An Uncommon Journey: From Vienna to Shanghai to America--A B

Time:2020-05-27 19:59 Source:jewishbookcouncil Writer:cjss read:

An Uncommon Journey: From Vienna to Shanghai to America--A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II

Deborah Strobin and Ilie Wacs, with S.J. Hodges

Review by Marvin Tokayer

While there is no comprehensive volume on the escape of 18,000 Jews to Shanghai during the Holocaust, there are about twenty memoirs by refugees who fled there. What sets this one apart is that the events are seen from the perspectives of two young children. Deborah was three and her brother Ilie twelve when their family fled Vienna for Shanghai, eventually ending up in America. 

An employee of their father who becomes a Nazi warns the family of the approaching horrors and advises them to leave. They are fortunate to board the last ship to Shanghai, the port of last resort, where they arrive penniless, their steamer trunk lost. Uprooted, they leave behind the cruelty and the prejudices of daily life in Vienna even before the Nazis, and are transported to a new life. We read of sleeping in bunk beds with sheets on ropes for partitions, several hundred to a room. Sanitary facilities might be an out house or one toilet for four hundred. One child describes the filth, the diseases, and so many dead Chinese in the street as families could not afford the burial. Deborah remembers the songs of the coolie laborers as they carried their heavy burdens, which served as her lullabies. Children generally slept on the floor but bugs were eating her alive and a cot had to be found. 

Both Deborah and Ilie attended the Jewish school, but painfully, both remember the hunger pains they suffered. Their lunch, brought from home, was one slice of bread which Deborah placed on the radiator to make toast. Ilie was sent to pawn his mother’s wedding ring when they had no money for food. Deborah had but one armless doll. They lived in Shanghai with no extended family, surrounded by cholera, typhus, and dysentery. They also remember that this refugee community produced newspapers and opera companies, radio programs, and lectures on Chinese culture. German Jews looked down on Austrian Jews, and both looked down on Eastern European Jews. Both Deborah and Ilie describe the American bombing of July 17, 1945 when the Jewish ghetto was hit and Jews and Chinese worked together to help the injured and put out the fires. Deborah and Ilie both participated in this rescue and remember it well. On a chance visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Deborah suddenly saw her photo on the wall. The result is this book, which is well worth reading.