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The Founder of the House

Newly reissued: the underappreciated writer’s 7-volume, multigenerational Gollantz Saga, an epic of 19th-c. European Jewry

Naomi Jacob
October 24, 2014
(Copyright Tessa Traeger from the exhibition Chemistry of Light, Purdy Hicks Gallery)
(Copyright Tessa Traeger from the exhibition Chemistry of Light, Purdy Hicks Gallery)

Naomi Jacob, born in 1884, was a teacher, an actress and entertainer, and a political activist, but it was as an author that she found great success. Her first novel, published in 1925, became a best-seller, and Jacob went on to write more than 40 novels, as well as plays and a series of autobiographies.

Jacob’s dual heritage influenced both her life and writing. Her paternal grandfather was a Jewish refugee from Prussia, while her maternal family had a centuries-old connection to the town of Ripon in Yorkshire, England. Although raised in the Anglican Church, Jacob was proud of her Jewish heritage and close to her Yiddish-speaking grandfather, whose life helped inform her novel Barren Metal. Her interest in the experiences of Jews settling in an adopted homeland led her to write the seven-novel series The Gollantz Saga. The saga begins in early-19th-century Vienna and follows generations of a Jewish family from continental Europe to England, where the head of the house starts a business and family in London, moving among the British upper classes. Against a backdrop of the major events of the times, the series explores ideals of honor, honesty, family ties and rivalries, and loyalty to one’s people and family.

When she was in middle-age, ill health forced Jacob to leave England for the milder climate of Italy. Apart from a period during Nazi occupation, she lived in a villa on Lake Garda for the rest of her life. However, she often returned to visit her beloved Yorkshire and was also regularly to be heard as a contributor on BBC radio. Jacob died, aged 80, in 1964.

The complete Gollantz Saga is now being reissued in digital format to mark the 50th anniversary of Jacob’s death. The first volume, The Founder of the House, is published by Corazon Books and will be followed soon by the second installment, That Wild Lie… The following excerpt is from chapter 2 of the novel.



During the days which followed the despatch of his two letters to Italy, Fernando Meldola was restless and preoccupied. He found it impossible to remain at home, and wandered about the streets of Paris in a vain endeavour to find something of interest which might distract his mind from his own worries. He had liked Gollantz, and had believed that he had in his character all those qualities by which Fernando set such store. Now, he recalled incident after incident which he felt should have warned him of the real mentality of the young man. There had been the affair of the vase, which Gollantz had repaired so cunningly that only an expert could have discovered the places where it had been broken. That vase, Gollantz had been on the point of selling to the stupid and half-educated wife of one of Bonaparte’s generals as a perfect piece. Fernando had entered the room in the nick of time, and had explained that the vase was a restored piece.

“Restored so beautifully, by my clever partner here, that he cannot detect the marks of breakage himself, eh, Abraham?”

Gollantz had laughed, protested that he was a great fool, and that for the moment the fact that the vase was imperfect had entirely escaped his memory.

“Not clever, madame, but a great fool who cannot remember the most simple things. I wonder every day why Monsieur Meldola puts up with me!”

There had been the occasion when the age of a piece of silver had been under discussion. Meldola had agreed that, in his opinion, it was of a certain date, but that he could only offer it for sale as a “speculative” piece, because it lacked the silver stamp. Gollantz had tentatively suggested that the silver mark, removed from a less expensive piece, might be grafted on to the piece under discussion.

“It could be done so neatly that it would defy detection,” he said.

Fernando had stared, amazed and almost unable to believe his ears.

“Graft?” he exclaimed. “Me—Fernando Meldola—to graft a silver mark!”

Like lightning, Gollantz had burst into a shout of laughter.

“How easily I can make you believe a joke,” he laughed. “It was only in fun. Don’t I know you well enough to realize that such a thing would be as impossible for you as it would be for me. I joked with you.”

Fernando wondered if these small things ought not to have warned him of the young man’s true character? He blamed himself, because he felt that he was responsible for this disaster which had overtaken the niece he loved so dearly. He continued his peregrinations round the streets of Paris, a tall, dignified figure, notable for his dark beard and moustache and his splendid carriage.

Men and women turned to stare after him, whispering of his money, his success, and his beautiful house; he neither heard nor saw them, but walked on with care and disappointment as his companions.

It was on one of these days that he met his old friend Comparetti, who knew more concerning ancient manuscripts than any man living. He was a strange old man, shabby and still retaining the long sidecurls of his race.

“Greetings, Fernando!” he said. “It is a long time since we met. Let us go and drink coffee together.”

Fernando looked into his kind, shrewd old eyes, and decided that he would be glad to talk to one of his own people and that this friend might be able to drive away, for a time at least, the depression which sat so heavily on him.

“I shall be glad to, Dominico. Here, in this little place. We shall be able to talk in peace.”

Comparetti laughed. “Peace! That’s a word we have almost forgotten in this country, Fernando. For the last forty years I have never known any peace except that which I carried about with me under my own hat. It would seem that the French have banished peace from their country. It may be that they fear her as other nations have feared the Jews, and they have driven her out to become a wanderer on the face of the earth, eh?”

“Perhaps. Your country and my adopted home is suffering at the moment.”

Comparetti lifted his thin hands. “Poor Italy. This is not war—this is a great commercial campaign, Fernando. Presently you will see the walls of the Paris galleries, the homes of the marshals, the bedroom of the Creole, hung with spoils from Italy! The bronze horses from the Piazza San Marco used as mascots for one of the regiments. The statue of Cangrande side by side with that of Henri Quatre.”

“Pooh! My dear friend, what do the marshals of France know of the value of these things?” Fernando demanded. “They will never be able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.”

“Where have you been, Fernando?” Comparetti asked. “Have you been living in your cellars for the last few months?” He leant forward and sank his voice to a whisper, speaking in rapid Italian. “There is a commercial spoliation going on there in Italy. Nothing is left to chance. The whole thing is done on business lines; the advice of experts is taken. Why do I tell you these things? You know them already, of course; I had forgotten.”

His fine old face changed, his eyes lost their kindly twinkle and met Fernando’s coldly. He drew back a little, as if he wished to increase the distance between them.

“I know?” Fernando said. “I know? What do you mean, Dominico? Why do you look at me so coldly? How should I know of this?”

“You provided one of the experts.”

“I did? Expert in what? Explain yourself.”

Comparetti frowned, then began to speak with some irritation.

“Did you not know that Monge and Berthollet were taken with the Army to Italy in the position of advisers on matters of art?”

“No—and I question of how much value either of them will be.”

“Did you not allow Lannes to take your partner, Gollantz, with him as an unofficial expert?”

“Gollantz? He went to Italy as a clerk, because he wished to see the country and spoke the language. Lannes himself told me that was to be his position—a clerk who spoke the language.”

Comparetti gazed earnestly at the face before him, as if he endeavoured to see into the soul of his friend. At last he spoke.

“Fernando, you have been made a fool of by Lannes and this young man. I know, Monge and Berthollet know, all Paris knows that he has gone to Italy to assist in the work of spoliation. He is a valuer, an assessor, an assistant thief! Legalized theft, perhaps, but theft none the less.”

“Why should they approach him? An unknown young man. It is fantastic.”

“The whole army is that, my friend. Napoleon loves fantasy. He sees himself as king of the world, his marshals, kings under him, his whole court a gorgeous, perpetual carnival. Why did they choose this young man? Because they dare not ask Fernando Meldola, and yet they relied on the tuition which Fernando Meldola had given this fellow. That is why.”

Fernando pushed away his empty coffee-cup, and sighed.

“Dominico, I ask you to believe that I knew nothing of this. Believe that, please, and believe too that Gollantz shall return to Paris immediately. I pledge my word.”

“Which has always been the best guarantee in the world to the man who knows you, Fernando. Shalom!”

Fernando walked back to his house, his head bent, his hands clasped behind him. Dominico had said: “Shalom!” Peace! He felt that peace had left his house for ever, that it must have taken flight when Abraham Gollantz entered it.

That night he wrote again to Lannes, stating that Gollantz must return immediately, and offering, quite frankly, a large sum of money, which should be paid into the Marshal’s private banking account on the same day that Gollantz arrived in Paris. The sum was considerable, and Meldola was too good a man of business not to resent losing such an amount.

“It is fantastic!” he said softly. “Dominico was right—the whole affair is fantastic. To think that this man’s child may one day be my heir!”


Gollantz returned to Paris in August, when the dusty streets and hot days, heavy suns and suffocating nights had begun to rob Miriam of some of her beauty. Meldola watched her pale face and her general air of lassitude with anxiety. He knew that she suffered intensely, and that her days were filled with a nervous dread that Gollantz might refuse to return. She knew nothing of the money which her uncle was prepared to pay for that return.

He arrived, tired and dusty, bringing with him several large boxes, and far more bags than had comprised his original luggage. His manner was untinged by nervousness; he held his head high, and greeted Meldola with respectful affection.

“You look well in spite of the heat,” Gollantz cried. “It is hot in Paris, but in Italy it was like living in an inferno. How is your niece? I have brought her some little trinkets from her own country. They will please her, I hope.”

Meldola looked at the slim young figure, noted the well-shaped head set so admirably on the broad shoulders. For the first time he realized that he hated Abraham Gollantz, and that he could have seen him lying dead at his feet without a pang of regret.

“Sit down,” he ordered. “Before you see my niece there are many things which I have to say to you. First, you are a seducer, a liar, a cheat, and a common adventurer. You hear that? Good! Please remember that always in my mind those epithets are used silently when I mention your name. Secondly, you will prepare immediately to marry my niece whom you have wronged so cruelly. Tomorrow we shall make arrangements. You understand?”

The young man’s face reddened under its tan. “I had no idea—I did not know. Miriam never wrote to tell me of this. I can understand that you feel angry with me, despise me. I despise myself for having brought a moment’s anxiety on either her or you. I am speaking honestly now, sincerely.”

“Pah! You have never been sincere in your life! You will tell me next that you love Miriam!”

“But I do. I love her devotedly. You tell me that I must marry her. There is nothing which will make me happier. I was wrong, foolish, to make it possible for her to—to suffer. I admit it. I was tempted, I yielded to temptation. She’s young, beautiful; I am young, and young blood is hot. Can’t you understand?”

Meldola’s fine lips curved into a sneer. “My business has taught me to differentiate between fine shades of colour. I admit no shades of behaviour. Right is right, decency is decency—and lying is always lying.”

“Then there is no good purpose in my trying to defend myself.”

“None! You cannot defend yourself in this matter or the question of going to Italy—as a clerk. You—you gonoph! Thief in the pay of other thieves. Robbing churches, palaces, defacing history! I know, Abraham Gollantz, you realized that to admit your reason for going with Lannes would be sufficient for me to disown you. So you lied, you poor, pitiful fool—and I found you out! What have you brought home as a result of your private robberies? How much has your master allowed you to purloin from a nation which extended hospitality and tolerance to your own race? Those boxes will be opened tomorrow, and everything—mark that, everything—will be returned in due time to the place where it belongs. Not yet—or it might again fall into the hands of the Corsican and his hordes, but later, when it is safe to return it. Now, go and tell Miriam that you are home. Tell her that you love her, and will try to make her a good husband.”

Young Gollantz stood for a moment, uncertain. He was ashamed, not only of what he had done, but because he had allowed his plans to miscarry. His quick brain already tried to think of some way in which he might save the treasures of gold, silver, and ivory which he had brought back with him.

He believed that abasement was the best method of obtaining forgiveness.

“Very well,” he said gravely; then stretching out his hands with a gesture which was admirably impulsive, he cried: “Oh, forgive me! I’ve been foolish, stupid, nothing more. Criminally stupid, I admit it. I will make amends. Will you try to forget the past and let me begin again?”

Meldola drew his beard through his fingers. His eyes were hard and unmoved. “No,” he said. “You ask the impossible. You should know that Jews do not forget. Go to Miriam.”

However his reception by Fernando might have surprised and dismayed Gollantz, Miriam’s greeting atoned for it. She was pathetically happy to see him, offered no reproaches, only repeated again and again: “Oh, to have you home! I have missed you so. Never leave me again, my beloved.”

They were married a week later, and Meldola gave them a suite of rooms in his house. His manner towards Abraham was coldly civil. He never again allowed him any say in the management of the business. He might sell goods, but only at the sum which Meldola put upon them. He was paid a substantial salary, which—to give Gollantz his due—he tried to earn honestly.

Only on one occasion did Meldola hold a conversation of any length with him: that was when the boxes which he had brought from Italy were opened, and the contents marked with the information as to where they had originally belonged. The boxes were sealed again and not opened until eighteen years later, when various parish priests, impoverished noblemen, and people of lesser aristocratic pretensions in Italy received packages containing their long-lost property. No letter was enclosed, all charges were paid, and in some cases the goods were delivered by special messengers, who made no statement except that the goods had been “taken away in error, and are now returned by a gentleman who lives in Paris.”

Meldola never accustomed himself to the fact that Miriam had married a man he despised and hated, but his affection for her was sufficiently strong to make him refrain from adding to her worries. He was as generous as ever to her and, when the child was born in the November of 1796, he insisted that she must be attended by the finest and most expensive doctors and nurses, and that the boy must be clothed and treated like a prince.

It was a real grief to him when the child’s life ended during an attack of croup in the following December, on the very day upon which Napoleon returned, laden with the spoils he had gathered, and entered Paris with all the pomp of a conqueror. For seven years the strange household existed: Meldola, aloof and growing more and more reserved, Gollantz holding no official position, being little better than an assistant, and Miriam becoming every year more beautiful, utterly content with her husband, and scarcely noticing that her uncle lived a life of almost complete loneliness.

Gollantz, once full of ambition, had grown to lack all initiative. Once he had planned to create a great business, to make a fortune, and become a rich and successful man. He was chilled by Meldola’s treatment; gradually his initiative died, and he was content with the position allotted to him by Fernando. To his wife he was always kind and considerate, and never ceased to love her with every appearance of devotion. Once or twice he embarked on small trading exploits on his own account, and carried them through to a successful issue, but the heart had gone out of him, and he grew less and less inclined to venture from the security he knew into the insecurity of adventure which had once fascinated him.

It became obvious in the early part of 1804 that he was very ill. His lips had lost their brilliant red and had become tinged with a dullish purple; he often pressed his hand to his side and complained that a sudden pain stabbed him there. Miriam worried and besought him to see a doctor, who pronounced his heart to be gravely affected, and ordered that he should live a life of complete quiet. Frantic with anxiety, Miriam told Fernando of the verdict, and he immediately decided that they should retire to the country, away from the noise and bustle of Paris. Gollantz protested, but Fernando was firm. He provided everything, paid for everything, and behaved with his customary generosity, without abating in the slightest his attitude towards Gollantz. However Abraham Gollantz resented his position, he was obliged to accept it. His father in Amsterdam was dead, his brothers and sisters scattered, married with families of their own to support.

Miriam and her husband left the big house in the rue Castiglione in April 1805; and when the leaves were changing to gold, and the brilliant sunsets told of the approach of winter, Abraham Gollantz died in the little house on the edge of the forest, leaving his inconsolable wife expecting her second child.

She refused to remain away from Paris; she turned to Meldola for comfort, and never again did he speak of Abraham harshly or unkindly. She went back to Paris, took up her old position in the house, and Meldola realized that he was less lonely, that his life seemed fuller and happier. He looked forward, with an intensity which was almost painful, to the birth of the child, and would talk gently and with great tenderness of it, making plans for its youth, its education, and its care.

In an atmosphere of expansive generosity, of magnificence, and the utmost comfort, Miriam Gollantz throve and blossomed. At twenty-seven she was growing a little heavy, full-bosomed and wide-hipped. Her skin and hair, her eyes and the rich colour of her lips, were as vivid as ever. She looked what she was, a lovely matron, a woman whose destiny was to bear children as physically splendid as herself.

Her son was born on May 18, 1805. Fernando Meldola held his grand-nephew in his arms and smiled his gentle, secret, Jewish smile.

The boy was strong, he made himself heard almost the moment after he arrived in the world. His small wrinkled face and closed eyes, between the lids of which could be seen a faint glimmer of blue, his clenched fists and his shrill protesting voice delighted Meldola.

“He resents that so much attention should be paid to the Emperor!” he said to the nurse. “I like his self-assertiveness. We shall make a man of him.”

The boy was named Hermann, and on the day when he was formally received into the Jewish religion, Meldola gathered to his house all the best known and most distinguished Jews of Paris. He provided the finest wines, the most elaborate cakes, and presented every one of his guests with a costly souvenir of the occasion. Hermann Gollantz lifted up his voice and wept; then sank into a profound sleep apparently unmoved by the liberties which had been taken with him.

As he lay in his decorated cot by his mother’s bed, she turned and looked at his sleeping face. Her eyes smarted, and her throat stung with unshed tears. She stretched out her hand and gently touched the cheeks of the child.

“My son, my baby,” she whispered, “you will grow like your beloved father. I shall be so proud of you. You shall never forget that your father was chosen as adviser by the Emperor himself—no matter what people may say. Oh, Abraham, Abraham, why are you not here to rejoice with me!”


Few children in Paris during that time could have received as much care and attention as the small Hermann Gollantz. His mother adored him, his expensive bonne treated him like a small prince, and his great-uncle watched over him with an anxious care which was almost pathetic. It was a miracle that the boy was not hopelessly spoilt. He developed into a sturdy fellow, fair-haired and blue-eyed, as unlike the typical Jew as could well be imagined.

Meldola admitted frankly to Dominico Comparetti that he had centred all his hopes in the child, and that he intended to make him his heir. Meldola’s strongest characteristic was pride, a pride which forbade him to associate himself with any project which was not strictly honest. His love for his race, his knowledge that he was a stranger within the gates of Paris, and as such a marked man, made him live a life which was almost fanatically upright and rigid. He felt himself to be regarded as a type of his whole race, and determined that through him his people should be raised to a place of high esteem in men’s minds.

“They watch us always,” he said to Dominico one day, as they sat sipping their coffee. “They look at us sideways, when they think we do not observe them, hoping to catch us slipping. They would derive great satisfaction if they could say: “Dirty Jew,” “Defrauding Jew,” “Mercenary Hebrew dog.” I refuse to give them that satisfaction, and, moreover, I regard the man who does so as a traitor to his people, to his whole race.”

Dominico shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Pah! What does it matter? These stupidities are shibboleths. There is a sort of legend that Jews are dirty, mean, avaricious, untrustworthy, cheats, and liars. I know that they are old, time-worn imaginings; what do I care for them! I live my life, go my own way, that is sufficient for me.”

“But not for me!” Meldola cried. “For me I must lift the banner which has been trailed in the dust. Oh, in many ways it has been our own fault. The world has been hard for our race, and sometimes they have taken the easier, less admirable course. They have made golden calves and worshipped them; they have amassed money and lent it at high interest; they have allowed themselves to become drunk with money, to be ostentatious and vulgar. Some of them have been ashamed of their race, of their names, of their physical characteristics. There may have been reasons for all these things, excuses even, but that does not make them less regrettable.

“I have had a very bitter experience of the type of Jew who betrays his race—I need not, indeed I shall not, enlarge upon the circumstances. Now, I have under my care a little boy, and every day I congratulate myself upon my good fortune. He is young, plastic, and impressionable as are all little children. He shall grow up in an atmosphere where pride of, and for, the Jewish race shall predominate. He shall hold up his head and say: It is quite impossible for me to be dishonest, because I am a Jew. That is how he shall live his life, and if only a hundred men in all the world recognize his high character, his integrity—well, that will be a hundred Gentiles less to believe and chuckle and grin over those horrible old canards.”

With this determination fixed in his mind, Fernando Meldola brought up little Hermann Gollantz. The boy was indulged, petted and loved, but he was encouraged to regard that strict honesty, that meticulous truthfulness, and that pride of race in which Meldola believed so fiercely, as the first duty of a Jew.

The training was easy, for Hermann loved his great-uncle dearly, and looked upon him as the world’s greatest man. He liked his smooth, sweet-smelling hair and beard; he admired his beautiful, dignified clothes, his knowledge of china, pictures, and old books. His mind seemed to Hermann to be a great storehouse of rich things, a storehouse which was always thrown open to him, and from which treasure after treasure would be drawn for his pleasure and enlightenment.

Certain precepts were instilled into his young mind, precepts which were delivered in Meldola’s soft and beautifully modulated voice, without passion but with a grave sincerity. It appeared that no matter what Hermann might hear of the debts incurred by the great ones of the earth, that gentlemen did not have debts, and particularly debts to people who were poorer than themselves.

“But I heard my mother talking to Madame Comparetti the other day,” Hermann protested. “She said that the Empress had many debts: to dressmakers, jewellers, and goldsmiths.”

“It is possible.” Meldola’s tone implied that Joséphine Beauharnais held little interest for him.

“And the sisters of the Emperor too.”

“That, too, is possible. Women are apt to buy what takes their fancy without considering the cost. The Emperor—as the head of their house—will be responsible to these tradesmen.”

“Is the head of the house always responsible, Uncle?”

“The head of the house ought to be proud to consider himself so.”

“Shall I ever be head of a house?”

“It may be; and when you are, you will remember that the honour of your house rests in your hands, and see that it rests safely.”

Hermann nodded. “It would never do to drop it in the mud, would it?”

“It would be unthinkable.”

Slowly and carefully, Meldola instructed the boy in more material matters. At ten years old he could be trusted to judge the age of a piece of silver with reasonable exactness, he could recognize the marks on many kinds of china, and he had a small but precise knowledge of fine woods. It was evident that he lacked the flair of either Meldola or his dead father. Hermann would always work slowly, carefully, and rely on his head and his knowledge, never on his imagination.

On the festivities instituted for his Bar Mitzvah, he conducted himself with grave dignity, reading in the synagogue with painstaking correctness, his young voice clear and calm. Meldola was full of pride, and once again filled the big house with all his Jewish friends, and made the occasion an opportunity to give largely and generously to many charities. He watched the boy move among his friends, smiling and modest, answering their questions with good sense and understanding. His heart was filled with gratitude, and his eyes smarted suddenly when he heard Lindo, the picture dealer, say: “And how did you obtain all this knowledge? It is commendable in a boy of thirteen.”

“I obtained it, Monsieur Lindo, from the same source that I have obtained everything except those things which my mother gave me—from my great-uncle, Fernando Meldola.”

Though Hermann was a serious youth, he was in no way priggish, and he enjoyed his hours of recreation as much as those which were devoted to study. He was popular with his schoolfellows and his masters, who found him carefully studious, though never intellectually brilliant. He loved music, and hailed with delight those occasions when Meldola took him and his handsome mother to the opera. Like most of his race he had a passion for the theatre, and his critical faculty was, even at an early age, quite admirable.

His mother made no attempt to conceal her intense love for him, and when he was still very young would tell him long, tender stories of his dead father, in which Abraham was depicted as a kind of astonishing paladin, a compound of all the virtues, possessed of every physical and mental gift.

Where Meldola said: “Never forget that you are a Jew, or forget the debt which you owe to your race,” Miriam begged: “Never forget that your father was a great man. Though he was so young he was chosen as artistic adviser over the heads of men older than himself, chosen by the Emperor. He was the most handsome man in Paris, the most amusing, and the most wonderful husband in all the world.”

Copyright © The Estate of Naomi Jacob 2014


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Naomi Jacob (1884-1964) was the author of over 40 novels, including The Gollantz Saga.

Naomi Jacob (1884-1964) was the author of over 40 novels, including The Gollantz Saga.