A Debt to History
“What the hell do you know about World War II Shanghai?!” was a friend’s response, when I first mentioned to him that I was planning to write a novel set among the 20,000 German Jews who escaped to Shanghai at the outset of war.
Still, I couldn’t shake the idea. And the more I read about Second World War Shanghai, the more my fascination edged into obsession. The city was a microcosm of a world at war, a kaleidoscope of ethnicities and beliefs. It boggled my mind to imagine a place where communists lived alongside fascists, Jews beside Nazis, gangsters and spies among police and intelligence agents, and on and on in a city rife with culture, crime and international tensions. I tried to picture what it would have been like for those secular German Jews—more than 20,000 of them—who landed in the human mosaic that was Shanghai in 1939. These people, who had suffered so much at home, had to endure even more hardships under surreal circumstances. Yet they did so with great dignity, creating a culturally rich and diverse community that included newspapers (in German and Yiddish), restaurants, synagogues, theaters, soccer leagues and even a refugee-run hospital.
And yet, their story—one of the few uplifting accounts of the Holocaust—has gone relatively untold. I only stumbled upon it through a chance encounter with a survivor’s daughter.
How, I wondered, would I ever be able to do their story justice? To give the city and the people their due. I felt obligated to get it right. Not to sound overly dramatic, but I felt as if I owed a small debt to history.
But where to begin? Of course, I read everything I could get my hands on about war-torn Shanghai, from academic articles to self-published memoirs. Inevitably, I learned more from those autobiographies, when I could glimpse Shanghai through the eyes of the survivors. But reading about the city and poring over old photos, maps and videos wasn’t enough. I had to get boots to ground—to see the sights, smell the air and hear the noises. To absorb the Shanghai vibe of today and hopefully, somehow, commune with her colorful past.
Fortunately for me (and everyone else, for that matter), Shanghai has—after years of neglect and denial under Maoist regimes—begun to reclaim its own past and acknowledge its pre-revolutionary history. My wife and I arrived in Shanghai the year before the World Expo, so the restoration was in full force. I was thrilled to discover how many landmarks—such as art deco marvels lining the riverside Bund and the beautiful landscapes of the French Concession—have been preserved. We toured the kitschy Old City (which is and always was a tourist trap for Westerners), we lit incense in Buddhist temples and we visited the old synagogue that was in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto that I describe in Rising Sun, Falling Shadow. I also got to explore inside longtangs—those unique Shanghai laneway houses where my protagonists’ family dwells—and to visit specific locales that would be pivotal to my novel.
One of the places I remember most vividly from my trip is Bridge House. Before the Japanese invasion, Bridge House was a trendy apartment complex, the curved-walled epitome of 1920s architectural imagination. However, during the war, the Japanese military police—the feared Kempeitai—claimed it for their headquarters. They turned it into a torture chamber; countless people suffered and died in its squalid basement cells. But after the war, Bridge House was refitted again as a housing complex.
|author Daniel Kalla|
It was an amazing, eye-opening adventure. And I returned home feeling invigorated, eager to tell my story. But I had lingering doubts. Getting the details right—painting an accurate word-portrait of an old pagoda or a bustling street market—is a far cry from animating history. I wanted to avoid stereotypes and draw authentic characters: everyday heroes, run-of-the-mill monsters and those many people who fell somewhere in between; characters the readers could relate to. Ambitious as it was, I wanted to write a story that would embody the suffering, sacrifice, heroism and the daily struggle to endure. In other words, to bring a slice of wartime Shanghai to life.
Even after I had finished writing The Far Side of the Sky (the first novel in what will become a Shanghai trilogy) and heard feedback from editors, reviewers and readers, I wasn’t certain I’d achieved my goal. But then, one day last winter, after speaking at a writer’s festival, I was approached by a middle-aged woman who asked me to come down from the podium to meet her wheelchair-bound mother. The woman was ninety-two years old and had been one of the original German Jewish refugees. Within moments of meeting the charming woman, it became clear that, despite her mobility issues, her mind was sharp and her memory ironclad. When she told me that she had read my novel, I mustered up the courage to ask for her opinion. After a long wistful smile, she patted my hand and said, “You took me back to my youth for a few marvelous hours. Thank you.”
It was the highest compliment she could have paid me. And, at least for one self-satisfied moment, I felt as though I had made good on my debt.
Rising Sun, Falling Shadow was published in September by Forge ($27.99, hb) and HarperCollins Canada (Can$24.99, trade pb). The Far Side of the Sky is also available from Forge ($26.99 hb/$7.99 pb) and HarperCollins Canada (Can$24.99, trade pb).
In addition to his historical novels, Daniel Kalla is the international bestselling author of Pandemic, Resistance, Rage Therapy, Blood Lies, Cold Plague, and Of Flesh and Blood. His books have been translated into eleven languages. Two novels have been optioned for film. Kalla practices emergency medicine in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he lives with his family. Visit his website at www.danielkalla.com.
For a chance to win a hardcover copy of Rising Sun, Falling Shadow, please fill out the following form. One entry per person. Open to US and Canadian residents; deadline Monday, October 28th. Good luck!
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