This great novel by Ursula Krechel, winner of the German Book Prize in 2012, seems more relevant than ever today in our world of displaced people escaping war, terror and discrimination. It deals with the stories of a number of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and Austria at the end of the 30s who end up in Shanghai. By this stage many other countries have closed their doors on Jewish refugees and Shanghai, which didn’t require an entry visa until August 1939, is something of a last resort. For it is indeed very far away from Europe and the way of life they have known- at least in the beginning.
The refugees find themselves in circumstances utterly different to the ones they knew in Europe. Many of them live initially in converted barracks and are fed in soup kitchens. The humidity, noise, smells and commerce on the streets is completely alien. Finding work is problematic: many are from a professional middle class background and find that their qualifications and experience are useless in this new environment: Tausig is a lawyer but cannot practice in this legal system, Brieger an art historian for whom there is no work. However, some characters show ingenuity and adapt to their circumstances: Kronheim, a watch maker, starts a sort of watch repair clinic in a cafe, Lazarus goes from one idea to another-runs a bookshop, provides newspapers for a European style café, later presents a radio programme. Frau Tausig, a Viennese housewife up to this point, is hired by a restaurant to bake Apfelstrudel and finds herself in the unprecedented position of being the main family breadwinner.
Their individual experiences, impressions and indeed histories are expertly developed by Ursula Krechel through her use of free indirect speech. So the narrative thread is taken up by different characters, who are nominally telling their stories to Lazarus, as if he is gathering them for an oral history and relating them into a tape recorder. This outer frame comes and goes rather, which doesn’t really matter, as more importantly, these individual narrative perspectives help us to get under the skin of the various protagonists and to really share their impressions of Shanghai, especially their intensely sensory impressions of the street and public spaces. So Brieger determinedly hurries along the Huangpu River amidst the smell of josssticks, rancid sesame oil and bean curd and he is transfixed by the European winter smell of apples and cinnammon in the restaurant where Frau Tausig works.
These intensely personal narratives are also used to relate the characters’ previous histories. Some have experienced anti- Semitism and persecution during the preceding years- Lazarus was arrested in 1936 for harbouring a resistance group in his father’s bookshop and sent to Dachau and Buchenwald, Brieger was sacked from Ullstein, a Jewish publishing house hoping to survive if it got rid of its Jewish employees. We also see a range of different nationalities in the characters we meet- Günter Nobel is a Polish Jew and his wife Genia a German speaking Russian Jew- which gives us an idea of the long arm of Nazism and its anti Semitic agenda. A range of different levels of political engagement is also shown: Günter Nobel is working class, a car mechanic and he and Genia are active Communists. We are told that he later becomes a Diplomat in post war Communist East Germany.
While some refugees found work and a modus vivendi despite the hardships of their situation, life for all of them became tougher from the summer of 1941. On the one hand, Pearl Harbour brought the Americans into the war, which led to the Japanese occupying the whole of Shanghai, including the French Concession. People were unable to leave and there were shortages which affected all economic activity. On the other hand, the Nazi anti Semitic laws began to tighten their hold: in 1941 all emigrants were stripped of their German identity and so were no longer able to claim the protection of the German consulate. Two Nazi officials arrived in Shanghai who persuaded the Japanese to assign the refugees to a ‘designated area’. The area was Hongkew and was effectively a ghetto. Nazi bureaucracy held sway and restrictions were placed on entering and leaving the ghetto, which made working limited or impossible. Eventually malnutrition and illness took hold and corpses would be found lying in the street. The heroic work of Dr. Wolff in treating illness is told here and the appalling treatment of the dead related in the account of Tausig’s funeral. Frau Tausig manages to find the money for a wooden coffin for her husband, whereas the poorer refugees are ‘sent into eternity’ wrapped in a straw mat like a Chinese peasant.
The ghetto is disbanded finally at the end of the war by the Americans who turn up in Shanghai at the end of the war and the question then for the refugees is ‘where to now?’ Several of the characters whose stories we have followed have died. Frau Tausig has a son who was sent to England during the war and she is reunited with him in Vienna. Lazarus and Brieger, though, have no immediate family and contact has been lost with friends they were corresponding with at the start of the war. They wish to return to Germany, despite the IRO ( International Relief Organisation),run by well meaning but clueless American women, trying to persuade them to go to the newly created state of Israel. In any event, they both wait months and years before they are able to leave for Europe. When Brieger arrives in Berlin, he is horrified at the destruction he sees in his beloved city-the world is a vastly different place from that shown on the ‘Friedensweltkarte’ ( World map of Peace) in the IRO office. Both men are shattered on their arrival back to Europe and very alone.
Now this is a long novel- 500 pages- which you might expect for a novel which covers a period of 8 years and follows the stories of several characters. The narrative is less plot driven, but really the story of individual experience in the new and alien environment of Shanghai. I found it intensely moving and probably best read over some days in order to digest the emotion conveyed in her very lyrical language. For Ursula Krechel is a poet as well as a novelist and we are often treated to her love of word play, her acute ear, her use of rhythm and pace to heighten emotion. She is able to focus down on small details-Frau Tausig’s tiny buckled town shoes, the unruly lock of hair falling over the forehead of little Biche, Brieger’s beloved dog, which pull at the heart strings. Yet the greater arc of history behind the characters has been meticulously researched and she combines this material with the personal stories with admirable control and to great effect.
This novel reveals an aspect of the Jewish experience during the Nazi period which I had been unaware of and pulls no punches about the harsh situation faced by the Jewish community after the war. It is a salutary reminder of the experience of exile as well as of the unrelenting persistence of anti- Semitism. In between reading the novel and writing this review one of the most powerful countries in the world has chosen as their president a man who has openly expressed racist and misogynist views. These are dangerous times. And high time to translate this wonderful novel so that its message can reach readers beyond the German speaking world. You can read an extract here at No Man’s Land, the online magazine for German literature in translation.