I dedicate this blog entry to Jewish Shanghai. The subject has fascinated me since childhood. Don't you feel curious, as I did, to hear the words "Jew" and "Shanghai" in the same sentence? My young imagination conjured up a world faraway from my San Francisco home based on stories my father told me of his Shanghai upbringing. From the age of eight, I spent hours daydreaming about these exotic, terrifying, and comical accounts. I "interviewed" my relatives who experienced life in Shanghai's French Quarter. I pretended I was a cinematographer and panned across their memories to find crystal clear scenes. This film looped through my mind's eye for twenty years.
When my son, Jake, was three and attending the Jewish Community Center pre-school, I decided to begin writing on paper this novel inspired by my family history. I choose not to frame the story as a creative non-fiction work because I wanted the freedom to create characters and plot from scratch. Amy Tan speaks of "the truth in fiction" related to her novels, The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife. My plan was to imbue what really happened with a captivating story line to reveal this little known passage in Jewish (and Holocaust) history.
The novel, Anya's War, is about to publish just a few months before Jake's 21st birthday.(NY: Feiwel & Friends, an imprint of Macmillan, 2/1/11). I wrote as I raised my children, then rewrote with the help of my editor, Liz Szabla. The process was a lesson not only in deepening my craft, but in understanding my roots. My journey through archival photos, oral histories, and a handful of memoirs informed my sense of self, family, home, and spirit.
Here is an excerpt from the Author's Note of Anya's War:
When my father was eight years old, he found a Chinese baby girl abandoned on a curb and carried her home. Issai and Asya, afraid of contracting cholera, called the sanitation department and the baby was removed. It was at this heartbreaking passage in Yan’s life that he decided to become a doctor and save lives. He sailed to America by himself at seventeen, attended U.C.L.A. then Stanford Medical School. He changed his name from Yan Abramovitch to Jan Alban, M.D. For forty-eight years, he cared for San Francisco’s children. He was the only Jewish physician in the city who spoke Mandarin and Russian, as well as English and French, fluently. Consequently, he provided pediatric care to thousands of Asian families as well as the families of the Russian Consulate. As an “old school” doctor, he made house calls, worked seven days per week, and handed out free infant formula to the needy until his death at age seventy-five in 2004.
In 1937, four thousand Jews lived in Frenchtown, soon to become a "solitary island" in the midst of Japanese-occupied China. Their ranks swelled to twenty thousand with the influx of Eastern European Jews escaping Hitler’s march across Europe. As doors closed all over the world to desperate families, Shanghai customs officials did not require a visa to enter the city. But soon, the Japanese herded the refugees into the Hongkew Ghetto for the remainder of World War II. My family, and other Russian Jews who had arrived before 1937, were fortunate; the occupiers allowed them to remain in their comfortable homes. They snuck food, reading material, clothing, and blankets into the ghetto, bringing small comforts and subsistence to the Jews who fled the Nazis. This is a little known chapter of Jewish holocaust history.
By war’s end, with the impending advancement of the Communist Party, the Shanghai Jews packed up their lives, leaving no marker of the places they’d lived in, no trace of who they were. My father and aunt booked passage on ships bound for the United States in 1946 and 1947, respectively. My grandparents had divorced in 1936 and my grandmother remarried Zelik Zelikovsy, a lawyer and partner in an import/export business. Issai died of a stroke* in 1950, alone on a beach in Formosa. His body was transported back to Shanghai and buried in the Jewish Cemetery next to his father-in-law, Israel Orjich, who died in 1930.
The United States rejected Asya and Zelik’s application for permission to immigrate so they sailed to Paris in 1952. After numerous petitions to Congress, they reunited in 1955 with Yan and Lily in New York.
During the Cultural Revolution in 1967, protesters razed the four Jewish cemeteries and scattered the marble tombstones throughout villages on the outskirts of Shanghai. The people used them as washing stones and for bridging shallow creeks. In 2003, an Israeli journalist discovered “Dedushka’s” cracked tombstone leaning against a hut in Minzhu 6 village. The relocation project workers have since gathered eighty markers and are drafting plans to construct either a New Jewish Cemetery of Shanghai (possibly in a section of the Shanghai Buddhist Cemetery) or an exhibition in the inner yard of Ohel Moshe, the ghetto synagogue, now a Jewish museum. While vandals continue to assault Jewish cemeteries throughout Europe, the Chinese people guard the tombstones with respect and reverence.
To see a photo of Israel Orjich’s tombstone, visit the web site: www.shanghaijewishmemorial.com. Click “Arzich, Israel.”
*During my research, I found a document that listed the cause of Issai's death as heatstroke, NOT stroke.
Causes Andrea Gosline Supports
Friends of the Urban Forest, Greenpeace, Roots and Shoots