Part history lesson, part potboiler, Bulgarian writer Wagenstein’s novel, his first to be published in English, shows Jewish refugees struggling to survive in a Far East sanctuary.
On Nov. 10, 1938, esteemed Dresden Philharmonic violinist Theodore Weissberg is one of many Jews arrested during the Kristallnacht pogrom. Weissberg’s Aryan wife, celebrated singer Elisabeth Müller-Weissberg, will have to purchase his release from Dachau using her jewelry and her body. In Paris, Jewish actress Hilde Braun, whose blonde Aryan good looks have been noticed by Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, decides not to go back to Germany. All three characters, and thousands more desperate Jews from Germany and Austria, are destined to end up in Shanghai, “the very last open city in the world,” as World War II roars across Europe. Mainly congregated in the Hongku district, the Europeans find themselves in a noisy, chaotic human ant colony. Plumbing is primitive, and young Chinese fascists attack Jewish property. Worse follows when the Japanese, who already occupy the city, formally join forces with Germany and Italy, then force the Jews into a ghetto. The novel teems with characters but relies on historical facts for much of its impetus. It’s frequently trite and often very dark: One main character commits suicide, another is tortured to death for helping her mysterious lover photograph documents.
A patchy combination of terrible truth and predictable romance that falls short of the tragic impact the real story deserves.