The Box with the Sun­flower Clasp

  • Review
By – October 5, 2023

In this mem­oir, Rachel Meller takes read­ers on a jour­ney through a remark­able sto­ry of sur­vival and resilience dur­ing World War II. She delves into the life of Lis­beth Epstein, her Vien­nese aunt who escaped the hor­rors of Nazi-occu­pied Vien­na and found refuge in Shanghai.

Meller opens the book by inter­twin­ing the mount­ing atroc­i­ties of Nazi-occu­pied Vien­na with a per­son­al tragedy: the death of her moth­er dur­ing her child­hood, which left her feel­ing dis­con­nect­ed from her fam­i­ly and his­to­ry. Her aunt Lis­beth remains a mys­te­ri­ous and dis­tant fig­ure until her pass­ing, when she bequeaths to Meller a box filled with fam­i­ly pho­tos and doc­u­ments. Through these rem­nants of the past, Meller begins to unrav­el Lis­beth’s life and trau­ma — and, in doing so, begins to make sense of her own.

In addi­tion to telling Lisbeth’s sto­ry, Meller doc­u­ments the life of Lisbeth’s hus­band, a book­seller named Bruno Loewen­berg. The con­trast between their per­son­al­i­ties adds depth to the sto­ry and show­cas­es the resilience of the human spir­it in the face of adver­si­ty. Meller also high­lights the jour­ney of Lis­beth’s father, Arnold. Aid­ed by his wife Edith, Arnold man­aged to escape Vien­na to Shang­hai, one of the few places that wel­comed Jew­ish refugees from Europe. After a year, Edith and Lis­beth were able to join him.

Read­ers gain insight into the cama­raderie that like­ly devel­oped among the ship’s refugee pas­sen­gers dur­ing the voy­age, as well as the stark con­trast between the com­fort they expe­ri­enced on the trip and the harsh real­i­ties await­ing them in Shang­hai. Avoid­ing dis­ease and, lat­er, the caprice of the Japan­ese troops in Shang­hai occu­pies much of the family’s time. Lis­beth must also work, first as a typ­ist for a diplo­mat, then at a book­shop. Meller cap­tures the for­ti­tude of Lisbeth’s fam­i­ly as they nav­i­gat­ed the dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances and uncer­tain­ties of their new lives. Seedy sur­round­ings, unsan­i­tary con­di­tions, and con­stant chal­lenges changed the fam­i­ly for­ev­er, shap­ing Lis­beth into the dis­tant adult woman Meller knew. Through this research, Meller is bet­ter able to under­stand her fam­i­ly, espe­cial­ly her defen­sive aunt Lisbeth.

Meller, trained as a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, is a metic­u­lous researcher with a keen eye for detail. Read­ers fol­low her on her quest for knowl­edge as she pores over ships’ ledgers and con­vers­es with muse­um docents. She allows us to explore her rel­a­tives’ lives along­side her, cre­at­ing an inti­mate and cap­ti­vat­ing read­ing experience.

The Box with the Sun­flower Clasp is both a com­pelling por­tray­al of the chal­lenges faced by those liv­ing under the Nazi regime and a cel­e­bra­tion of the tenac­i­ty of the human spir­it. It is a poignant sto­ry of sur­vival, resilience, and the endur­ing lega­cy of those who forged new lives in the dark­est of times.

Lind­sey Bod­ner is a writer and an edu­ca­tion foun­da­tion direc­tor. She lives in Man­hat­tan with her family.

Discussion Questions