Austrian Ilse Shpann spends her teen years with her family in Japanese-occupied Shanghai alongside numerous other refugees and stateless Jewish citizens. Fortunate to have escaped a Nazi concentration camp, Ilse; her older brother, Erich; and their parents experience a difficult and poverty-stricken five years. Forced to live in filthy, cramped tenementlike quarters, the Shpanns scrounge to find work and scrape together meager sums of money to keep themselves fed and sheltered. Rebellious Erich joins a resistance movement and works underground until he is caught, arrested, and nearly dies of typhus. Mother's hidden American connection/citizenship is uncovered, resulting in her detainment in a Japanese internment "civil assembly center." Ilse soon finds herself alone and, with a depressed and nonworking Father, in charge of maintaining normalcy if not basic survival needs for both. Through descriptive scenes, metaphorical language, and some risky, adventurous episodes, Ruby tells this Asian-oriented Holocaust story in Ilse's first-person voice that is at once sardonic, brave, determined, and hopeful. Minor, yet less-developed characters of a Chinese street urchin and a Japanese "King of the Jews" supervisor contribute to the atmosphere and provide some vivid interaction for Ilse in an Eastern world so vastly different from her own European existence. A lesser-known side of Holocaust history.
Rita SoltanCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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By Lois Ruby
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Lois Ruby
All rights reserved.
"I'm boiled alive," I complained as we filed off the ship that had carried us from Genoa, Italy. Everyone was grumbling in a dozen languages. My hair whipped my head in the fierce, hot wind off the sea. "Erich, aren't you dying in that wool suit?"
"No, I'm comfortable." My brother jammed his hat down to keep it from flying off, but I saw the band of sweat around it.
"You're just too stubborn to admit it." Or to admit that he was nervous about our first steps in China.
He tapped my shoulder. "I'm as cool as that man," he said, pointing to a half-naked rickshaw puller.
Mother poked Father's arm. "Oh, Jakob, what have we come to, men pulling carts as if they were beasts of burden?"
"The man's called a coolie," Erich explained.
Mother gave him half her attention while toggling on her toes to read signs. None were in German, but Mother read English, since she'd lived in America for a time.
"It's how he feeds his family." Erich glanced nervously at Father. We all wondered how Father would feed us. He looked away, hugging The Violin's case upright like a dance partner. His hands were stained with the black dye that was bleeding off the leather case. Erich and I thought of The Violin as the fifth member of our family. Father loved it more than he loved the rest of us put together.
I held my skirt at my knees so it wouldn't balloon around me like a parachute. Not that I'd have cared, but Mother whispered, "Remember at all times, Ilse, you are a Viennese lady."
Erich and I snickered, and he doffed his hat behind Mother's back.
A lady, ha! In Vienna I'd preferred climbing our tree to sitting in the parlor with my knees clamped together, balancing a teacup, with Mother and her deadly dull lady friends.
Now my dress was soaked and sticking to my back and chafing at my neck and wrists. How could sun be so unforgiving? At home and all through the sea voyage of the Conte Verde Mother had kept me out of sunlight, since I'm a redhead and freckle something terrible. Two weeks here, and I'd be as spotted as a giraffe.
The man just ahead of us in the processing line used his shirtsleeve to mop up the sweat rolling down his face. That's when I first noticed a small Chinese boy zigzagging through the crowd as if he were tracking down something he'd lost. Spotting the man with the coat flung over his shoulder, the boy grinned and went into action.
"Shoeshine, boss?" He dropped to one knee, whipped a rag out of his pocket and jerked it back and forth across the man's shoes.
Erich pointed to an angry-looking red scar on the boy's leg. "Looks like someone carved an X into his leg."
The boy looked up and raised one eyebrow like a tailor measuring me for a new coat, then seemed to dismiss me and returned to the man's shoes.
"Poor thing," I whispered to Erich. "He looks like he hasn't eaten in a week!"
"Poor thing? Look what he's doing."
He'd tied the man's shoelaces together and then jumped to his feet in one quick move. When the man stooped to untie the laces, the boy lifted the man's wallet and backed away into the crowd.
"The little crook," I cried, though I have to admit to a heart-fluttering. Only twenty minutes in China, and something daring, something criminal, had happened right before my eyes.
Still, I was a law-respecting Austrian, so I said, "Mother, did you see what happened?"
"Shhh," Mother replied. "Your father is next in line."
"Well, I'm telling that policeman over there." Erich tried to stop me, but I'm as stubborn as he is. Since I didn't know a word of Chinese, I pantomimed the whole thing. Nodding with understanding, the policeman chased the boy and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and barked something to him.
The boy immediately slipped a bill out of the stolen wallet, stuffed it into the policeman's pocket, and disappeared back into the crowd.
"Did you see that, Erich?"
"He's a professional," Erich said with admiration. "The police are in on it. That's how people do business here, with bribes."
"That's terrible," I muttered.
"So? Is it any worse than how we got out of Austria?" Leave it to my brother — so serious, so wise. In Vienna he'd run around with a group of schoolboys who gathered in our front parlor and boasted like big shots. They were going to cross over into Germany, and steal into Hitler's headquarters while all the guards were snoring or wooing, and do unspeakable things, murderous things. They'd be national heroes and save us all. How they talked and talked! Father thought it was healthy for young men to have such ideas. "Not good to be so helpless," he said, which is how he and Mother felt while waiting for our exit papers.
After all the Jewish schools were closed down and the Nazis began boarding up our shops one by one, Erich and his friends had long hours to fritter away. The boys sat on their haunches, ready to spring into action. But there was no action, just talk, and now the rest of those boys were still in Vienna, while we stood in line in far-off China. Were we lucky, or were they?
Mother seemed unaware of the spectacle all around us as she peered over Father's shoulder. He was presenting our papers to the immigration man and pressing The Violin case to his chest so as not to get separated from it in the crowd.
"Shpann family?" an Austrian resettlement man barked. We elbowed our way toward him, bundles and all, and he led us from the dock through the clogged streets to a more civilized neighborhood. Such a long walk! Halfway, Mother took off her shoes and padded along in her stockings, with her pointy heels hooked through the straps of her pocket-book. I glanced behind me to gauge how far we'd come and saw the pickpocket following us. Why? Because we looked prosperous? I hung my pocketbook around my neck for safekeeping and gave him a half smile to say, I know what you did.
"Get away!" our guide yelled, clapping his hands. The boy scurried off. "Watch out for these bandits," the guide warned us. "This one, Liu, he's the worst of the lot. Come along, people."
We stopped abruptly in front of a beautiful three-story building. "It looks like our house at home," I whispered to Mother. She pressed her gloves to her heart, and I saw her mind arranging furniture, setting a vase of flowers in the front window, replacing the brocade drapes with white sheers. The front door was painted a shiny red, with a brass pineapple knocker at its center.
"Lovely," Mother said, "and so big."
The refugee man cleared his throat. "Yes, well, seven families share this house. One kitchen," he added quietly. "Your rooms are in the back, third floor. Very sunny. Southern exposure."
"Home," Erich said grimly as Mother's face fell.
Not mine. I squared my shoulders and scuttled up the steps to give that brass pineapple a resounding thunk. We waited for someone to open the door. And waited. I glanced at Mother's watch. It had been her mother's, a piece of Swiss workmanship so elegant that it hummed softly and never lost a minute. But already moisture beaded under the glass, and Mother had to shake the watch to clear the fog. One thirty. It was still yesterday in Austria, or was it tomorrow?
Mother opened the red door and put her shoes back on. We four huffed up the stairs, pushing and pulling our bundles and The Violin. The whole trip would have been lots easier if The Violin had sprouted its own legs. At the second landing a door was opened by a girl around my age, holding a white winter muff of a cat. The cat narrowed its eyes and swished its tail across the girl's face.
"Don't mind Moishe," the girl said. "He's nervous around strangers." She spoke in Yiddish, but it was enough like German that I could understand her. She looked our family over and whispered something to the white fur. If the cat didn't like the looks of us, would we have to find another house?
There were cartons stacked to the ceiling beside her door. Mother wrinkled her nose in disgust when a cockroach skittered out from under the boxes.
"Voden?" the girl said over the top of Moishe's fur, meaning, "What else would you expect in a place like this?" The cat made a snarling sound and leaped out of her arms in pursuit of the gigantic bug. Lunch?
This was not a promising greeting! But then the girl smiled and said, "Bruchim haboim, welcome to you all. I am Tanya Mogelevsky. Here I live with my mother, only we two."
I said in German, "My name's Ilse Shpann. We're new here."
"I think she can tell," Erich said, nudging me up the stairs with his satchel.
"Shall I knock on your door after we get settled?" I called back to Tanya, and she nodded.
On the third floor I snapped the key out of Mother's palm and unlocked the door to our apartment. Before us spread a large, sunny room, rounded at one end like a wedding cake, with carved cherubs framing the ceiling.
Mother held her gloves to her cheek. "Oh, Jakob, it's lovely, no?"
Father nodded, not convincingly. There wasn't a stick of furniture in the airless room. Father and Erich opened all the windows, which helped a little.
Three doors were spaced evenly along the wall, the one opposite the wedding cake. "Many doors, a good sign," Mother said. Her heels clacked across the shiny hardwood floor until she reached the first door, which led to a closet. "Very good, we shall have where to hang our clothes." Mother hurried to the next door, which opened into another closet, a little bigger. The third door, the same. "So many closets? Where are the other rooms?" Mother asked.
I liked the closet with the small octagon window that let in a lacy pattern of light. But Erich tossed his hat into that room. Spreading his arms from wall to wall, he announced, "I hereby claim this space as mine because I'm the oldest."
Hah! He was thirteen, with just a hint of orange fuzz above his lip, and those two years over me gave him privileges. Anyway, the space wasn't large enough for Mother and Father's bed; none of the closets were. And now it seemed clear that my room was to be a stuffy shoe box without so much as a square of a window for daylight.
"Moth-er," I wailed.
Father's hand weighed heavily on my shoulder. "We shall make this our home until we can find more commodious quarters." He set The Violin down in the third cubicle, his studio. Such a fancy name for a windowless wardrobe no bigger than one of our water closets in Vienna.
Erich unbuckled his satchel and began piling clothes and books on the floor of his room. "This is the best we can expect as stateless refugees."
Mother snapped, "We are not refugees, and we are not stateless. We are Austrians temporarily living in China."
"Yes, yes, my dear." Father humored her, but he added under his breath, "We left our home, our work, our photographs, our savings —"
"And Pookie. I'm lonesome for Pookie, aren't you?"
Erich snarled, "Did you really think we could take her on the train through the Brenner Pass and trot her halfway across Italy to the harbor? A dog? We barely got past the checkpoints ourselves."
"But I love Pookie!"
"Children, please," Mother said. She waved her arms to encompass our home, with its windows that stretched from floor to ceiling and our three impressive closets. "Tell me, is this not a splendid, sun-filled apartment? Three beds, a nice little table, a few chairs, that's all we'll need." I saw her mind churning with possibilities, and then she said sternly, "Remember, children, we left Austria of our own free will."
"Ach." Father slapped his thigh. "Free will, indeed. What else could we do with Hitler's bloodhounds right behind us?"
Mother was riled. I knew because she was telling Erich and me the things she meant for Father's ears. "We chose this city, children."
"This is the only place in the world that would let us in without a visa," Erich reminded her.
Mother looked as though she might flick his chin with her fingernails — her favorite means of letting us know who was boss — but instead, she shed her suit jacket and ran a gloved finger over the dusty windowsill. "We must always choose the country that is our home. What is important, children, is that we have a solid roof over our heads, and we are all together."
"What is important," Father said quietly, "is that we're alive."CHAPTER 2
Father bartered for mattresses, a table and chairs, and a two-burner cookstove, while Mother dusted every inch of our apartment and washed the walls and floors with lukewarm water, since there hadn't been time to buy soap, and anyway, the house had no hot-water heater.
I unpacked my clothes and a few pots and dishes, some books and sheet music, Grandmother's kiddush cup, a clock — the sum total of our treasures from Vienna. Erich went to scout out places to buy food and such necessities as toilet paper, soap, and tooth powder, plus a bamboo basket to carry all our supplies back and forth to the water closet — a community bathroom in the hall where there was always a line. I soon learned to queue up way before I needed to, just in case the urge should overcome me.
The first time I ventured out into the crowded hall, I found Tanya sitting on the top step of the second floor. Moishe gave me his unfriendly gaze. One yellow eye, one brown.
"Why are you sitting out here?" I asked Tanya.
"My mother has company."
"When my father's violin students start coming, I'll be spending half my life on these stairs."
"It's only on Friday," Tanya said, stroking Moishe, who was more fur than flesh.
"Your mother teaches on Friday?"
Moishe jumped off Tanya's lap, and Tanya propped her elbows on her knees. "Teaches? I guess you could say that. One student, every Friday at two o'clock. But not the same one every week."
I heard muffled sounds coming from the apartment. "What's she teach? Voice? She's a singer?" Just then the door opened, and out came a man who was either Chinese or Japanese, I couldn't tell which, except that the uniform suggested that he was a Japanese soldier. Tanya and I both jumped to our feet as he rumbled down the steps two at a time, clearly in a hurry to get back on duty.
"Class is over," Tanya said with a sigh.
Soon our apartment swelled with music. Father lined his studio walls with quilts to muffle the sound, which poured out under the door anyway. Each day he said, "Don't worry, children. I'll play with an orchestra soon enough."
"Don't count your chickens," Mother said.
Every third refugee was a musician or a conductor or composer, and did they have work? Of course not. All the violin chairs were already filled in the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra and the music conservatory and the finest universities.
"Each one has another violinist or two greedily hovering in the shadows, rosin ready. Mostly Russians," Father said with a sneer. Obviously, Austrian musicians were the best in the world, or Mozart and Beethoven wouldn't have spent so much of their lives in Vienna. Viennese doctors, too, and bakers and cobblers. Just about everything from Austria was better than whatever came out of Hungary and Poland and Russia.
Discouragement was beginning to line Father's ruddy face and cloud his eyes. He took in a few students and made Erich and me continue our lessons on The Violin, the only instrument we'd been able to spirit out of Austria. Our parents liked to think of us as a musical family. Mother played the piano. Father, of course, was a virtuoso, famous all over Austria. But Erich and I — well, Father's consolation for having such tin-eared children was that he'd never have to compete with us if a seat opened up in a Shanghai symphony.
Within a few days of our arrival, we began to notice swarms of other foreigners, and that helped us feel more at home.
Mother said, "So many from eastern Europe. No class." She glared over the top of her glasses at the noisy Czech and Polish refugees on the streets. But I felt sorry for them because Germany had invaded their countries, and war was now raging in Europe.
Also there were French and Dutch and British and Americans on the streets of Shanghai. A most curious sight were the yeshiva boys, pale as paste in their long black coats and fur-trimmed hats, with earlocks that fell to their shoulders in curlicues. They walked two by two, never looking at anyone else on the street, talking to one another and waving their hands as though they were always in an argument.
Excerpted from Shanghai Shadows by Lois Ruby. Copyright © 2006 Lois Ruby. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Lois Ruby is a versatile and accomplished novelist who has written books for middle-graders and young adults. Among the many awards she has won are: ALA Best Book for Young Adults and New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age for Arriving at a Place You’ve Never Left (1977); ALA Best Book for Young Adults, New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age for Miriam’s Well (1994); Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies and the IRA Young Adult Choice selection for Steal Away Home (1995). A former young adult librarian, Ms.
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