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Book Review: Farewell, Shanghai By Angel Wagenstein

How far would you travel to preserve yourself and your family? Would you be willing to set off on a sea voyage of undetermined length and time where your final destination is in a land completely alien to you and the only promise you have is that you might survive? Refugees sometimes have no choice where they go, and sometimes they have to be grateful for any port in their storm that will take them in. For the Jews of Europe in the late 1930's this was especially true, as no matter where they turned they found borders closed to them.

Mysteriously countries like Canada and The United States, with their huge tracks of undeveloped land, had no room for the few people who actually had the where with all to get out of Germany. As late as 1938 the Nazi government of Germany was still willing to let Jews leave, and exit visa's could be obtained if you had enough money. However an exit visa is no good if you have nowhere to exit too. There was one safe haven for Jews, however once there the only thing they were promised was they might not be rounded up, for although Shanghai was nominally a free city, it was under Japanese control.

Anyway, the idea of sailing away from home and country to a land at the other end of the continent where there was no way of knowing whether or not you'd even be able to eke out a living or find somewhere to lay your head at the end of the day seemed insane. After all, surely the German people would come to their senses and these hooligans would be out of power in only a few months? We've lived in Germany for generations, we're Germans not Jews. That's what the members of the Dresden Philharmonic thought up until the night in 1938 when each of its members were arrested as they came off stage after their performance of Joseph Haydn's Symphony #45: The Farewell. You see talented as they were, and even though some them didn't even know they were stained with the stigma of a Jewish grandmother - they were all Jews, and were now enemies of the state.
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In Farewell, Shanghai, author and film director Angel Wagenstein's latest novel, published by Handsel Books and distributed in Canada by Random House Canada, we follow the circuitous route taken by German Jews to Shanghai and then live out the exile that the crime of their faith sentenced them to. Wagenstein divides his attentions between focusing on the experiences of two sets of characters from different backgrounds; Theodore Weissberg, world renowned concert violinist from the Dresden Philharmonic, and his opera singer wife Elisabeth, and Hilde. a young film extra and her companions, who have all ended up in Shanghai; and writing a documentary novel of the times that fills in the background details that the close up accounts can't accommodate.

Weissberg was one of the musicians who was whisked away mysteriously with the applause of his audience still ringing in his ears. Thankfully his wife, a non-Jew, was able to secure his release from Dachau, and more importantly two exit visas good for four months. After convincing her husband that yes indeed it is necessary for them to flee the country, and the only place open to them is Shanghai, they secure passage on one of the last trips made by one of the two boats running from Italy to their safe haven.

Their story is typical of the majority of German Jews who ended up in Shanghai, well educated intellectuals and artisans who are all of a sudden forced to live in extreme poverty and be grateful for even the most menial of jobs in order to earn their living. They are somewhat luckier than others because they manage to obtain their own living space, a two room hut with a storage shed that they convert into a shower. To them it is the height of luxury as it means they no longer have to live in the communal dormitory which houses the majority of the refugees. Unfortunately it also means that they somehow have to come up with the rent money each month, and there's not much call for either a concert violinist or an opera singer in Shanghai.

Hilda Braun, who was born Rachel Braunfield, has the remarkable good fortune to look like every Nazi's dream of the ideal of Aryan womanhood. Blond, blue eyed, and beautiful she parlays that appeal into a photo shoot in Paris as the first stage in her escape, knowing full well that anyone investigating closely will see through her facade. By luck, and some skilful lying, Hilda is able to wangle not only a cabin on luxury liner headed to Singapore, but a job as secretary to the city's German high commissioner as well. Here, not only is she able to hide in plain view as well as lead a comfortable life, she is able on occasion to discreetly keep the immigrant community informed of events in the outside world that will impact them.
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Wagenstein's style of narration is almost that of a jocular tour guide showing us the sites on a tour through history. Casually pointing out points of interest like Krystallnacht, "The Night Of Broken Glass", where joyful, singing Brownshirts paraded through cities across Germany burning and ransacking synagogues, Jewish businesses, and hauling Jewish people out into the street to hang signs around their necks if they were lucky or hanging them by the neck if they were unlucky. It's the casual nature of his narration that makes Farewell, Shanghai so heartbreaking, for it makes everything that occurs seem like the everyday and the ordinary; perfectly acceptable.

Reading about unspeakable acts of brutality or descriptions of torture you can distance yourself from the events depicted on the page. Due to their unbelievable nature, you can convince yourself that they're fiction. However when human indignity is described in the same terms as one would use to discuss the weather or a vacation, it is impossible to separate yourself from it. You find yourself on the verge of accepting the events depicted as commonplace, until you stop yourself short realizing what's being described and are horrified at how easily you came to taking things for granted.

As we watch and listen as these people try to make lives out of nothing, to carry on in the faint hope that somehow, someday, this too will pass to become only a memory, the reality of what we are bearing witness to comes into tighter and tighter focus. Wagenstein's abilities as a film maker have given him an unerring eye for editing and pulling the reader's attention to what's important. Whether our point of view is that of one of the characters, or our guide through history, what we "see" on each page of the book is as vivid as if it were on a movie screen in front of us. Each character is so well described that, no matter how minor a role they play, we see them as if they were standing in front of us, and have a fairly good idea of who and what they are.

When all the world was closed to them, and it looked like there was nowhere for the Jews of Europe to flee, Singapore offered a semblance of succour. Hands that once might have played the violin that enraptured thousands may have had to carry garbage or wash cars, but at least they were on the end of arms that weren't tattooed or destined for the fires of the camps in Europe. Twenty thousand German Jews, and a few thousand from the rest of Europe, were able to call Singapore home during a time when millions of others were becoming part of The Final Solution.

Angel Wagenstein has the remarkable ability to put a human face on history, and Farewell, Shanghai is no exception. As the history he depicts is one of the most inhumane periods of the twentieth century, this talent is perhaps a mixed blessing. For, although it makes for fantastic reading, it also makes heartbreak inevitable as we struggle along with his characters to come to terms with their new reality. This may not be the most pleasant of reads you'll ever have, but it will be one of the best.

Farewell, Shanghai can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon Canada as of November 04/08.

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