Review of “The Song of the Jade Lily: A Novel” by Kirsty Manning

In the 1930s, the situation for Jews living in Nazi territory became increasingly perilous, and many tried to emigrate. Most countries closed their borders to them, but Shanghai opened their doors to these desperate people without requiring a visa. Some 20,000 European Jews flooded into the city in the late 1930s.

Song of the Jade Lily is historical fiction about a Jewish family that left Vienna, Austria for Shanghai in November, 1938. Austria had been incorporated into Nazi Germany in March, 1938. Once in power, the Nazis swiftly enacted anti-Jewish legislation and policies.

This book begins on November 10, 1938 with Kristallnacht (or “Night of Broken Glass”), the name for organized terror against Jews all over Nazi-controlled areas. It was particularly brutal in Vienna, and was characterized by burning, looting, and murder. But it was the city’s Jews who were arrested for the incident; some 6,000 were deported to Dachau Concentration Camp. Those who remained knew it was time to get out while they still could, but their options were limited.

Romy Bernfeld, 12 in 1938, was living in Vienna along with her parents Marta and Oskar, and like many other Jews, suffered great personal loss during Kristallnacht. The family heard that the Chinese consulate was issuing passes, and they left for Shanghai three days later. The book then goes back and forth in time between Romy in Shanghai during the late 1930s and early 1940s, and Romy’s granddaughter Alexandra in Melbourne, Australia in 2016. Their stories are fascinating, and build upon the idea of yuanfen. As defined by an online guide to all things related to China, this is the Chinese word indicating that a person’s relationships are predestined: “Yuanfen is the fate, chance or binding force that brings . . . people or objects together.”

Back in Shanghai, the haven provided for Jews unfortunately did not last.

Soon after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and declared war on the allies, Japan occupied the city. The Japanese imposed restrictions on the Jews, and in 1943 officially established the Shanghai Ghetto, forcing most Jews to live there. The ghetto, along with the rest of Shanghai, was not officially liberated until September 3, 1945.

The Hongkou Ghetto in Shanghai; photo courtesy of The Jewish Museum of Maryland

Romy experienced a great deal of tragedy in Shanghai, but also found friendship and love that lasted beyond her subsequent exodus from China and settlement in Melbourne.

But in Melbourne, to Romy and her husband Wilhelm’s infinite sorrow, they lost their only daughter and her husband in a car crash. Alexandra, then a toddler, survived, and was raised by her grandparents.

Although Alexandra was close to her Oma and Opa, she knew little of their wartime experience.  Her transfer to Shanghai provided an opportunity to delve into her family’s past, where she discovered remarkable courage, love, and commitment in the face of unfathomable loss.

Evaluation: This is a touching story about a little known aspect of WWII. Particularly in an era when countries are once again shutting out refugees frantic to escape violence in their home countries, Manning shows us the difference made by the generosity of one nation. Manning also adeptly brings wartime Shanghai to life in a stew of flavors, scents, and teeming humanity, whose struggle for survival informed all of their days.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2019


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4 Responses to Review of “The Song of the Jade Lily: A Novel” by Kirsty Manning

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    Wow, this story is new to me. I want to get my hands on this book for sure.

  2. harvee says:

    On my TBR shelf.

  3. Mae Sander says:

    I’ve read several memoirs of survivors of the Shanghai ghetto. Some of the refugees were terribly depressed by their ordeal in escaping and losing everything they had owned, while others were fascinated and very resourceful in the way they dealt with it. I guess it was just a matter of time until it became the subject of historical fiction, as there’s lots and lots of material in the numerous cultures that came together at that time.

    best… mae at

  4. Beth F says:

    I too have this on my radar. I don’t know much about the Jewish Shanghai experience. I imagine that no matter what kind of positive spin refugees put on their experience, I’m sure they were all pretty much traumatized by their experiences, mourning the loss of their family and friends and worrying about their futures.

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