Survival in Shanghai

Ten Green Bottles: The True Story of One Family's Journey from
War-Torn Austria to the Ghettos of Shanghai

by Vivian Jeanette Kaplan: New York, St. Martin's Press, 2004 (First published in Canada by Robin Brass Studio Inc.), ix + 279 pp, $23.95

There were three cities in China where Jews were able to live during World War II: Harbin, Tianjin (formerly spelled Tientsin), and Shanghai. I became particularly aware of the story of the Jews who spent the war years in China once when I was attending a concert at Carnegie Hall. I wanted to tell my wife that I didn’t like the performance. Since my family and I have lived in China and taught at Hebei University in Baoding, we occasionally use Chinese as a secret language. I was worried that the pianist’s mother might be sitting in the next row and so I said “Bu haoting,” meaning “It sounds ugly.” Next to me was an elderly German-speaking couple. The man turned to me, asked where I had learned Chinese, told me he had lived in Shanghai from 1936 to 1946, and agreed that the performance was bu haoting.

The biggest of these Jewish communities was in Shanghai. Jews who were able to get out of Europe and somehow make their way to Shanghai were allowed to reside there. Among them were the parents of Vivian Kaplan, who has written an account of her mother’s life before and during World War II. Kaplan herself was born in Shanghai shortly after the war, in 1946. As she tells us, “I have written the work in the voice of my mother, Gerda Kosiner, who lived through a series of almost unbelievable experiences and survived.” (p. ix) I am reminded of a book by Gertrude Stein called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Can one person write the autobiography of another? Of course not. But by the time I finished Ten Green Bottles, I felt that I was experiencing Gerda Kosiner’s ordeal with her.

This first-person present-tense account doesn’t work when the alleged narrator is a child living in Vienna. It is hard to believe that in 1936, Gerda (always called by her nickname, Nini) was actually saying or writing “In the end, what are we but Viennese? For me, there is no other way of life and this, I believe, will always be my homeland.” (p. 40) Those words sound like thoughts describing her feelings in retrospect, after she had been forced to flee. On the other hand, when Nini’s voice speaks about the formalities children were expected to learn when addressing their elders, and when she describes how children are scolded for minor infractions with words like “Such a fresh brat. Are there no manners left in this household?” (p. 18), her description sounds exactly like my image of class-conscious parents telling their children to be polite even as their own behavior is showing them how to be rude.

Nini’s family was irreligious, but like many non-observant Jews they followed Jewish traditions in time of mourning. When Nini’s father died, the family sat shiva and covered the mirrors. (p. 8) Nini never went to a seder until she met her boyfriend Leopold, always called Poldi, who was born in Poland and whose family was Orthodox. Nini’s Jewish identification was largely her reaction to the anti-Semitism she experienced after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, when she learned that Autria wasn’t her country after all: “The majority of Austrian citizens greet the news with jubilation … wasting no time in slandering their Jewish neighbors and engaging in wild rioting, vicious name-calling, and the brutal destruction of property. … The weak and elderly are forced to scrub the pavements with toothbrushes.” (p. 61) Today, there is a statue in Vienna of an old man cleaning the sidewalk with a toothbrush, commemorating those who suffered this form of abuse.

Things got worse and worse. Jews lost their jobs, their businesses, their friends. Their savings accounts were confiscated. Then in November of 1938, on Kristallnacht, a friend of Nini’s family, Frau Kaufmann, left the Kosiners’ apartment and started to go home: “We watch in horror as she is trampled and kicked in the stomach and head by several uniformed Hitler Youths, who shout obscenities and curses as the poor woman rolls on the ground, bleeding. Before our shocked eyes, they continue to beat her senseless until she has become a bloody bundle, limp and silent.” (pp. 87-88) The murderers who killed Frau Kaufmann and many others like her did so proudly and publicly, with their own hands and feet.

The Kosiner family was able to escape to Shanghai through the efforts of a righteous gentile, Herr Berger, a lawyer who not only provided them with the documents enabling them to leave Austria but who bought tickets for them with his own money. (p. 83) After the Kosiners arrived in Shanghai, they received a letter from Herr Berger’s office with the horrible news that he had been arrested by the Gestapo, which “accused him of aiding Jews which is against the law, of using his own funds to work for the release of Jews, also illegal, and various other crimes against the Reich. The penalty is death.” (p. 151)

Shanghai was salvation. At the same time, it was a totally unfamiliar world, with poor sanitation, great poverty, and a very foreign language, a language written in logograms, where there is a separate character for each word. The Kosiners never got used to it. They were vulnerable. “I cringe as they stretch their bony fingers to point and tug at my foreign clothing,” says Nini. (p. 121) My family and I, many years later, were privileged employees in China. We were flattered that people stared and pointed at us. We were delighted when they asked us where we came from, how old we were, and how much money we made. We knew enough Chinese to communicate, we understood that we were experiencing a culture with different rules of politeness, and we were happy to be able to learn something about the customs of another society. The Kosiners — with no knowledge of the language, with no security, with no place to live — were threatened by the newness and insecurity they faced. Shanghai may have meant salvation for them, but it didn’t feel like salvation.

There were people in Shanghai who wanted to offer them a different sort of salvation: “Lined up at the dock to meet us are a number of Christian missionaries.” (p. 122) Nini’s sister, Erna, had been told by missionaries that if she surrendered her three-year-old daughter, Lily, they would “preserve her from hunger or death.” (125) They wanted to save Lily’s soul, and Erna wanted to protect Lily’s life. Nini persuaded her sister Erna to try to save the unity of her family, her Jewish family, instead. “The Jewish relief organizations in Shanghai are overloaded with the sudden influx of so many needy.” (p. 132) The economic problems facing the refugees were enormous. Nevertheless, we learn at the end of the book that Lily and her parents survived the war years together in Shanghai. Nini’s boyfriend, Poldi, makes it to Shanghai by land and Nini and Poldi get married there. They too survive the war. Their daughter Vivian, author of her mother’s “autobiography,” was born in Shanghai after the war, in 1946.

Japan was Germany’s ally. Germany wanted to exterminate the Jews, but their Japanese allies were not helping them. Why not? A rumor was circulating in Harbin, according a friend of Poldi’s who lived there, that attempted to explain this gap between these Axis powers: “The Japanese assume that all Jews have economic prowess and more than that they believe that American Jewry has power over the government and economy of the United States.” (p. 162) Poldi’s friend said that the Japanese thought that the Jews of Shanghai could convince their American acquaintances and relatives to persuade President Roosevelt to stay out of the war and thus allow Japan to conquer all of the Far East.

Could the Japanese have really believed this? Was there a time when they had hoped America wouldn’t enter the war? By 1941, some of the Shanghai Jews had found work and were even going into business. Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor, which showed that it was the Japanese who had brought the United States into World War II. It seems clear that the Jewish refugees in China were not a reliable source of information about Japanese policies. Their situation immediately grew worse. They were forced to give up their homes and businesses and crowd into a neighborhood then called Hongkew. Today, it is spelled Hongkou. Jews needed permits, renewed monthly, if they wanted to work elsewhere in the city. A Japanese general named Goya was put in charge of the Hongkew ghetto. He called himself “King of the Jews.” (p. 209) Did General Goya know that his surname meant “Gentile woman” in Yiddish and Hebrew? Goya made Jews stand in long lines and slapped them in the face. (p. 210) But he let them live. He let them give concerts. He and his subordinates attended these Jewish musical soirees and actually enjoyed them. (p. 226)

Jewish able-bodied men were organized by the Japanese into a group called the “Pau-Chia.” (p. 227) Nowadays, it would be spelled Bao Jia, which means “protect home.” There was great fear that Jews were being organized to supervise and betray each other. That is what happened in the Nazi concentration camps, where some Jews were forced to be Kapos and to control the other prisoners. News of the camps and their Kapos had not yet reached China, but the Jews felt insecure. After Germany surrendered in May of 1945, there were empty barges waiting in the river, and rumors spread that these were death ships to take the Jews away and kill them. It was believed that the Jews would be rounded up on Rosh Hashana, when many of them would be in synagogues and easy to find. (p. 234) It is interesting that the fear of extermination by the Japanese, who had let them live, peaked after the defeat of Germany.

The Jews were certainly in danger, but they couldn’t have guessed where it would come from. Starting July 17, 1945, American planes began to bomb Hangkew, “aiming to destroy the strategically placed Japanese radio transmitter.” (p. 236) The air raids continued until August 5, the day before the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. There were many Jewish and Chinese victims in Hongkew, although we don’t know how many. “Over this period of bombing, the Chinese and the refugees have formed a new bond of friendship.” (p. 241) But they never really got to know each other: “The mysteries of the Far East remain elusive to the refugees who are passing through it.” (p. 268)

Even after the war, there were problems. Nini’s daughter, Vivian, developed typhoid and almost died. She was cured with a new miracle drug called penicillin. The Kosiners left for Canada in 1949, and Nini’s second child, Vivian’s brother, Bion, was born on the ship that was crossing the Pacific Ocean. Bion’s name was chosen by the captain of the ship that was carrying them.

Ten Green Bottles is named for a song about bottles falling off a wall. The Jews worried that they, like the bottles, would all fall. The Kosiners and others survived, and their story is exciting and moving. I would have preferred, however, that a book about history be written as history, and not as a first-person account by a second person.

This review appeared in the November/December 2005 issue of Midstream.