by Deborah Strobin and Ilie Wacs
[Deborah Strobin and Ilie Wacs are siblings eight years apart. This essay is based on their memoir about growing up together in Nazi Austria and the Shanghai Jewish Ghetto before escaping to America. Each writer takes turns sharing memories.]
We heard the planes before we saw them, and I could tell they were American planes. American planes were like a bullet, buzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, while the Japanese planes were squeaky and clumsy sounding. Mutti (our mother) yelled at both of us, “Get downstairs!” but Ilie would not budge, he wasn’t finished with his drawing. We could see the planes. They were only a few blocks away. Mutti yelled at him again, “Ilie! Now!” but he kept sitting by the window, drawing in his usual sport. He was trying to capture the moment in charcoal.
For weeks there were ugly rumors spreading through the ghetto that all the Jews would soon be shipped from Shanghai, then occupied by the Japanese. People said there were large boats waiting in the ports to be used for our transport, and if we boarded them, we would be killed. (At that time, the Japanese hadn’t caved to Nazi demands to fix the Jewish problem.) The Japanese dug foxholes and trenches in front of each house, prepping to defend Shanghai against American troops. Tensions rose. Everyone was apprehensive.
Then on July 17, 1945, I will never forget the date, American bombers made their usual noon appearance, high in the sky. Only this time, instead of flying over, they opened their cargo doors, and bombs fell like rain. As the ground shook and Mutti screamed for me to “Run!” it suddenly occurred to me I might not be around to see what happened next.
The impact. I felt the vibrations through the earth. Buildings exploded. The sirens and the screaming and the sound of destruction. Hell. It was indescribable. The Americans were trying to hit a radio station, but they couldn’t see anything with the sky solidly overcast. They based their drop on their flying time. Two hundred and sixty-three bombs dropped on Shanghai. Each of the bombs weighed one hundred pounds. They landed on the market.
Once again, luck was on our side. We had not gone to the market that day. My family survived the bombing even if we were not spared its horrors. Like everyone else, we ran into the streets to help. Chinese or Jewish, it did not matter. We bled.
The devastation was incomprehensible. Men ran past dragging rickshaws, pedaling pedicabs transporting the injured. There were fire trucks and ambulances, arms and legs scattered among the debris. I saw a man with half his foot hanging off and the other foot missing entirely. I thought I was supposed to figure out where his foot went. Ilie immediately began helping to pile the dead bodies, but I ran around handing out bandages until they were gone. I was ten.
Two hundred and fifty people died that day in the market. Thirty-one of them were Jewish. The rest were Chinese. Another 500 were injured. The rest of us, we were “lucky” – just scarred for life. I still have the charcoal drawing Ilie made during the bombing. It hangs on my wall. If I really stop to look at it, the fear of that day is freshly conjured as if the miles from San Francisco to Shanghai do not exist. As if the years between the little girl I was and the woman I am today never passed, and if, in the background, I happen to hear a police siren or an ambulance zooming past my building, I still shake.
I shake, and I shake.
Less than a month later, there was a small article in the paper saying that two big bombs had exploded over some Japanese cities. Then suddenly, one morning, we woke, and the Japanese were gone. In the middle of the night, they had completely disappeared. The police station was empty. The bridge guards were gone. No more soldiers roaming the streets. For two days, there was complete confusion, but miraculously, no looting. Then we heard the amazing news. Japan had surrendered. The war was over.
There was much jubilation. Within a few weeks, American soldiers started to arrive. These were the same pilots who had dropped the bombs on the market. I asked them, “Didn’t you know there was a ghetto below you?”
They claimed they had poor visibility, a cloudy day.
I pushed back, “So why not dump the load in the Pacific Ocean?”
Then the Seventh Fleet of the American navy came ashore. They hadn’t set foot on dry land in more than four years. It was chaos. Immediately, there was food. Rations were handed out, and they were the tastiest meals I had ever eaten. I was filled with a tremendous sense of freedom, and for the first time in years, I wasn’t hungry.
The Shanghai ghetto was officially liberated on Sept. 3, 1945. The Americans allowed Chiang Kai-shek’s army to take credit for our liberation. They flew the Chinese soldiers in so they could march through the streets. The Chinese soldiers were wearing straw sandals tied around their legs with ribbons. Some were wearing uniforms, but most weren’t, and only a few of them had rifles. It was a far cry from the regimented, well-equipped, goose-stepping parade I’d witnessed in Vienna with the Nazis. They didn’t look like a real army much less our liberators, but we cheered them anyway.
Then we got word about the Holocaust. Though there had been rumors, speculative murmurings prior to our liberation, most of us had heard nothing from relatives for years. The jubilant mood inspired by our liberation quickly quieted.
A deep sorrow swept through the streets, touching every life. General Eisenhower had visited one of the concentration camps and was so outraged, he sent reporters, photographers and filmmakers to document the atrocities. It took a while for us to see those images, but they made it to us eventually. Mutti’s sister and the rest of her family were murdered at Dachau, and Mutti wept.
Everything we’d been through suddenly paled in comparison. The hunger, the disease, the curfews, the poverty, none of it mattered anymore. We were lucky. Nobody gassed us. We had our lives, but that was no cause for celebration.
A few years ago, a visit to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC brought Deborah and Ilie face to face with their painful past as refugees. There, hanging on the museum’s wall, they were shocked to discover photos of Deborah in Shanghai as a five-year-old posing for Japanese war propaganda. Thus began a journey of unraveling and documenting the family’s 12-year odyssey of escape and survival across continents and the chaos of war through the eyes of two children in their new memoir “An Uncommon Journey – From Vienna to Shanghai to America, A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II.” You can read more about their journey on Facebook or at deborahstrobin.com
For more on Japanese-occupied Shanghai see, Portrait of a Heroine in Shanghai.