Shanghai Diary

I finished reading Shanghai Diary within 24 hours of buying it. The memoir of an eleven year old girl who, in 1939, retrieves her father from the Gestapo and escapes Germany with her parents is a compelling read. In any Hollywood movie, the escape would have signalled the happy ending. However, most of the world had already closed its borders to Jewish refugees, and Ursula’s family flees to the only port open to them, Shanghai. The Pacific War is about to erupt.

The contrast between their lives in aristocratic Germany and the slums of Shanghai could not be greater. Shanghai’s streets are an open sewer piled with garbage, feces, corpses and even newborn babies thrown out with the trash. These facts are relayed simply, without bitterness or recrimination. Ursula and her family and their friends endure what we cannot imagine enduring for eight years. And she is aware that the suffering of others, those in German or Japanese concentration camps, is even worse. It’s obvious she has taken the word of her friend, Yuan Lin, to heart.

“So many people are afraid to release the pain and suffering they have experienced; to let go of the past, because that is all they believe they have.” — p 255

Ursula, who in Germany had been tutored in French and English as well as German, quickly takes to Chinese. She is curious about everything. For awhile she is able to attend a Catholic girl’s school run by French nuns. She often translates for her father’s new business where she learns a lot of interesting Chinese vocabulary from the prostitutes whose house they’re painting. She tutors a powerful Chinese general’s three concubines in English. Mostly she hangs out with her friends. They talk and dream of a future in America where they can go shopping and have picnics and go swimming like “normal” teens. And she dreams of solitude, a place to be herself alone.

Her father tells her that it is people, not events, that make a life. This is the focus of the book. The events described are terrible and yet it is the people that one remembers. There is also the idea that art and music can elevate us in any circumstances…an idea from Balzac which I’d just come across in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. “the savage has only impulse, the civilized man impulses and ideas.”

After finishing the Shanghai Diary, I was hungry for more information. Despite the title, this is a memoir not a diary. As such, the events are related in a voice tempered by time, experience and age–and with the knowledge that diaries lack, the knowledge of where the story is going . What I’d like to read now is the actual diaries. Do they exist?

I enjoy reading letters and diaries as much as I do memoirs and biographies. What I love doing most is comparing the two. I’m fascinated with the biographer’s skill in taking source material and turning it into a narrative of a life.


If you compare my WWII books to AJM’s much larger collection the idea that men’s history focuses on sweeping events, women’s, on relationships and intimate details of daily life, holds sway in our library.

  • Forbidden Diary: A Record of Wartime Internment 1941-1945. Natalie Crouter. Yay! This rare and wonderful diary is available on Google Books.
  • Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of a Housewife, 49 Nella Last. I received this from AJM for Christmas.

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