A Meaningful and Sadly-Relevant Story of the Jews Who Escaped to Shanghai During WWII
Shanghai isn’t an obvious setting for a Holocaust novel.
But when Jews fled Eastern Europe during World War II, that’s where roughly 20,000 of them landed.
Rachel DeWoskin’s bittersweet, absorbing Someday We Will Fly follows Lillia, a 15-year-old Polish girl whose parents are circus acrobats. They’re performing for a few friends in the remnants of their shuttered theater when soldiers come, kicking in doors and sending Lillia and her family scattering in the dark.
Lillia escapes with her father and baby sister from Warsaw to Lithuania, on to Italy and, finally, Shanghai. China will be safer, her father insists. America is already turning away Jews. Lillia, meanwhile, mourns for her mother, who disappeared the night of the raid.
DeWoskin’s story both accelerates and deepens once the family lands in Shanghai. Familiar storylines focus on struggles to find money and shelter. “In Hongkou, you could meet someone one day and find yourself living with him the next,” DeWoskin writes. “Even if you disliked him.”
And there are less expected ones, like Lillia’s realization that her father’s laissez-faire approach to Jewish religious practice won’t quite work in Shanghai, where she takes her younger sister to temple for holidays, “because Babcia and Mama would have liked it, because I was worried God couldn’t hear anything but my worst thoughts.”
Her sister Naomi barely spoke in Warsaw, worrying her parents. When the toddler finally does begin to utter words, they’re in Chinese. “Her words, other than my name, were in a language he didn’t know,” Lillia thinks of her father’s rueful face. “I was sad for him, but to me, Naomi’s choice made sense. Why pretend we had ever lived – or would ever live – anywhere but here?”
Lillia’s growing friendship with Wei, a Chinese boy who works at her school, leavens her gefilte-fish-out-of-water existence. Most surprising is the desperate choice to begin hostessing and, eventually, dancing at a gentleman’s club. Though nothing too untoward happens, her onstage acrobatics–performed in silk dresses that rip salaciously onstage–are a sobering twist.
DeWoskin spent her summers as a child in China, lived in Beijing during her 20s and spent six summers in Shanghai researching the history that frames “Fly.” While it’s a welcome addition to the historical fiction genre on its own, it’s also impossible to read without considering its parallels to current events.
“Small horrors kept seeping in slowly, then growing,” Lillia remembers of her last weeks in Warsaw, echoing the rising tide of anti-Semitic incidents being reported in Europe and America. And her family’s travails mirror the plight of today’s refugees fleeing war-torn homes.
“I couldn’t stand the tombstones or the words our neighborhood,” Lillia fumes after her father points out the Jewish cemetery in Shanghai. “Death in Shanghai seemed unbearably unfair. Because I understood, walking by those rows of Jewish graves, that we had come here to escape dying at home.”