Despite the not-entirely-rare memoirs, novels, and narratives about Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II, it remains a little-known corner of history. Juliet Conlin’s new novel tells a story of two of them.
Esther is a young widow from Berlin who, desperate to leave Nazi Germany, obtains passage to Shanghai for herself and her young daughter, Anneliese, in 1939. Esther’s parents refuse to leave Berlin, thinking their lives will be less turbulent waiting out the chaos in Germany instead of uprooting to a city halfway around the world. On the ship, Esther and Anneliese meet Kitty, a Viennese woman on her way to meet her fiancé in Shanghai. Although Kitty is also Jewish, her reasons for leaving Europe are more romance than refuge.
While life in Shanghai, even for refugees, is sometimes romanticized, and while Conlin touches briefly upon the theater, music and cafés, The Lives Before Us revolves around the hardships each woman faces in the Shanghai ghetto, the area where the Japanese rounded up all stateless Jews in 1943 at the behest of the Nazis. (The Nazis wanted the Japanese to kill the Jews in Shanghai, but for reasons that have only been surmised, the Japanese instead put Jews without papers into a small, crowded area that could hardly accommodate an extra twenty-thousand people.) The bulk of her story revolves around the hardship—starvation, disease, crime, and death—a far remove from life people led in cosmopolitan Berlin and Vienna before Hitler came to power.
Conlin also tells a powerful tale of women’s resilience. Apart from trying to feed Anneliese and herself, Esther finds herself fending off the advances of her boss and struggling with an abusive old flame from Berlin. Kitty’s fall from grace is even more severe, as her fiancé isn’t who he claimed to be back in Vienna and she must do whatever she can to make ends meet. She finds solace in the company of a young British man who disappears on their wedding day, as the Japanese imprison him in a POW camp.
Conlin writes with sympathy and understanding about the dislocation—and worse, of course— experienced by assimilated Jews in Germany and Austria. One particular passage that stands out, in a way that brings to light the prejudice refugees still experience today, is when Kitty overhears British women discussing the plight of the Jews in Europe
“The truth of it is—however awfully they’re being treated in Germany—they might perhaps want to ask why it’s always the Jews who are the target of such measures, pogroms and such.” She waves her hand dismissively. “I mean, they might want to take a good, hard look at themselves, you know.”
Yet “historical fiction” must be historical as well as fictional and some of this novel’s key elements have a wider historical context.
In the early pages, Conlin uses the term “Jewess” as an ordinary noun, not in dialogue nor apparently to reflect the way a character from that time might have spoken. Although this term was not unusual in the 1930s and even later, it now carries considerable baggage.
Not all experiences were the same, of course. In The Lives Before Us, Kitty builds a friendship with her fiancé’s teenage servant that will endure for years. Anneliese also develops a close friendship with a young Chinese girl in the neighborhood. At a recent Shanghai Jewish refugee symposium at the University of Chicago organized by novelist Rachel DeWoskin, former US Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal, himself a Shanghai refugee, claimed Jews and Chinese didn’t mix in the ghetto, despite living in close proximity to one another. He didn’t have a single Chinese friend in the nine years he lived in Shanghai and picked up very little of the Shanghainese dialect. The Blumenthal family had assimilated into Berlin society, so when they arrived in Shanghai, a colonial city ruled by the British, French, Americans, and Japanese, the family was already used to living in a society marked by class difference. Blumenthal lamented that his family’s background closed them off from socializing with people who were different, perpetuating the colonialist hierarchy in Shanghai when they arrived there as refugees. Conlin’s Kitty and Esther come from more modest means than the Blumenthals.
But some incidents seem more questionable. Conlin implies that foot-binding remained common in the pre-War Years.
The customers who want the really young girls know to go to a neon-lit strip on the other side of Nanking Road, where they are supplied with five- or six-year-old girls, kidnapped, sold or rented, whose feet have more often than not been broken—arches snapped, toes bent inwards—and then bound tightly to conform to some twisted notion of beauty.
While it is true that foot-binding continued in some rural areas after in was outlawed in 1911, it could hardly been a common practice in a major metropolitan area 30 years later.
Elsewhere, a relief-worker at the Jewish social services agency that placed refugees in heim, or dormitory-style residences, and helped them find jobs, recommends to Esther that she consider a Christian orphanage for her daughter Anneliese. While not, I suppose, inconceivable that some children were placed in Catholic orphanages in Shanghai, the whole point of the treacherous escape from Europe was to keep families together. In Europe, where many such cases were documented, the purpose was to disguise the child’s Jewish identity.
Conlin dedicates her book to refugees in the past and present. As the number of refugees around the world continues to increase, her novel is a timely reminder to many of us that refugees were at one time us, and that people and places less fortunate often took us in.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.