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 – June 19, 2012

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.
Rab­bi Mar­vin Tokay­er served as the an Eng­lish-speak­ing, uni­ver­si­ty-trained, rab­bi for the Far East, from India to Japan. Author of 20 books in Japan­ese on Judaica and Japan, Rab­bi Tokay­er draws on a half cen­tu­ry of per­son­al expe­ri­ences in Asia and a wealth of knowl­edge about Jews and the Far East. He is skilled in weav­ing togeth­er col­or­ful char­ac­ters and cap­ti­vat­ing sto­ries of Jews in Chi­na, Japan, India, Bur­ma, Sin­ga­pore, and beyond.

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