Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Book Review: 'Thrown Upon The World' by George Kolber and Charles Kolber

‘How many other young Jewish men had found themselves caught in the underbelly of war-torn Shanghai.’

This richly written book is a true story about many of the side effects of WW II – the Nazi anti-Semitism, the flight of Jews to places of safety – Shanghai in this story, and the miscegenation resulting from loves cast on a sea of insecurity, and more and more. Brothers George and Charles Kolber are have Austrian Jew and half Chinese whose lives began in Shanghai while the Kolber families sought safety there. George grew up in Newark, New Jersey and found successes in retail, real estate and finance. Charles grew up in Union, New Jersey and was an engineer for Fortune 500 companies and later operated a family-owned business. But even a bit of biography about the authors encroaches upon the drama of this superb book. 

The book’s Prologue sets the tone - Sunday, December 15, 1946 Ya-Li walked quickly under the Shanghai sky filled with gray clouds blown westward by the wind off the Whangpoo River as it flowed into the East China Sea. She hurried up the stairs to the second floor of the squat building in an alleyway off Chusan Road and knocked on the door. Chao Chen let her in to the shabby one-room apartment. Other than an unmade bed, an upright piano with its bench, a hot plate and kettle, and a wardrobe with a cracked mirror, there was hardly a hint of its occupants: the elegant twenty-eight-year-old bride and her younger Austrian-Jewish lover, Walter Kolber. Ya-Li inquired, “Why are you still in your nightgown, Chao Chen? The taxi will be here any minute.” “I needed to practice the piece Walter and I are supposed to perform after the ceremony. If I make any mistakes Walter will be furious with me. I guess the time just slipped away from me.” “Let me help you with your dress. I ironed it a few days ago. It should still be fresh.” Ya-Li took the red taffeta gown out of the wardrobe and instructed Chao Chen to step into it. The only time she had worn it was for the recital at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music was when she and Walter played the first movement of Beethoven’s “Spring Sonata” for violin and piano. Of all the student performers, they were the only ones who received a standing ovation. And now, two years later, they were about to marry—and not a moment too soon. Ya-Li struggled with the zipper. “Chao Chen, you’re still tiny as a bird, but that baby inside you is taking up a lot of room around your waist. If you had waited much longer you would have had to buy another dress.” Chao Chen frowned. “And with what money? Walter and I are just scraping by. He’s lost his job. The factory where he was working shut down, and the Jewish owners have gone to Canada.” She sighed. “I just pray he finds another job soon
or we’ll be on the dole. The landlady is threatening to raise our rent now that so many Chinese are coming back from the countryside.”

The plot outline provides a fine overview of the story within – ‘It is 1938 when the Kolbers, affluent Viennese Jews, flee their country for Shanghai after its annexation by the Nazis. Eva and her daughter take the Trans-Siberian Railroad through war zones where they must confront border guards and Japanese imprisonment. Meanwhile, her husband, Josef, and their twin sons travel by ocean liner, hiding valuables in crates. Similarly in China, the politically powerful Gan Chen family finds their lives upended by Japanese invaders. Forced to abandon their estate, the family seeks refuge in Shanghai. While the families adapt to their new lifestyles during the war, their children meet. Walter Kolber is a handsome violinist; Chao Chen is a gifted pianist. After a forbidden romance blossoms, Chao Chen discovers she is pregnant. Without familial blessings, the lovers marry in December 1946 and head with their newborn to a refugee camp in Austria. As Chao Chen grapples with language and cultural barriers, the family is met with turmoil and tragedy. Now only time will tell if they will survive their troubles to start a new life in the United States. A remarkable true story, Thrown upon the World tells the tale of two families brought together during World War II in Shanghai and the twist of fate that split them apart.’

This is a book that deserves full attention from the reader – it is that rich in heritage and history and passion. The brothers Kolber are sure to be awarded for their fine history. Highly Recommended.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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