Tuesday, January 22

Someday We Will Fly -- Life in the Shanghai Ghetto

Someday We Will Fly (Rachel Dewoskin)
Warsaw, Poland. The year is 1940 and Lillia is fifteen when her mother, Alenka, disappears and her father flees with Lillia and her younger sister, Naomi, to Shanghai, one of the few places that will accept Jews without visas. There they struggle to make a life; they have no money, there is little work, no decent place to live, a culture that doesn't understand them. And always the worry about Alenka. How will she find them? Is she still alive?   Meanwhile Lillia is growing up, trying to care for Naomi, whose development is frighteningly slow, in part from malnourishment. Lillia finds an outlet for her artistic talent by making puppets, remembering the happy days in Warsaw when her family was circus performers. She attends school sporadically, makes friends with Wei, a Chinese boy, and finds work as a performer at a "gentlemen's club" without her father's knowledge.  But meanwhile the conflict grows more intense as the Americans declare war and the Japanese force the Americans in Shanghai into camps. More bombing, more death. Can they survive, caught in the crossfire?

Our Thoughts on the Story...
It was new territory, as this was an element of World War 2 we knew nothing about...a completely new setting.  However, the book was kind of all over the place and difficult to follow at times.  The circus element ties both settings together, and it's interesting to 'people watch' some of the minor characters in the book, but there are too many underlying plots...kidnapping, overcoming grief, flight of the refugees, the missing mother...it all sort of becomes too much for the reader.  If you're interested in learning Mandarin, there are several phrases and such that you can use as a starting point!

Chinese Jews  ::  中国犹太人  ::  יהודים סיניים‬
Prior to World War 2, thousands of Jewish refugees had fled to China to escape the Russian Revolution.   They were joined by approximately 20,000 more Jews who were trying to escape persecution in the 1930s and 1940s.  They came to Shanghai because it did not have immigration restrictions, and they were allowed to come.  (Many countries at the time were turning Jews away.)  

Upon arrival, they were ushered into a tiny area of 0.75 square miles in the Hongkou District, into what was known as the 'Shanghai Ghetto.'  Many people lived in group homes, and the living conditions were very cramped.  They opened up shops and cafes, worshiped in synagogues, held Girl Guide meetings, and generally tried to bring a bit of home to the ghetto.
A Jewish girl with two Chinese friends in the Shanghai Ghetto during WWII (Courtesy Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum)

Getting to Shanghai could be a difficult and dangerous journey, but it was a risk worth taking to these families.  Families had to obtain a transit visa, which was very difficult to get.  It is said that two Asian diplomats, Suighara and Ho, went against orders and issued about 8.000 visas to save Jewish lives.  They are likened to the Chinese version of Oskar Schindler for their life-saving efforts.

The ghetto was a small area of dark alleyways and darker buildings.  Although safe from the concentration camps, Jews still had limited food, water, and medicine, and were subject to checkpoints and restrictions on where they could go.  Deep into World War 2, Nazi representatives began to urge the Japanese army (who had control of this area at the time) to exterminate residents of the Shanghai Ghetto.  They chose not to, and these Jews were kept safe.
Author Interview - See the inspiration behind Someday We Will Fly!


  1. This is all new to me! Very interesting.

  2. Thank you for sharing this...I never knew about it. I have heard of "The Rape of Shanghai" when the Japanese were occupying it (horrible stuff) so it's also interesting that the Japanese left the ghetto alone.


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