Shanghai Diary: A Young Girl's Journey
from Hitler's Hate to War-Torn China

by Ursula Bacon. Milwaukie, OR: M Press, First Edition, 2004
(First Edition 2002 from Milestone Books), 267 pages, $24.95.

“All in all, I have been one lucky girl-child,” says Ursula Bacon at the very end of her memoir. The hunger, filth, disease, attempted rape, and allied bombings described in her book are part of her escape, her road to safety. The first few pages, which take place in Breslau, Germany, before she is 11 years old, describe a situation more horrible than the hardships she experiences in Shanghai during the World War II. She and her family are fortunate to have made it to China. Appropriately, every chapter begins with the Chinese character fú (rising tone), meaning “good luck, blessing, happiness.”

Ursula is lucky that her Uncle Erich is the Baron von Wartenburg. We are not told how he is her uncle. One assumes a baron isn’t Jewish. We know that Uncle Erich and Aunt Antonia survived the war. Before we learn this, both of Ursula’s parents assume their relatives are all dead. Ursula’s father, whom she calls Vati, says, “What about Helene, Toni and Ida, my brother Eugene? They already had helped their Jewish friends in Germany” (p. 231). Perhaps Toni is the Antonia who survived. Helping their Jewish friends seems to show they were not Jewish, although they certainly would have put themselves in danger by doing so.

Before the war, Vati was sent to jail for making a political wisecrack while having a haircut. Uncle Erich arranges for Vati to be released if he can show proof he will leave Germany immediately. Erich has bought tickets to Shanghai for Ursula and her parents, the Blombergs. Erich feels it is too dangerous for Mutti, Ursula’s mother, to show the tickets at jail, and sends Ursula instead. Ursula is given her father in a bag. When she tries to pull it, he screams in pain. A kind SS man picks up the bag, says to the guards, “Open up. I’ve got to get rid of this stinking Jew-swine and his Jew-girl,” and carries her father out the gate, saying to her under his breath, “Good luck, my child. Go with God” (p. 9). In that scene, and throughout the book, Vati seems to be Jewish. The SS man screams at him in the way Nazis always scream at Jews in Holocaust memoirs, as if killing them weren’t enough. Is Vati Jewish? Is Erich?

Before the war started, escape was possible for those who had a place to go. Even so, the family had to submit to a humiliation at the border. Ursula tells us how her body cavities were brutally searched by a Nazi woman who claimed to be looking to see that no jewelry was smuggled out of Germany. There was none, of course, and the woman finally yells “Pull up your underpants, you dirty Jew-swine, and get out of here” (p. 17). The Blombergs got out of there, out of Germany, out of Europe, and proceeded to China, where they were among 20,000 Jews who found refuge.

Shanghai at the time included subdivisions called concessions, which were mini-colonies. The Jews were able to go to the Japanese Concession, a neighborhood always spelled Hongkew in narratives about the war. The neighborhood is today simply a part of Shanghai and is spelled Hongkou in China’s official pinyin system of transcribing characters into Latin letters. Hongkou means “rainbow mouth,” perhaps suggesting the end of the rainbow. Shanghai Diary includes several pages of photographs taken during World War II. The city then looked surprisingly similar to the Shanghai I visited in 1984 and again in 1989, when I was teaching in a city called Baoding, located in northern China’s Hebei Province. Since that time, Shanghai has changed significantly, with new skyscrapers and ultra-modern neighborhoods.

Ursula describes the hardships of a family that had arrived in an unfamiliar culture, with no home, no job, and no knowledge of the language. With time, things got better. After Pearl Harbor Day, they got worse again. But what struck me was the fact that the Blombergs were living in the same country I had lived in, under very different circumstances. My wife, Carol; my two daughters, Eve and Miriam; and I went to China at the invitation of Hebei University. We were respected professionals. In certain ways, we lived in luxury. In other ways, we lived like the Blombergs, in a country deficient in sanitation and in an apartment with freezing cold concrete floors. China is still trying to improve its inadequate bathrooms. A headline in the November 19, 2004, issue of China Daily reads, “Smelly latrines make way for clean toilets.” Living standards did not go up in China until the death of Chairman Mao. I am reminded of my favorite Chinese proverb, Bu pa man; jiu pa zhan (Don’t fear slow progress; just fear no progress).

Life was tough, but there was still culture. “Chinese loved American dance music and built huge places—the size of a dozen tennis courts—to accommodate the enthusiastic crowds,” Ursula tells us (p. 141). Dancing, which had been banned under Chairman Mao, was legalized while we were there in 1984. Immediately, Hebei University held a prom. Dance studios opened in downtown Baoding. Five years later, I was walking past the site of the old synagogue in Tianjin, a city that like Shanghai had had a Jewish population. There was construction going on and a big sign with the Chinese characters saying “No smoking.” I subsequently learned that the building was being converted into a dance hall.

The Jewish community had its own cultural life: “Among a few friends, we shared an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, selected one to perform, picked a part, took turns reading and memorizing our roles, and put on performances at the Levysohns’” (p. 185). Ursula eventually married a member of the Levysohn family, also Jewish refugees. For a while she went to a Catholic school in the French Concession, where she improved her knowledge of French and English. She also learned Pidgin English, the lingua franca of Shanghai. She learned some Shanghai dialect as well, in particular the word nakoning meaning “foreigner.” In Mandarin (standard Chinese), it would be waiguoren. She gave English lessons to three Chinese women. Her various Chinese friends called her dah-pitse, which is spelled da bizi in today’s standard pinyin spelling. It means “big nose,” and is one of many expressions that Chinese people use to describe Westerners. But she seems to have misheard the Mandarin word for “thank you,” xie xie, which she repeatedly writes as chien chien, neither Mandarin nor Shanghainese.

The three young women whom Ursula taught were concubines. China in those days had very different sexual standards from what I saw in 1984, when I found it an extremely puritanical society. I remember being told more than once, “But if we had democracy, it would lead to sex.” In 1989, however, things had begun to change. I gather they have continued to change as far as sex is concerned. I have been told that there are now gay bars in China. Slow progress. Democracy, however, is another matter. No progress.

Shakespeare, dancing, school, language learning—somehow these all existed in a world of extreme need and insecurity. At first, the Blombergs lived in a Jewish shelter, where refugees lived under harsh conditions despite contributions from wealthy Shanghai Jews and from the United States. Then they met a family and decided they could afford a room in the French Concession. They had no privacy but they did have a lavatory, which was the height of luxury. Vati and a Chinese man established a business painting houses. Ursula got her teaching job. The family established friendships. Then in November on 1941 the American Fourth Marine Corps Headquarters closed down. Did they know Pearl Harbor would take place? Did they think, instead, that the Japanese would attack them in Shanghai? Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th in the United States, was December 8th on the other side of the International Date Line. Soon after, the nuns who taught at Ursula’s school left the city.

On February 18, 1943, stateless Jews were ordered to live and stay in Hongkew. The Blombergs had to give up their room and buy a new one. Leaving the neighborhood required a pin, a permit, and an ID card, all of which had to be renewed regularly. Hours of waiting were necessary to obtain these passes. Japanese soldiers checked foreigners and jailed those who did not have proper ID. The Japanese occupation forces appointed two men, one of whom was appropriately named Goya-san, to supervise the comings and goings of the Jews. In Europe, ghettoization was a step on the road to extermination. Hongkew, however, had many Chinese inhabitants and was not quite a ghetto.

Acts of violence became increasingly common. One night, a drunken Japanese soldier tried to rape Ursula. She had taken jujitsu classes and hit the soldier on the Adam’s apple with the side of her hand. “I struck out—short and hard—with all my strength and connected with the soldier’s throat. I heard a sickening crack, a gagging gurgle; he released his grip on me, folded into himself, and sank to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut” (p. 189). She had killed him.

In 1945, there was wonderful news. Germany had surrendered. That’s when things really started to get bad. American planes bombed Hongkew, trying to destroy military installations. Jews who had survived through most of the war were killed during its very last month. If that weren’t enough, a cholera epidemic broke out. Nevertheless, most of Shanghai’s Jews lived and eventually moved elsewhere. The Blombergs wound up in America.

The chapters of the book are named for Chinese years, starting with 1939, the Year of the Hare, going through 1946, the Year of the Dog, and ending in America with 1947, the Year of New Beginnings. Ursula must have known that in Chinese tradition, 1947 was the Year of the Pig. Perhaps that wouldn’t have been an appropriate name for the chapter of the happy ending of a book about Jewish survival. Years later, in 1970, her first husband, Wolf Levysohn, who later changed his surname to Lansing, died. Ursula married again; her husband is Thorn—and her surname is Bacon.

Whatever her name, Ursula Bacon has written many books in one, about the human spirit, about a girl’s adolescence, about cultures in contact, about integrity in the face of violence. Most of all, she has written about being alive. It follows that Shanghai Diary too is a book that is alive.

This review appeared in the September/October 2006 issue of Jewish Currents.