The one from Vienna to Shanghai

Kathy Kacer, Shanghai Escape (2013)

Targeted towards young readers, this book sensibly addresses the fate of Jews who have managed to escape the Holocaust by fleeing to China. As I understand it, this is part of a Canadian book series by Kathy Kacer who has set up to interview Holocaust survivors and write down their personal experience especially for early middle school kids. I had never heard of this initiative before but the result is quite convincing. It seems truthful and does not shy away from explaining rather complex or serious issues but it manages not to be too terrifying.

The book chronicles Lily Toufar’s childhood from 1938 to 1945. It starts in Vienna at the eve of the Kristallnacht, when Austria has just been annexed by Nazi Germany and starts to see the effect of antisemitic policies and unrest. Lily’s parents decide to emigrate with the rest of the family to the only country that still grants them access: China. Lily is then 6 (?) and doesn’t quite understand the reasons for leaving her home. Lily’s family first settles down in Shanghai’s international neighborhood, the French settlement, and adjusts to a new life, more difficult than in Vienna but safe at least.

As years go by the whole family watches with increasing terror how Germany and its ally Japan gain power. The news from European relatives are fewer and fewer. Japanese soldiers control Shanghai and issue their own antisemitic laws. In 1943 the whole family, like all Jewish refugees, has to follow Japanese orders to leave the French Quarter and move into the ghetto of Hongkew, a crowded and dirty place at the town’s periphery. Dangers and hunger become daily ordeals for Lily’s family as they are trapped into the ghetto.

It could be a harrowing read, but luckily the tone remains cheerful and Lily’s family escapes unscathed, due to a series of lucky choices. Also, the book remains firmly at the level of the young girls’ eyes and what she can understand or not, what is important in her eyes or not. Yes, Lily is terribly hungry, but she has friends to play with, boring classes at school and celebrations to attend. As she grows up she starts to question her father’s firm reassurance that everything will end well, but even as the book ends she’s never a rebellious teenager and the story remains positive up until the whole family has resettled to Canada. [Yes, this was a spoiler, I know, but didn’t you guess? It’s a Canadian book series, so it had to end that way, isn’t it?]

I really enjoyed the story because I had only a vague knowledge of this point of history. Lily’s childhood is nicely fleshed out and her family’s destiny is quite extraordinary. Having been in Shanghai in the early 2000s I have seen no historical monuments or signs reminiscent of these events, nor did I know where to look for them if I’d known. There might have been some effort to dig out historical memory in the recent years.

The only point of criticism I have is with the writing itself, that comes out very dry. The tone is a bit flat, everything is spelled-out and a bit dumbed-down for the younger audience. I’m not sure what age Kathy Kacer has in mind when she writes this series, but I’d say probably from 8-9 if the kid is mature and interested in history. Since the story is so riveting it’s not much of an impediment, but the contrast was striking with the previous middle-grade novel I read, The Long Season of Rain, that was full of innuendos and unspoken emotions.

I was sent this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.


4 thoughts on “The one from Vienna to Shanghai

  1. I’m glad this kind of book exists. It’s so important to not lose knowledge of terrible times in history. I had no idea that China took in Jewish immigrants back then – how interesting!

  2. Well, props to the author for doing this. I got a little frustrated, I have to say, when I was a kid, at HOW MANY kids’ authors there seemed to be who were intent on making sure that kids like me understood The Full Horror of the Holocaust. It wasn’t that it’s not worth understanding (it definitely definitely is), but there was just so much history I didn’t know as a kid, whereas the Holocaust came up again and again and again, both in my reading and in history classes. It’s neat that at least this author is focusing on a lesser-known aspect of this history.

    • Yes, I kind of had a Anne Frank overdose while in middle school because it was the name of my school, so we had to read it each year! This book remains hopeful and positive, which is a challenge on that topic!

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