Shanghai Diary: A Young Girl's Journey from Hitler's Hate to War-Torn China - Ursula Bacon ETA: I also highly recommend: [b:The Distant Land of My Father|144538|The Distant Land of My Father|Bo Caldwell||1296056]
My review:
This gives you another perspective of Shanghai during the war!

Now that I have finished the book, I think I will give it 4 stars. You know me, I hand out those stars VERY stringently. Furthermore, I am swayed by my emotions - this book feels best as a book I "liked a lot", rather than being "amazing"! Let me explain. This book covers the 8 years and 3 months that the author spent as a child and young adult in Shanghai, from 1939 - 1947. She grew from a precocious 10 year old to become a fully adult 18 year-old. The book excellently covers her flight to Shanghai, life in Hongkew, life in the French Concession and finally the forced displacement back to Hongkew in 1943, now termed "the Designated Area". Shanghai was split into three districts, the International Settlement, the French Concession and Hongkew, under Japanese control following the Chino-Japanese Wars. Comparatively, life in the French Concession was a dream world to life as it had been on arrival and the ghetto like conditions of the "Designated Area". As the alliance between Germany and Japan grew stronger and when finally Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Allied businesses were closed. Americans, Englishmen, Dutch, French, Dutch, all enemies of the Japanese empire were rounded up and placed in prisoner camps. A month earlier the European Jews had been classified as "stateless citizens". They had become nonentities! Finally in May 1943 these stateless citizens were restricted to the "Designated Area". The book details the historical facts and how they played out in Shanghai and for her family. Details is the word I must emphasize. You learn about the sanitation, or lack there of. It was filthy beyond words. I will not quote parts on this subject. Just imagine and multiply your imagination by 100. Ughhhhh. This is done so you truly see it. Health care is deplorable, and of course makes life precarious. There is so much that is horrendous, but the strange thing is that it is NOT a depressing book. The deplorable conditions are vividly displayed before your eyes. What makes it not depressing is the spirit of the family. Sometimes this bothered me to the point that I felt maybe she was childishly ignorant. That is not the explanation. The explanation is that this family and their closest friends were always aware that their conditions were so very much better than those of the Europeans in the Japanese prisoner camps and the Jews who failed to leave Europe in time. And this family set high standards. "If you can't change it, don't complain." (page 204) or "If there is nothing better, then we have the best!" These attitudes infuse their way into every decision made by the family and their close friends. Ursula's father attracted friends like honey attracts flies. Good friends. Friends you could count on. Her father says:

"The world is full of wonderful people, and I know them all." (page 194)

Or from the mouth of one elderly European Jewess, stranded in Shanghai among the other thousands (BTW, there were 18000 in the "Designated Area"!:

"Well, darling, Mrs. Goldberg will have to tell you again. Now listen and remember what I am telling you. Go out and make a miracle today. God's busy. He can't do it all." (page 194, showing the exact spelling!)

This optimism sometimes feels jarring, but by the end of the book I felt that this IS how the author sees the world around her. It does not reflect a childish style of writing but rather a way of looking at life. This view is mirrored in most every sentence:

"The Japanese occupation forces were not raised in a Swiss finishing school..." (page 177).

This is just one quip, displaying Ursula's tone, how she expresses herself.

Religious themes are covered, as the child becomes a teenager and doesn't know how to deal with the horror around her. She sees the different religions with clarity and does not hesitate to question and doubt the set views of Judaism, Lutheranism and Buddhism. As an individual she is curious and behaves in a manner beyond her years A close friendship grows between her and Yuan Lin, a Chinese Buddhist priest with a degree in economics from Harvard. He had a Chinese father and an English mother. The people you meet, the life you live through Ursula's tale are memorable. She puts all these religious beliefs and life experiences together and come out with her own religion, one that fits her and makes her a wonderful human being.

The history and exact detail of life in Shanghai 1939-1947 are interestingly described. The book includes marvelous photos depicting the author's life in Shanghai. They are not modern photos, but ones taken by her friends, then and there, when they lived this life! I highly recommend this book.


I am only on page 20, so I shouldn't have any opinion yet, but I do. I love it. I cannot put it down. The author, Ursula Bacon, from a wealthy Jewish, German family, tells of her experiences fleeing Germany with her mother and father in 1939 by rail from Breslau, Germany, (now Wrocauw, Poland) and then by steamboat traveling to far off Shanghai, one of the few spots on the earth willing to accept Jews. America, Canada, South America, Central America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and of course the European countries had all closed their borders. They were the lucky ones endowed with money! So it was to Shanghai they were headed. Shanghai was the "armpit of the world", the "slum-scum of the Orient" or the "boil on the hide of China". Take your pick! She is flung from her eiderdown, luxurious quilts to rescuing her father from a German prison - alone, dragging him naked in a burlap bag out the prison gates. She is 10! The tale is immediately gripping and horrifying and yet hopeful too.

You understand from the first few pages what kind of a family Ursula comes from. On departure, she receives a blank diary from Maria Burdach in which she is to recount her tale:

"'You'll be back soon,' she tried to assure herself and me, forcing a smile as she dabbed at her face with one of her lavender-scented, lace-edged hankies. She made me promise to write everything down every day, so she could read all about our life in China. As the oldest of the Burdach family, Maria was head housekeeper and watched over her three brothers, her two sisters, and their mates, to see that Marienhall - the home we had fled - ran smoothly. The whole family, including Grandmother and Grandfather Burdach, had been managing the estate long before my Grandfather, the Old Baron, had given it to his son. My father always said the Burdach family had belonged to the land a heck of a lot longer than the Old Baron, and had a lot more class. The young Burdach children were my playmates on the few occasions I escaped Fraulein Amanda, and among the eight of us, there wasn't a corner of the fields or the gardens of our fairy-tale forest we didn't know. We swore, in unison, that we all had seen the "White Lady" - the sad ghost of Marienhall - float through the hallways and the attic, trailing yards and yards of a filmy silk gown - moaning and weeping. Her dark hair streamed behind her like silk ribbons as she moved lightly from room to room searching for her lost child. Never mind what Fraulein Amanda said. We knew a ghost when we saw one." (page 19-20)

There, you get a taste of the prose, although mind you, this was a happy sequence.

Sometimes it isn't that hard to determine right at the start if a book is going to be a winner. Perhaps I will be proven wrong, but I bet this will end up a 5 star book.