Wcounter-position of these paintings was suggestive of the history of the great wealthy Jewish families of Europe. I am not a one for Rothschilds, really. My grandparents were the opposite of the Jewish aristocracy — illiterate, impoverished, penniless shtetlers — and my dad became a communist in part as a rebellion against the inequities within the faith. Possibly, during the Depression my grandparents benefited from some charity funded by Jewish philanthropists, but if so it wasn’t by much. My father described my grandfather as ground down by poverty and himself as humiliated by it. Yet, at the same time, there were these Jewish families who lived extraordinary lives of wealth and connection. They met the Emperor, hunted from lodges on Hungarian estates, built palaces in Austria, advised the Kaiser, wintered in the South of France and journeyed from one Grand Hotel to another. And collected and commissioned (and donated) great works of art wherever they were.
I have just finished reading for review a memoir — Fault Lines by the writer David Pryce-Jones. His mother was Therese Fould-Springer, an heiress belonging to a mostly Viennese Jewish family of immense wealth. Her sister married Elie Rothschild. Their lives were measured in country palaces, town houses, portraits and servants. PryceJones was born in Vienna in 1936. His escape and that of his family to Britain and to America parallels the journeys of many Central and Western European Jews, including probably those longdead ladies of Hampstead Heath.
What shines through Pryce-Jones’s fascinating book is the precariousness of the Jewishness of even these hugely powerful families. The Fould-Springers even used a semi-secret name — Ibok — to mean Jewish. They had the money and status and yet were always on the edge of the societies in which they lived.
When the catastrophe came, many escaped. But just as their contacts in aiding escape were better than that of their poorer co-religionists, so also their visibility was higher and their personal capacity for hardship was initially lower. Many of the people in those great families met the same end in Auschwitz and other camps as the Jews who had little or nothing. We ended up in the same crematoria, our smoke mingling.
It’s something we always need to remember, not least in a time when we are continually reminded by the publication of this rich list or that billionaire’s self-regarding autobiography. No power is greater than that of politics. Politics sweeps away economics. Passion trumps money. Even fabulous wealth is no guard against fabulous hatred. Let the politics go and let all else go besides.
They had money and status but lived on society’s edge
David Aaronovitch is a columnist for The Times