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.