What you wouldn’t see otherwise or Tanuki writes a letter
May 20, 2020 | JMW News
Dear Mr. Ephrussi, Dear Viktor,
You would never have thought that a netsuke, a Japanese something to fasten the sagemono to the kimono belt, would ever write to you, would you? I think we should address each other with the informal “du.” With your year of birth being 1860, you are no longer the youngest, but I am definitely older, so that I can easily offer you the “du” word. Dear Victor. The memory is a tricky thing. It doesn’t stir unless it is touched and woken by something.
I spent many years at home in a safe at Peter and Dorothea Bernhard’s place. How did I get there? Well, dear Viktor, that has to do with you and the Ephrussi & Co banking house, which Peter Bernhard’s father, Hans, had worked for. Without Edmund de Waal’s famous book, which does not tell us so much about the hare with the amber eyes as about his wide-scattered and world-traveling Ephrussi family, many things would be different. I would still be in the vault and know nothing. There would also be no exhibition about the Ephrussis at the Jewish Museum and people would not suddenly be interested in this story. The Palais Ephrussi on Vienna’s Ringstrasse all of the sudden became interesting – thank you very much, dear Edmund! The mansion at Universitätsring 14, this address already had a different name, has to do with you and me. When you married Emmy Schey in 1899, Charles Ephrussi sent you from Paris 264(!) netsuke as a wedding gift! You received many other things, too, but did you perhaps ponder longer about the correct placement of the little Japanese things in the mansion? This is described in a very funny manner in the book. What would Charles have said about the fact that all 264 animals, figurines and objects would end up in Emmy’s dressing room? The advantage of this arrangement for us: Your children were sometimes allowed to keep their mother, your wife, company while getting dressed, and when boredom got out of hand, they played with us. Did Elisabeth, Gisela, Iggie and Rudolf know that they were holding a fox that outsmarts a hunter? The leap from the mansion’s dressing room into Peter Bernhard’s safe is a big one. And, on the other hand, not.
Peter Bernhard’s father worked at your bank and you had to lay him off in 1930 because the situation had become complicated. Economically. And altogether. I assume you were sorry. Hans Bernhard had been a very good employee and perhaps a friend as well? Hans was born in 1896, quite a bit younger than you, and could have easily been your son. The employer’s reference Hans received when he left the bank is formulated in a very friendly way and praises Hans highly. That is nice, but somehow quite normal, too. The really special thing is that I was presented with the reference as a gift! Dear Viktor, why did you choose the fox that outwits the hunter? Did you select it at home in the mansion and take it to the bank in Wasagasse? Maybe even carried it in your trouser or jacket pocket? Did you ask Emmy? Did she perhaps choose me?
The memory is a tricky thing, a lot fades into oblivion. Nothing can be done about it. But one can ask one’s fantasy to help. It alone would also not be as helpful as in combination with history, stories and objects in exhibitions. Hans Bernhard would not be featured at the Jewish Museum Vienna if his son had not heard or read about the planned Ephrussi exhibition at the Jewish Museum Vienna and offered the fox on loan. Dorothea and Peter Bernhard had time to remember Hans. The honorary Councilor of Commerce who died in Bad Ischl in 1973 and was buried there. Viktor, do you remember Bad Ischl? You definitely paid a visit to the Landauers, right? Memory outwits time. Like the fox the hunter.
Exhibition view “The Ephrussis. Travel in Time”
Right case: employment certificate and netsuke