Familys life in Shanghai inspires S.F. writers teen book

Andrea Alban grew up captivated by her father’s stories about his childhood home in Jewish Shanghai, where he enjoyed eating piroshkis, borscht and traditional Chinese dumplings.

Andrea Alban’s Aunt Lily, shown in Shanghai, was the inspiration for “Anya’s War.” photos/courtesy of andrea alban

His family had fled to China from Odessa (where his mother was an opera star) and, along with his sister, Lily, he spent his formative years in Shanghai’s Jewish Quarter.

Naturally, Alban grew up transfixed by her father’s life tale. The San Francisco native says she was always enamored with the idea of a Jewish Shanghai. Now, after writing several children’s books, Alban has released “Anya’s War,” a young adult novel about life in 1937 China.

Alban is kicking off her book tour Sunday, Feb. 13 at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Wednesday, Feb. 16 at Books Inc. in San Francisco and March 13 at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley. Along with readings, she’ll present a slideshow of vintage photos and treat attendees to piroshkis with chopsticks.

Much of the story and inspiration for “Anya’s War” came from the oral histories she took from her Aunt Lily (who is 14-year-old Anya in the book) and her father (who is Anya’s brother, Georgi). The events, places and historical details they described about their lives as Jewish pre-wartime refugees are dropped in throughout Alban’s book, but the story itself is fiction.

Andrea Alban

“I used fiction to be able to weave in my own imaginings,” she explains. “I could play with the plot and characters.”

It’s a coming-of-age story that deals with universal teenage experiences — first love, generational conflicts — set against the backdrop of pre–World War II China as Nazism is spreading. Anya, who is being raised in an observant Jewish family, has to deal with prejudice, anti-Semitism and confusion about her place in the world.

“Most everyone learns about Eastern Europe during this time; this [book] is a different perspective from across the world,” Alban says. “We are all connected in some way; every culture loves its children.”

The story is told over the course of two days, beginning with Shabbat and ending with Havdallah. Alban herself says she loves the tradition of keeping Shabbat. As a longtime member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, she volunteers for the synagogue’s Caring Community, making a Shabbat meal once a month for someone who is ill, has suffered a loss or welcomed a new baby.

A pivotal piece of Anya’s story centers on a Chinese infant found on the street corner — something that actually did happen to Alban’s father, Jan, and inspired him to become a pediatrician. In 1947 he came to the United States at age 17 to attend UCLA, then went to medical school at Stanford University.

Alban was born in Baltimore, Maryland where her father was doing his residency at Johns-Hopkins Hospital. Her parents moved the family to San Francisco when she was 6 months old.

She knew she wanted to be a writer by age 6, flipping through the black card-stock pages of her aunt’s old photo albums. Aunt Lily had neatly scrawled information and locations next to the photographs in white calligraphy ink. Alban would use encyclopedias to research and learn more about her aunt’s references.

She studied rhetoric at U.C. Berkeley, then transferred to San Francisco State University to major in creative writing. During that time she met her future husband, Carl (from whom she’s since divorced), dropped out of school to raise their two children, Jake and Lily — now 20 and 12 — and began writing professionally for local newspapers. In 2007 she returned to San Francisco State and finished up her degree.

For many years, she toyed with the idea of writing about her family’s life in Shanghai. Her “more scholarly” research on the topic of the second wave of Jews who moved from Eastern Europe to Shanghai began in 1993 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley. When she started, she said it was difficult to find information, but in the last decade the volume of material has grown immensely, thanks to the memoirs of those who lived there and the recent “Jews of Shanghai” exhibit which came to San Francisco’s Presidio through the primary
sponsorship of the American Jewish Committee San Francisco Bay Area Regional Office.

Still, her story has a different edge. “To my knowledge, this is the first novel for the 12-and-up age range on this topic,” she said.

Alban originally had planned to write an adult novel, but at her editor’s suggestion she changed it — a move that opened up new doors. The book will be used in classrooms (including one in Germany) as a teaching aid. Alban also has been asked to speak at a number of book clubs and Holocaust centers.

Andrea Alban reads from “Anya’s War”
at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera; 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16 at Books Inc., 3515 California St., S.F.; and 3 p.m. March 13 at Afikomen Judaica, 3042 Claremont Ave., Berkeley. Information:

“Anya’s War” by Andrea Alban (256 pages, Feiwel & Friends, $16.99