The long road to China: Irene Eber’s path

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.

Israel and Mao China521 (photo credit: PETAR KUJUNDZIK / REUTERS)
Israel and Mao China521
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 meal.
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 for them.
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.
When looking 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.