January 13, 2005
Safe Harbor From Shoah in ‘Shanghai’
Boys can be squirrely when any adult visits a classroom to lecture. That's why when Ursula Bacon comes in to talk about her Holocaust experience, she tells stories about how she once had a cockroach for a pet, and that she didn't have use of a toilet for eight years.
Such gross-out stuff appeals to boys, some of whom contact her after she visits their schools; she speaks to more than 2,000 middle school and high school students every year. Bacon said one boy called her at home after she spoke to his class and told her that when he went to the bathroom later that day, "'I flushed the toilet and I thought of you.'"
"When you make the children laugh, you own them," said Bacon, the author "Shanghai Diary: A Young Girl's Journey From Hitler's Hate to War-Torn China." The 267-page memoir portrays the eight years Bacon spent, from about age 10 to 18, as a German Jewish refugee in Shanghai's Jewish ghetto.
"Shanghai Diary" was chosen as a Barnes & Noble "Holiday 2004 Discover Great New Writers" selection and a reading Bacon did in Denver was aired on C-SPAN. The Portland-based writer speaks Jan. 18 at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center; she is also scheduled to speak in June at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Bacon and her German Jewish parents arrived in China in May 1939 and left in August 1947, boarding a U.S. troop ship headed for America. "Shanghai Diary" is not about Dachau or other Holocaust flashpoints, but instead it's a story of a young Jewish girl fleeing Nazis; Bacon wrote it as a tough but still happy-ending alternative to the most famous diary ever written by a Jewish girl.
"A counterpart, a little bit, to 'The Diary of Anne Frank,' with a happy ending," Bacon told The Journal. One problem with many Holocaust memoirs, she said, is that they are, "awkwardly written," by people who see themselves as survivors, not authors.
"Just because you have a story doesn't make you a storyteller," said Bacon, who made a career as a publishing consultant and ghostwriter of 20 books.
Although unsure of her exact age, Bacon believes she was born in 1929. The book's artwork shows a German passport listing her being born in 1930, but that was one of several passports her mother obtained, in which she dated her daughter's birth from between 1924 and 1932, in case Bacon needed to flee Germany on a Kindertransport train to England.
"I have seven birth certificates," Bacon said.
Written in 90 days, "Shanghai Diary" was published in 2002 and last year got a fresh 40,000 hardcover print run. Bacon said that larger East Coast publishers wanted more typical Holocaust imagery: "They wanted ovens, they wanted gas chambers."
But such things were not in Shanghai's ghetto of 20,000 European Jews. Its narrow streets teemed with disease, urine, occupying Japanese troops and colonized Chinese who viewed the powerless refugee Jews as white colonialists.
Bacon knows that her book stands apart from the Holocaust writings of Elie Wiesel and Claude Lanzmann. To quote one of her book's Chinese-English phrases, Bacon's ultimately upbeat saga is the story of "one lucky girl-child."
It is Bacon's luck that allows her to admit -- despite disease, Japanese soldiers and later American planes bombing Shanghai -- the life described in "Shanghai Diary" was difficult but not comparable to Auschwitz. Bacon makes her writing seemingly more accessible than traditional Shoah tomes dominated by gargantuan themes of evil, genocide and threadbare slivers of humanity.
The author likes to quote her father, a longtime printer and pressman. "He thought that there's a difference between tragedy and inconvenience," she said, "and he just felt we were inconvenienced. Going to Shanghai then became the inconvenience; we did not have barracks where people were pushed together. But we had all the things that you do not pack in a suitcase, and keep in your heart and your mind. I'm very grateful for the eight years there that gave us shelter from a world gone mad."
Aside from telling schoolboys about her pet cockroach, Bacon said she also tells her classroom audiences three things: "Hate and prejudice don't work, don't blame the world for who you are and what happens to you because you are your own work. And take your dream to bed with you; it'll come true."
Ursula Bacon will speak to the Friends of the Valley Cities JCC on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 7:30 p.m. at 13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. She will be appearing with screenwriter Clancy Sigal ("Frida" and "In Love and War") in a combined evening of conversation and book signing. $25. For more information, call (818) 786-6310.