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Monday, December 23, 2013

Intenet Review of Books Lauds Ester Benjamin Shifren

A prominent Jewish Family’s Century in Shanghai and Internment in a WWII POW Camp
Author: Ester Benjamin Shifren
ISBN 978 1479165384 and ISBN 1479165387
Available on Amazon.com: http://amzn.com/1479165387
RReviewed by Katherine Highcove originally for  Internet Review of Books (IRB)

Hiding in a Cave of Trunks is the saga of British family's century-long residence in Shanghai. Author Ester Benjamin Shifren is the descendant of Sephardic Jewish émigrés to the eastern city. Her ancestors sailed into Shanghai from India in the early 1840s and from Persia and the Mideast in 1917. For the next century, family members were active participants in Shanghai's multi-ethnic cultural life and commerce, while remaining faithful to the rites and rituals of their religion.

In Shanghai, Jews were not hampered by Christian prejudice, which enabled the immigrants to flourish. But like other Shanghai émigrés who chose to retain citizenship in their home countries, the Benjamin clan steadfastly maintained British citizenship during their hundred-year residency in the International Settlement - the section of the city where wealthy foreigners built and maintained spacious homes.

The chapters of Hiding in a Cave of Trunks are split into four sections: Early Childhood Days in ShanghaiFrom Freedom to CaptivityHomecoming, and Hong Kong. In preparation for the book, Shifren researched family records, copied photographs, sorted through correspondence, and interviewed old friends and living relatives to flesh out her own Shanghai memories.

The first section, Early Childhood Days, introduces the author's grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and servants. She reviews important incidents and devastating events in the family history, and outlines how the Benjamin family, generation by generation, integrated into the highest circles of Shanghai society. Shifren recalls her chaperoned excursions into exotic street scenes and the émigré community's social occasions at private clubs, weddings, funerals and the racetrack. Many members of her family owned racehorses and enjoyed that level of the city's sporting life.

Much of Shifren’s research for this book was based on several interviews, done over a period of seventeen years, with her parents. Their-first person input makes this story a poignant account of courage and parental fortitude in a time of high stress and danger.

The From Freedom to Captivity section recounts the family's traumatic experiences during WWII. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military swiftly invaded Shanghai and took over all of the city's profitable enterprises. The Allied nationals, who had owned many of the banks, shipping warehouses and businesses, lost much of their savings and possessions - even their family cars - to the invaders. Even worse, families who had retained citizenship in Allied countries were labeled security risks by the Japanese. All Allied families were soon forced to leave their luxurious homes and take up residence in a hastily prepared prisoner of war camp.

The author's family members, as British citizens, were also considered enemies of the Emperor. This poignant passage from Hiding in Cave of Trunks relates their last evening in their spacious ancestral home:

On the first morning of Pessach (Passover) in April 1943, we tearfully celebrated the Seder, eating matsoch and performing all the rituals. This was to be our last wonderful home-cooked festival meal for a long time.

The next morning Mummy and Daddy looked around our home for the last time…. Some Chinese men with large wheelbarrows arrived to collect our things. They grunted and groaned while they transported all our cases, kitbags, beds, and bare necessities to the Public Boys and Girls School on Yu Yuen Road, our designated camp, and “home” for the unforeseeable future.

The incarceration of Allied civilians in the Far East has been dramatized in several movies and television shows. The dramas usually emphasize extreme hardships: torture, forced marches, rapes, and other types of inhumane treatment inflicted by the merciless Japanese military. And the movies re-create, or a scriptwriter fantasizes, dramatic acts of resistance by heroic civilians. Extreme cruelty is easy to dramatize. But everyday tedium, limited bland nutrition, and less onerous deprivations - like never providing kosher meat to the Jewish families - are considered ho-hum matters to a movie director.

Shifren provides a vivid picture of real life in the POW camp. Although Hiding in a Cave of Trunks chronicles cruel and sadistic acts by the Japanese Commandant, the author puts the emphasis on the subtle mind games that were played every day between the military captors and the Allied prisoners.

All through their three-year captivity, the inmates of the prison camp found ways to work together and make their imprisonment bearable. For example, they had a secret communication system that imported outside news of key battles and Allied victories, even though the Japanese threatened death to anyone who participated in this grapevine. And the community resisted their captors and demonstrated loyalty to the Allied forces by staying physically and mentally active. The women of the camp found ways to nourish and educate the children; the men did heavy work and repaired their ramshackle housing when the Japanese allowed such activity. This daily effort to maintain esprit de corps and community well-being was heroism on a less flashy level.

When the Allies began to win key battles in the Pacific arena, the news eventually sifted through the camp news sources. Hope grew weekly. But the closer the battle came to Shanghai, the more recalcitrant the camp's Japanese commandant became. New rules and requirements amped up the mind games until the last day of incarceration.

After the official Japanese surrender, the truth could no longer be denied. One morning the captors melted away into the postwar mayhem and confusion in the city, and the Allied families slowly realized they were free to leave their prison. They eased their way back into the streets of Shanghai and rejoiced.

And yet, the former captives soon realized that they couldn't simply take up where they left off before the war. Their property was now in other hands. The Communists were on the horizon. Shifren's parents, like many other camp survivors, came to understand that they had to start over again … but not in Shanghai.

In the last two sections of this memoir, Homecoming and Hong Kong, Shifren relates how her family slowly let go of their friends and the Jewish community in Shanghai, and moved to Hong Kong. But as mainland China steadily morphed into a repressive Communist society, the family decided to break with their ancestral home. They boarded a plane to Israel. Émigrés once again.

I asked the author what had inspired her memoir. She replied:

 "I wrote the book because I felt I had to tell the little-known story of the history of the multi-ethnic groups living in Shanghai, "The Paris of the East," and the brutal Japanese occupation of the Far East during WWII. Of great importance was letting the world know about the internment of all Allied civilians, and the resultant losses of material wealth, optimum health, and dislocation that we endured."

With the completion and publication of this intimate memoir, Ester Benjamin Shifren has given the reader a valuable eyewitness account of a little-known historical event. Her story is especially valuable for those who study and seek to preserve Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Eastern Jewish history.

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