Wednesday, December 17, 2014

With Fearful Bravery by Lynne Kositsky

Kositsky's well written novel tells the story of a young Jewish girl's struggle to survive in Shanghai, China after her family flees from the Nazi terror in Germany and she takes responsibility for herself and her younger sister after they are abandoned by their mother.


Kositsky is one of several Canadian women authors who have penned quality historical fiction for young readers. It is 1939 and Freda Isen, her younger sister Lotty, their Mameh and friendly elderly lady, Frau Gold, are at the port of Genoa, Italy trying to obtain passage on the ship, the Conte Biancamano, bound for Shanghai, China. They have tickets for the ship, Julio Cesare which will arrive in a month, but Freda's Mameh is desperate to leave Genoa as soon as possible since the port of Shanghai may not be open to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe much longer.

Freda's mother paints her face, puts on her high heels and silk stockings and manages to charm her way onto the Biancamano. On the ship Freda becomes very ill, developing a bad cough.  She dreams about her Tateh who was a clockmaker in Berlin until the Nazi's forced him to close his shop and eventually forced their way into their home and took him away.

In the port of Shanghai, the nurse is furious that Freda is so sick and she is taken off the ship to the hospital while Mameh, Lotty and New Oma are sent to the heim, a large building into which the Jewish refugees are crammed. In the hospital, Freda receives shots of sulfa (antibiotics) to fight her pneumonia and visits from Mameh who is well dressed and looking for work so that they can move out of the filthy heim. Mameh treats Freda harshly and accuses her of deliberately getting sick. While in the hospital, Freda meets Yoshi a young Jewish boy who was sent by his family to a yeshiva but whose entire family is now missing. They also learn that Hitler has invaded Poland and that now Britain is at war with Germany.

When Freda recovers she goes to live in the heim with her family and discovers it is cramped and smelly, overrun with bedbugs and spiders. Freda shares a cot with Mameh who has found a job working at night and although Freda has no idea what her mother's job entails she begins to suspect it is something immoral. Freda begins to attend a school for the Jewish children in the heim. It is there that she meets Gertrude, who hates her name and decides to call herself, Izo for Isobelle. Freda loves school and soon is the top student.  Freda finds that the shortage of good food and being able to take a hot bath only once a month makes life challenging in the heim. Although Mameh saves money she wants Freda to quit school and to come to work at the Green Lily Cafe where she is paid to dance with men. Freda is horrified and tells Mameh what she does sounds like prostitution and even worse since she is a married woman. Shortly after this the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and then take over Shanghai. Soon American is drawn into the war with both Japan and Germany.

One day in 1943, Freda awakens to find that her Mameh has not returned. After seven days it becomes apparent that Mameh has left and will not be returning. Stunned that her mother would abandon them and realizing that she planned this, Freda knows she now must quit school and find work. Freda must find the strength to put aside her plans to work towards her international baccalaureate and work to support her family, while hanging onto the hope that Tateh will someday join them.


Kositsky has created a irrepressible heroine in Freda Isen, a young girl forced into adulthood early due to her mother's self-centered behaviour while capturing the trials of life as a Jewish refugee in China. Freda transforms from an innocent eleven year old at the beginning of the novel into a mature, responsible seventeen year old who eventually has the opportunity to emigrate to Canada. When her mother disappears Freda finds herself "so stupefied by her behaviour  that I can't sleep and can hardly get out of bed." Unable to find work, she ends up working at the same cafe as her mother, serving tables, greeting customers and dancing with men who have paid for a ticket to do so. Freda, who was critical and unforgiving towards her mother when she worked the the Green Lily Cafe, now finds herself in the same predicament. Gradually, she begins to understand what her Mameh endured. "I see now that the nasty odours she brought home likely originated with her sweaty customers." And as she comes to understand the weight of the responsibility Mameh bore, Freda states, "I'm beginning, despite the ever present tangle of anger in my gut, to feel a dark, disturbing sympathy for her." Later on when Freda begins accepting gifts from a childhood friend, her behaviour brings back memories of how much she is like Mameh. "The truth is that the costly and opulent gifts have begun to excite me, just as they did Mameh...I remember swearing I'd never be like her, but when I murmur the words costly, fabulous, and opulent to myself, they roll over my tongue like sweet wine..."

Freda's past also catches up with her in Shanghai with the appearance of her childhood friend, Hans, now a handsome man and a Nazi soldier. Freda and Hans were best friends until she was eight years old and his father forbade him from talking to her because she was Jewish. Freda encounters Hans as a customer at the Green Lily Cafe and soon they develop a deepening friendship. However, Freda feels intensely conflicted over this relationship; she craves the attention and loves the money and gifts he lavishes on her but she also realizes that he represents an terrible evil. Leila, another Jewish refugee who works at the cafe warns Freda about Hans. But Hans tells Freda that he will come every day as a sort of protector to her and a benefactor, even though outwardly she doesn't want him to. However, inside Freda "desperately want(s) him to be my best friend again. If he were interested in a closer relationship, he could mean even more to me." Hans begins to win out against Freda's better judgement. "He's extremely generous, and that pits me against my better self...I continue to participate even though the swastikas on the backs of the coins disgust me, convincing myself that I'm acting charitably...Although I demurred at first, wouldn't accept what he offered, after a while I couldn't help but be charmed." Eventually though, Freda comes to see what Hans is really after and when he does not get what he wants, he disappears, leaving her feeling ashamed and depressed.

Told from Freda's point of view, Kositsky  has structured her novel into seven parts, for each of the years of the war from 1939 to 1945, given each the title of the Chinese Zodiac. Not many young readers will be aware that many European Jews fled east to China and Japan and then overseas to the United States or Canada. Although Japan was Germany's ally during the Second World War, the Japanese did not share the German's desire to build gas chambers for them.

Kositsky manages to vividly portray life Shanghai for the Jewish refugees with great attention to detail in the heim as well as in Shanghai itself.

Overall, With Fearful Bravery is a touching and riveting story that brings to life a little known aspect of World War II and the Jewish experience outside of Europe during this time.

Book Details:
With Fearful Bravery by Lynne Kositsky
Dancing Cat Books    2014
184 pp.

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