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Book Talk: In the Crook of the Rock by Vera Schwarcz

When: Wednesday, April 18, 7:00 p.m.
Where: Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore,  413 Main St, Middletown, CT 06457

While the history of the Jewish refugees in Shanghai during the Holocaust has already been documented in the scholarly and memoir literature, this work presents a new angle of vision that challenges and expands existing narratives. By focusing upon the life of Chaya Walkin—one little girl from a distinguished Torah lineage in Poland—this book illustrates the inner resources of the refugee community that made possible survival with dignity.

In the current geopolitical climate, there are several conflicting assertions about who saved these Jewish refugees: Japan has been laying belated claim to the legacy of Chiune Sugihara to show the benevolent face of Japan during World War II and has been amplifying this interpretation through museums dedicated to humanism in Tsuruga and in Kobe. These efforts conveniently overlook Japan’s atrocities in China and Korea during the war.  In Shanghai, the Jewish Refugees Museum has been putting forth the argument that China saved the Jews—and by implication augmenting the benevolent face of the communist regime which has inflicted so many atrocities on its own people.

This book challenges both of these perspectives by bringing to life the complexity of events in Chinese, Japanese, European and American history as an explanatory backdrop for the Walkin family’s flight from Poland to Lithuania, Japan and finally to war-torn China.

In the 21st century when the problem of refugees is starkly urgent across the globe, this inquiry also delves into “agency theory” to explore how Torah-observant Jews managed to access and augment internal resources during their flight from the Shoah. This analysis promises to enrich contemporary discourse about the autonomous capabilities of refugees for scholars and the general public alike.

Drawing upon a wide variety of sources and languages, this book is crafted around the voice of Chaya Walkin Small—who was only five years old when she was forced to flee her home in Lukatch (Poland) and to start the terrifying journey to Vilna, Kobe and Shanghai. A seasoned woman and community leader now looks back upon the war years with artful, honest and broadminded reflections that are woven into this narrative, which departs from the paradigm of conventional memoirs.

Vera Schwarcz, a well-known Sinologist and researcher in memory studies, has vivified and contextualized Chaya’s experiences in a way that goes beyond other studies of Holocaust survivors. Here, the reader is drawn into a global perspective upon the ravages of war that is both historical and intensely personal. Written in an accessible, vivid style, the book is developed around key passages from the Shir Ha Shirim (The Song of Songs)—an unexpected and poetic angle of vision focused upon strategies for creating meaning in times of darkness.