finished. This is part of an ongoing story.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.