To celebrate the release of Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin, blogs across the web are featuring exclusive content from Rachel, as well as 5 chances to win a copy of Someday We Will Fly and two authentic Chinese bookmarks! Today, I’ve got a guest post from Rachel — then keep reading to learn how you can win a copy of the book.
What We Can Learn from the Experience of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees
by Rachel DeWoskin
I dedicated Someday We Will Fly to anyone who has ever needed to leave home. And to Shanghai, a haven for so many refugees in the 1930s and 40’s. And I ended that dedication with the wish that America could be a sanctuary too. We have sometimes, both recently and historically, been, the opposite. In the last few years, America has intentionally separated babies and children from their parents. We have detained human beings in cages. We have forbidden hugging, and sprayed tear gas at mothers trying to secure safe passage for their children. The President of the United States has compared refugees to animals, and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions authorized the tearing away of children from their parents. His Chief of Staff John Kelley clarified with staggering hostility that such children would be “taken care of – put into foster care or whatever.” What is “taken care of”; what is “or whatever”?
Someday We Will Fly is based on a meaningful historical instance when refugee children and families were actually taken care of – by Shanghai – when the rest of the world had closed its borders. America was among the countries that refused entry to those seeking asylum; in the summer of 1939, U.S. officials turned away an ocean liner called The St. Louis, sending 937 desperate refugees back across the ocean, where more than a quarter were murdered. President Franklin Roosevelt, along with isolationist Republicans in Congress, argued that the families aboard the German ship posed a threat to national security, could be Nazi spies. As there always are in refugee populations, there were children among those refused and thus lost. A 1996 research project by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum identified “a number of children and even entire families among the deported refugees,” including Gerhard Gabel, who was seven years old and traveling with his parents; he died in Auschwitz the following February. Lore and Eva Dublon, aged 10 and 16, were refused entry; neither child survived the war.
Twenty-some-thousand Jewish refugees escaped death in the 1930s and 40s because Shanghai, then occupied by the Japanese army, allowed them entry. Their survival was the result of numerous converging factors, ranging from complexities in passport control and its enforcement to acts of stunning heroism and self-sacrifice by human beings. Chinue Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Vilna, granted thousands of transit visas. Unsung Chinese citizens and countless European parents and children risked their lives for each other. Aid organizations sprung up in Shanghai, often funded by Jewish community members who had arrived in preceding decades and had the resources to take care of those arriving without anything.
Among the children who survived the war in Shanghai were Michael Blumenthal, who grew up in Hongkou, Shanghai, and later went on to serve as President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of the Treasury; and the contemporary artist Peter Max, who credits his Chinese nanny with teaching him to draw and who is, poetically, the official portrait artist for the Statue of Liberty and welcome banners at U.S. Ports of Entry. The Shanghai Jews, as they’re known, created inimitable cultural products, including art and literature. It’s facile, but at the moment somehow necessary to point out that the rich history built by the Shanghai Jews would not exist if not for the Chinese and Japanese nationals who allowed them entry into a city itself devastated by war. To put it starkly, those Jewish families would have been separated and murdered.
On what side of modern history does America plan to land? We could be a haven for families and children, rather than the sort of terrifying place where toddlers are flown across the country alone and put into “foster care or whatever,” into detention centers, courts, and cages, as punishment for their parents’ primal desire to keep them safe. What if we compelled ourselves as a country to see the humanity in people whose resemblance to us isn’t national? Softened our borders and stances, rather than hardening ourselves and weapon-izing our resources against other human beings. It is a basic reality that people do not leave their birth home countries readily; only when their lives are genuinely at risk and their children facing violence or hopeless futures, do parents flee. I hope my novel becomes part of the conversation inspiring empathy and activism toward a more humane and just society here in our present tense world.
From the author of Blind, a heart-wrenching coming-of-age story set during World War II in Shanghai, one of the only places Jews without visas could find refuge.
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?
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Rachel DeWoskin spent her twenties in China as the unlikely star of a nighttime soap opera that inspired her memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing. She is the author of Repeat After Me and Big Girl Small, which received the American Library Association’s Alex Award for an adult book with special appeal to teen readers; Rachel’s conversations with young readers inspired her to write her first YA novel, Blind. Rachel is on the faculty of the University of Chicago, where she teaches creative writing. She lives in Chicago with her husband, playwright Zayd Dohrn, and their two daughters. Rachel and her family spent six summers in Shanghai while she researched Someday We Will Fly.
One (1) winner will receive a hardcover copy of Someday We Will Fly, a beautiful Classic Style Chinese Blue and White Porcelain Metal Stainless Bookmark, and a wooden bookmark hand-selected in Shanghai.
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I wished I would have learned more about the Japanese internment camps.
I believe that history classes should have more art history coverage, especially regarding small, exquisite northern European limewood carvings of the late-Gothic/early-Renaissance period!
I hope my very important comment on the study of European limewood carvings goes through. Otherwise, here is my non-second comment, made via an “incognito window” to see if it goes through. If this is my second comment, sorry!
I loved history. I even subscribe to history newsletters. I learn something new everyday, and I have a list a mile long of everywhere I want to go. (Audrey Stewart)
I would like to have know more about the 1950’s and early 1960’s – especially pop culture of the time.
I would like to have learned more about the late 1950’s and early 1960’s – especially pop culture of the time.
I suppose I wish that I had learned more truth about our history, not so much of the whitewashed fairy tales that pass as history. There is so much that is interesting and important, and it does us *all* an injustice when it gets pushed aside.
I wish the history classes taught more about racial and cultural diversity.
I wish I learned more about civil wars in other countries.