Book review: Journey in a strange land

Imagine that you are a youngster forced to leave your home and flee to a country whose way of life is completely foreign to everything you’ve known.

By AARON LEIBEL
July 3, 2019 19:12
3 minute read.
Book review: Journey in a strange land

Model of Jewish synagogue in China.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Imagine that you are a youngster forced to leave your home and flee to a country whose way of life is completely foreign to everything you’ve known. And you miss a member of your family, trapped in your home country, who was unable to come with you on your life-saving journey. That’s the genesis of Lillia’s deep anxiety and depression.

Troubles had haunted the main character in Someday We Will Fly from the moment that the 15-year-old fled Nazi-occupied Warsaw with her father and her younger sister for Shanghai, China, leaving a pleasant middle-class life and her mother behind.

In Shanghai, the family was poverty-stricken and barely able to buy food. Her sister was developmentally disabled, unable to stand, walk or talk as was standard for a child her age. Their environment was that of an extremely underdeveloped society – very crowded,
very poor and very unsanitary. Filthy conditions and disease were the norms.

Worst of all, Lillia missed, and worried about, her mother.

After their arrival, her father and sister were struck down by some hideous disease that left them feverish and bedridden for an extended period of time. Without her father’s income, there was no money to buy food. To save her family from starvation, Lillia got a job at a “gentleman’s club,” the Manifique. There, she greeted the male patrons and danced for them.

If she did more than just perform, smile and talk to the men, Lillia was told, she could make much more money. She didn’t succumb to that temptation – the teen barely understood what would have been required of her – but after escorting a Japanese man to a table, she agreed to have dinner with him. After that, she and Mr. Takata dined and talked together every Saturday evening. He would play an important role in her life.

Author Rachel DeWoskin’s descriptions of Shanghai in 1940 are striking. Lillia’s family went out one day to Wayside Park, part of the Shanghai International Settlement – the area, which was technically under Chinese sovereignty, but really was British-American ruled.

“Yellow rickshaws rattled by on every side, driven by men made of muscle, no hats or sleeves to protect them from the sun,” she writes. “Some had shoes carved from blocks of wood, fastened with straps of tire rubber. Others had no shoes at all, just exposed feet and ankles dry as burnt bone…”

She and her father walked “past food stalls, steamers hissing ginger air, meat buns being wrapped in squares of newspaper, kabobs, vats of boiling oil into which sticks of bread were dipped before being removed, sold and devoured. Fish struggled to flop in packed tubs, frogs and snakes writhed and tangled… [Lillia] watched a woman crouched next to a bucket of eels, slicing them open lengthwise, pulling their spines out so fast it was a dance.” 

The author’s depiction of the relationships among the three groups of people relevant in the family’s life – Chinese, Japanese and Jewish – also is fascinating.

Japanese soldiers were everywhere. After she enrolls in school, Lillia is told that if she gets into trouble, she should try to find a Sikh policeman, because he is a foreigner and would probably treat her more gently. Not a Chinese policeman. Worst of all would be a Japanese soldier.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an American Jewish female classmate of Lillia’s and her family were separated from the other families and badly mistreated

Japanese soldiers, who became the settlement’s rulers at that time, are shown humiliating and abusing the Chinese and the European Jews.

There was a great cultural chasm between the Chinese living in Shanghai and their Jewish neighbors, which was partly bridged by their mutual repugnance for their common Japanese enemy. Almost uniquely, Lillia connected to the Chinese community in a personal way when she befriended a Chinese boy who was working at her school.

So, the author shines a bright light on the struggles of a small group of European Jews who escaped Nazi Europe and had to try to survive in a completely alien society

Nonetheless, I cannot say that I enjoyed reading Someday We Will Fly. It is a young adult book, and in terms of dialogue and narrative, is probably more appropriate for someone in the age range of 12-17.

The writer is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.


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