San Fransisco writer Andrea Alban has written an engaging young adult novel, based on a family story, that takes place in Shanghai, China in 1937. She explains in a post-script that her paternal grandparents fled from Odessa with their two children and settled in the Frenchtown section of Shanghai in China. The novel's main character, fourteen-year-old Anya, a young girl who is trying to puzzle out her place in a strange world, is modeled after Alban’s father’s sister Lily.
Anya’s story as it plays out over two days in 1937 provides an interesting look at three generations of a displaced Russian Jewish family living together in one house, living out their lives in an alien environment during this unsettling period leading up to World War II. The family members brought Odessa with them in their social codes, their dress, their food, and their religious observance, but like all immigrants, they had to work hard at maintaining their treasured old ways that seemed so “foreign” in the Far East. Alban is very good at creating Anya’s character and voice which conveys the family tension – the bickering, the voices raised, the confusion and the moments of comic relief that helped to momentarily lessen the tension.
We accompany Anya as she negotiates purchases in the Chinese markets, we listen to her conversations with the Chinese cook who has learned how to make foods for them that they treasured from their life in Odessa, and we watch as her mother, a former opera singer, tries to manage the household help and raise her children the way she would have raised them in Odessa where the family had status and a secure place in their wider community. Also, along with Anya, we overhear the adults talking politics. For example, we hear about Victor Emmanuel and Mussolini and impending struggles between the Chinese and the Japanese for control of Shanghai as well as remarks about Hitler and “degenerate” art.
Alban’s family were early arrivals to Shanghai. In the years leading up to the war many more families fled Eastern Europe and settled there. Anya yearns to go to America. Shanghai is seen as a temporary stopping off point. Alban tells us in her postscript that Anya’s real-life model, her aunt Lily and Lily’s brother, the author’s father Yan Abramovitch, left for America after the war along with many of the Jews who waited out the war in Shanghai. Her father became a physician in San Fransisco.
To view a fascinating site that documents the uncovering and restoration of gravestones from four Jewish cemeteries that had existed in Shanghai, click here.
Asya Orjich; married Issai Abromovitch; they divorced;
Yan Abromovitch – son of Asya and Issai and Asya
Andrea Alben – daughter of Yan; author
Lily – daughter of Andrea
Lily Abromovitch – daughter of Issai and Asya; married Bernard Gross
Zelik Zelikovsky – second husband of Asya Orjich
San Francisco, USA