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Strange Haven: A Jewish Childhood in Wartime Shanghai

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Strange Haven

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Strange Haven
A Jewish Childhood in Wartime Shanghai

By Sigmund Tobias
Foreword by Michael Berenbaum
University of Illinois Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-252-07624-4

Reviewed by Auggie Moore - April 3, 2009

November 8, 1938 witnessed one of the worst anti-Jewish pogroms to ever sweep through Germany. It was to become known as Kristallnacht - the night of broken glass. In a scant few hours more than 1,300 synagogues were burned, thousands of Jewish owned homes, buildings, and stores were destroyed, hundreds of Jews were murdered, and within days, tens of thousands of Jews throughout Germany were arrested. Many of those arrested were sent to the Dachau concentration camp. For many, the only way out of Dachau was by obtaining papers allowing for the 'inmate' to immigrate to another country - an avenue of escape that did not remain open for long.

On of those arrested after Kristallnacht was Moses Tobias, a Polish-born Jew who was living in Berlin with his family. His wife, Frieda, knew that it was time to leave Germany. She worked relentlessly to obtain the necessary entry documents for another country, and the costly exit visas from Germany. She succeeded, and in short order Frieda, Moses, and their six-year-old son, Sigmund, were on their way to Japanese occupied Shanghai, China.

Strange Haven: A Jewish Childhood in Wartime Shanghai is a memoir, written by Sigmund Tobias that recounts not only his childhood in Shanghai, but also the events that brought his family there, and what happened to the family after the war. This account is particularly interesting because the Tobias's were a religious family, and because of this they, and young Sigmund, faced additional challenges in Shanghai over those those faced by their less religious counterparts.

Within the course of this account, Sigmund also recounts the actions of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consular officer who was instrumental in saving thousands of Jews by issuing them transit visas, allowing them to transit through, or to, Japan and Japanese controlled areas of China. Sugihara was one of the unsung heroes of the Holocaust, and countless Jews owe their lives to him.

>From beginning to end, Sigmund's account of his life in Shanghai is mesmerizing. His impressions about life in the city - from women nursing in the street to the numerous beggars to his relationship with other refugees and their tenuous communal relationship with their Japanese overlords are eye-opening. It is especially impressive that these European, Jewish refugees had little, if any, preparation for their new life in China. For some, they were not really sure where they were going until they actually got there! Learning to live with the heat, the new culture and language, and the tenuous political climate in wartime Shanghai is unforgettable and shines a light on an often overlooked aspect of the Holocaust.

Strange Haven is a quick read that is enhanced by the inclusion of photographs from the author's own collection. It should be noted that the main focus of this book is Sigmund's own life and his interaction with his fellow, Jewish refugees. The ongoing political strive between Japan and China is hardly touched upon, nor is the harsh and oftimes barbaric treatment that Chinese citizens suffered at the hands of the Japanese forces. While this is not an academic study of the Jewish refugee experience in Shanghai during World War II, this book is ideal as a supplemental text in university and high school level courses on the Holocaust or in Jewish Studies/History classes, and it may be of use in courses on Chinese and Japanese history that focus on World War II. This book will also fascinate general readers interested in learning about Jewish life in wartime Shanghai.


If you are interested in learning more about Chiune Sugihara, I recommend the book, In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Dipolomat Who Risked his Life to Rescue 10,000 Jews From the Holocaust, by Hillel Levine.

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