In the late 1930s, Jews were fleeing Germany and other European countries; in response to both propaganda and local politics, more destinations began closing their borders to this flood of refugees, until the last port open to them was Shanghai. This is the story of some of those “lucky” enough to enter Japanese-occupied China at the start of World War II, and how the single city of Shanghai reflected the multiple governments, economies, belief systems, evils, and hopes of the larger world and war.
Theodore Weissberg is a noted violinist; his wife, Elizabeth is a non-German Jew and a world-famous singer who willingly accompanies him to Hongku, the ghetto section of Shanghai where the Jewish refugees are forced to eke out their existence. Hilde Braun, a German actress, lands in a much different Shanghai, where rich expatriates live in opulence and the veneer of civility barely disguises the fact that all is not as it seems. Vladek, a journalist (or perhaps spy?) of uncertain origin, moves between countries and settings with seemingly carefree ease.
These are just a few of the memorable characters who draw the reader into a story of many levels. The vivid descriptions of the fetid living conditions in Hongku and the atrocities of Germans, Chinese, and Japanese alike are offset by the narrative, which reveals unlikely heroes in a world gone mad. Based on real people and terrifyingly true events, Wagenstein’s gripping tale (and its excellent translation into English) exposes the less-discussed but just as horrific history of the Nazi regime in China.