Last week I revisited young adult fiction, a genre I hadn’t read in decades.
I learned of Shanghai Shadows (Holiday House, 2006) by Lois Ruby last year when a friend was preparing for a trip to China with her 9 year old daughter. She asked friends on Facebook for names of China-related books. So when someone mentioned a relative had written a YA book about Shanghai, Jews, and World War II, I was hooked. I gave the book to my 11 year old son for Hannukah, with the intention of reading it myself.
Shanghai Shadows is the story of Ilse Shpann, a 13 year old Austrian Jew who flees Europe in 1939 with her parents and older brother, Erich. They settle in Shanghai, the only place back then that took in refugees without visas. Arriving in Shanghai, they downsize into a three room apartment in the International Settlement, scraping by on Ilse’s father’s violin teaching salary and her mother’s part-time bakery job and English teaching. That’s the highlight of their existence in the Chinese metropolis.
After the US enters the war, tens of thousands of Jews in Shanghai are rounded up and sent to the former Chinese section to live in a ghetto. Ilse’s family moves into one room and eats one meal a day. In the course of the story, she falls for a young Polish Jew and learns a dark secret her mother had kept for years, one that tears her family apart during the Japanese occupation.
I’ve read other books that include Jewish characters, Shanghai, and the war, like Emily Hahn’s China to Me (Country Life Press, 1944) and Vicki Baum’s Shanghai ’37 (Oxford University Press, 1986), but Shanghai Shadows is different in that it centers around a Jewish family and the Jewish community in Shanghai. I felt I learned more about the day to day comings and goings in Jewish Shanghai from this novel than from the aforementioned books.
Happy Passover to those who celebrate!