Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, by Edmund de Waal, is a magnificent book about his amazing family, the Ephrussis. From the patriarch’s flourishing business in Odessa in the 1850s to the fortunes made by his descendants in Vienna and Paris; from the family’s involvement in the art world to the tragic events after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938 and then Czechoslovakia, the author re-creates the lives of his ancestors through a collection of 264 netsuke acquired by his great-granduncle in Paris in the late nineteenth century, which de Waal eventually inherited.

So often when I read books or articles about the tumultuous past century, I find a reference to someone whose papers we have in the Hoover Archives—in this case, Eric Voegelin, an Austrian political scientist who, like de Waal’s great-grandparents, escaped Vienna in 1938, just in the nick of time. They were helped by their daughter, Elisabeth de Waal, the author’s grandmother. A lawyer and a poet (she carried on an intense and extensive correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke in the 1920s that was published in full in 1997 in the Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft), she had married a Dutch man and was thus able to enter Austria in 1938 on her Dutch passport—a courageous move considering the family’s Jewish origins. She had met Voegelin during her law studies in Vienna, and their friendship deepened in their respective exiles—hers in England and his in America.

When I saw Voegelin mentioned in the book, I promptly checked the finding aid for his papers in our archives, which, coincidentally, I had prepared many years ago. Sure enough, there was her name in the correspondence series: Elisabeth de Waal—forty-five letters sent to Voegelin between 1938 and 1976 and seven carbon copies of Voegelin’s letters to her.

That was exciting enough, but then came the best part. Prompted by this connection to our holdings, I decided to e-mail the author to tell him how much I loved his book and to ask whether he knew of the existence of his grandmother’s letters in our Voegelin collection. Not only did he reply immediately in the kindest way, but he offered to send us twelve letters from Voegelin to his grandmother, stating that his family would be honored to have them housed at Hoover, where they would complement the correspondence we already had.

So the next time you read something that catches your attention about a person or event in the twentieth (and increasingly twenty-first) century, chances are we have collections concerning them in our archives or books in our library. Come and visit us!

And why not write to the author of the book or article you read? You might be happily surprised, as I was.

Eric Voegelin, August 1966, Photo File A, Eric Voegelin papers, Hoover Institution Archives

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