The name of the Ephrussis — an influential Jewish dynasty of bankers, art collectors, and, latterly, authors — is intimately tied to Odessa and colorfully immortalized in “The End of the Almshouse,” one of the most poignant of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories. In the following passage, Babel celebrates “the century-old history of Odessa, which lay resting under granite slabs” in the city’s Second Jewish Cemetery. Here were
the tombstones and crypts of the wheat exporters, shipping brokers, and merchants who had erected a Russian Marseilles on the site of Turkish Khadjibey. They all lay there, facing the gates — the Ashkenazis, the Gessens and the Ephrussis — refined misers, bon vivants with deep thoughts, creators of wealth and of Odessan jokes. They lay beneath tombstones of Labrador granite and pink marble, guarded by chains of chestnuts and acacias from the plebs huddling close to the walls.
Babel’s concluding line renders vivid the social stratification of Odessa’s Jewish community, which he also depicts in “The Story of My Dovecot,” again referring to the Ephrussis, who bribe their way into an elite secondary school that enforces a strict quota (no more than two Jewish students in a class of forty):
I had a gift for learning. No matter how tricky the teachers got, they couldn’t deny that I had brains and a voracious memory. I had a gift for learning and scored two fives. But then everything changed. Khariton Ephrussi, the grain merchant who exported wheat to Marseilles, slipped the school a five-hundred-rouble bribe on behalf of his son, one of my fives acquired a minus, and my place at the school went to Ephrussi junior. My father nearly lost his mind.
Yet Babel reminds us that even extraordinary wealth could not shield Jews from violence under the tsars. In the midst of a pogrom, the little boy who had been robbed of his place at the school sees “a young peasant in a waistcoat […] smashing a window frame at Khariton Ephrussi’s house. He was smashing the frame with a wooden mallet, putting his whole body into it, breathing deeply and beaming in all directions with the kindly smile of drunkenness, sweat and hardiness of spirit.”
The true story of the Odessan Ephrussi family is indeed one of privilege and tragedy, and it is told with exquisite lyricism by Edmund de Waal, one of its descendants, in The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). And now his brother Thomas de Waal has published a moving piece on his own return to the city of his ancestors, which I recommend just as highly. At the end, de Waal describes the sensation of stepping into the Ephrussis’ former home on Primorsky Boulevard:
[T]he doorkeeper was happy to let me in. Old classical mouldings peered out from behind plywood partitions. I found a door onto a wrought-iron balcony, walked out and savoured the chestnut and lime trees in the boulevard and the long view down to the Black Sea in front of me. I felt a curious sweet sensation of homecoming.