Hidden away in an apartment in a lovely residential setup for those she calls
the “old folks” is a fragile looking professor emeritus from the Hebrew
University. Unbeknownst to most of her neighbors, she is an internationally
renowned scholar of Chinese literature and history as well as an expert on the
Chinese and Shanghai Jewish communities. Prof. Irene Eber has managed to create
a niche for herself in the most unexpected places.
Born in Germany but
sent with her family in 1938 to Mielec, Poland, she was barely a teenager when
the Nazi deportations began. Her Bais Yaakov education was interrupted, but her
love of learning would lead her on unexpected paths. At first, the family hid in
an attic and avoided being deported to Auschwitz from the Debica ghetto. Irene
then defied her father, choosing to flee; she dug her way under a fence and took
a train to Mielec, where she expected to find refuge. One Polish “friend” sicked
a dog on her, another threw her out, but eventually a Polish refugee family took
her in. Her hiding place was atop a chicken coop, where she remained for nearly
two years, picking the lice from her head as she awaited her daily
When the war ended, Irene was convinced that she was the only Jew
left on earth and had decided to join a convent. Unbeknownst to her, her father,
realizing that he could not remain where he was, went to another work camp, only
to arrive at precisely the wrong time, while the workers were away; as a result,
he was shot on the spot. Her mother, an experienced typist, was sent to Oskar
Schindler’s camp when the labor camps were liquidated and worked in his office.
Consequently, Irene’s sister Lore was put on the list by her mother, and the two
survived the camps. At the end of the war, Lore was instructed to look for her
younger sister and upon locating her, Irene was stunned by the apparition that
appeared before her.
The three reunited women went to Germany, where
Irene had very unpleasant experiences in several DP camps. She was offered a
chance to work on a kibbutz in Palestine, but was unwilling to forgo attaining
an education. She was anxious to make up for lost time and to find a way to
study once more. Thus, she opted to go to New York, where she took a job, signed
up for night school, learned English quickly and to this day, writes
magnificently in her acquired language.
This refugee not only managed to
acquire a bachelor’s degree, but after moving to California earned her
doctorate, mastering Chinese along the way. Eventually, the young Dr. Eber
arrived in Israel and brought up two lovely children, Jonathan and Miriam, as
she made her way in the academic world. She taught in the one-year program,
dazzling huge classes of 90 to 100 students with her knowledge of Asian
religions and bringing the literature and culture of traditional China to life
Eber joined the Truman Center on Mount Scopus and served as
chair of the department of East Asian Studies a number of times. Before anyone
knew who Schindler was, she was going to the Mount of Olives annually to
commemorate the day of his death, for she was one of the few people at the time
who knew who he had been.
A scholar, she published numerous books and
articles on topics related to China, often comparing or tying them to Judaism.
The Jewish Bishop and the Chinese Bible: S.I.J. Schereschewsky (1831–1906) deals
with a fascinating individual who translated the Bible into Chinese; her
autobiography The Choice has just appeared in Chinese translation. Her current
interest is in the community of Yiddish-speaking refugees living in Shanghai
during World War II ; the numerous newspapers they published left a rich record
of their lives. She has also served as an academic adviser to Beit Hatfutsot,
for the display portraying the Jewish community of Kaifeng.
at her, one would think that a breeze could knock her over. Nevertheless, this
incredibly tenacious woman has managed to maneuver from country to country,
never ceasing to use her imagination and to find fascinating topics to research
and publish. We wish her health and a long life. ■ The author is a professor of
Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and the academic editor of Nashim. She
is currently on sabbatical.
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