Anne Brodofsky in Shanghai in the 1920s
Anne Brodofsky in Shanghai in the 1920s

Treasured letters recall Berkeley 99-year-old’s adventurous aunt

“I had a talk with a few people the other night, who have the stupid attitude of hate towards the Arabs and think of the Jew only in terms of the highest eulogy. I told them that because we criticized, they had no reason to assume that we were disloyal Jews. (That seems to be their attitude.) But that it was because we cared terribly that something fine should come of Palestine.”

The young woman from San Francisco who wrote those words in 1934 — in a letter home from pre-state Israel — was 36 and already a world traveler.

Anne Brodofsky, born in 1898, left her family behind in 1924 to see the world. She taught in Shanghai, traveled through Europe and Japan, and ventured to Palestine.

And all along, she wrote reams of letters to her beloved family. The 1934 letter is one of a trove of documents and photos that Berkeley resident Marion “Mickey” Shapiro, 99, has kept as remnants of a political and social world that has long vanished — and as treasured relics of the adventures of a dear aunt.

Marion "Mickey" Shapiro looking at documents from Anne’s letters and photos (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
Marion “Mickey” Shapiro looking at documents from Anne’s letters and photos (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

“My mother held her up,” Shapiro said. “She was a model. I should model myself after my Aunt Anne.”

Anne Brodofsky’s parents immigrated from Lithuania, first to rural Canada and then, after an older daughter married, to San Francisco. Anne and her brothers and sisters were brought up in a warm, tightly knit family. Their mother saved money so Anne — the baby of the working-class Brodofsky clan — could go to college, though her father was skeptical.

“My grandfather said, what does a maidel [girl] want in college?” Shapiro said with a laugh.

Brodofsky graduated from UC Berkeley, but she had a travel itch to scratch, with no funds to do it. “With some girlfriends, they decided that they were going to go around the world,” Shapiro said. “But they would have to work.”

Brodofsky and her friend Grace set sail for Japan in 1924. They arrived soon after the devastating 1923 earthquake and tsunami, and were eyewitnesses to the aftermath. From there, they went to Shanghai, where Brodofsky taught English at Kwang Hua University.

She ended up staying nine years, a span that covered the tumultuous events surrounding the birth of the Republic of China, the rise of the Communist Party and the government of Chiang Kai-shek, all of which she described in vivid letters home that were typed up and put into binders by her sister Belle for safekeeping.

“Schools are closed; thousands of Chinese workers in ships and factories are on strike; Chinese shops are closed in protest over the shooting of several students …. the city is under martial law and foreign destroyers are in the harbor and landing men to maintain order,” she wrote in 1925. “Could any venturesome being wish for greater thrills?”

As a teacher, she engaged with her students, argued politics, and in her letters discussed everything from news reports about Hitler to the disgusting nature of racism. “She was very astute,” Mickey’s daughter Tobie Shapiro said. “Really insightful.”

“The tremendous power for good that is in the hands of the Chinese students and from which everything is to be hoped for China, may certainly come to naught if guided by Soviet theories,” Brodofsky wrote in 1925. “And that’s the tragedy that always lies before a country, whose government is controlled by so many outside influences.”

Anne's photos and letters, typed by her sister Belle (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
Anne’s photos and letters, typed by her sister Belle (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

Brodofsky changed her last name to Bradley — not to hide her Jewish heritage but to avoid being taken for a Russian agitator. But the letters weren’t all political. Anne also talked about clothes, gossiped about her landlady and described the new and unusual foods she tried.

She inserted a recipe for curry into one of her letters, in which she also mentions a new-to-her ingredient called a prawn (“about 20 times as large as an ordinary shrimp and tastes like a lobster”).

After nine years in Shanghai, Anne was ready for something new. So in 1933 she set out for Palestine, writing: “I do not expect to find an ideal people … but I do feel that the whole experiment is fraught with such great possibilities that I want to be part of it.”

In the beginning, she was surprised at how dull it was compared to Shanghai, but slowly the beauty of the landscape and the history seduced her. As she roamed through Jerusalem and trekked through Gaza, she made trenchant observations on everything from the poverty of the Kurdish Jews to the way the British authorities “do everything (at least, that is my impression) to keep the Jews and Arabs at swords points. It is the same type of politics that you find in India.”

Her letters, as usual, always managed to inject levity, like at her failure to learn Hebrew quickly: “Of course, I always mix up Chinese and Hebrew. I started to say, ‘she went.’ I began with ta and was going on when the teachers said, ‘ma se, ta? What is ta?’”

After a year in Jerusalem, during which she did manage to learn Hebrew, Anne headed for home — but characteristically, she went the long way, meeting Grace for a trip through Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Greece, Hungary and other parts of Europe.

She came back to California in 1934, but her adventures weren’t over. Shapiro remembers one family gathering in 1945 at which Anne got an interesting call. “The phone rang and Anne was called to the phone,” she said. “And she came back and said, ‘Those damn Chinese!’”

The man on the phone was Kuo Ping-Chia, a high-ranking adviser to Chiang Kai-shek and Brodofsky’s former student from Shanghai, who was currently in San Francisco. He was calling because he wanted to marry Anne.

Kuo Ping-Chia, Anne and Anne's father
Kuo Ping-Chia, Anne and Anne’s father

“He took a class in English from my aunt,” Shapiro explained. “And he developed — this is my interpretation — a monumental crush on her.”

So serious was this crush that Kuo, who was 10 years younger than Anne, tracked her down in California and courted her assiduously. They were married in 1947.

“She didn’t know what her father would think of this interracial marriage,” Shapiro said.

But the family loved the tall, handsome, Harvard-educated Kuo, a diplomat and academic. En masse, they accompanied Anne and Kuo to Mexico for the wedding, as under anti-miscegenation laws the couple could not legally marry in the U.S. at that time.

The remainder of Anne’s life was spent in the U.S. She and Kuo tried poultry farming in Northern California (the local industry was known for being a Jewish one) then reverted to academic life in Illinois. But even in America, for Anne, who spoke Mandarin, the influence of her Shanghai years was clear.

“She would say sometimes, ‘we Chinese,’” Shapiro said with a laugh. “But she was very Jewish.”

Anne lived to be 104 and passed away in 2002, two years before her husband. But her words live on in the cardboard boxes that hold the treasured letters and photos that Shapiro, as the last of her generation, is guarding with hopes that Anne’s keen observations will prove useful to scholars of a long-lost prewar era. As old as those words are, once the notebooks are opened, Anne’s personality and beliefs come through as strongly as ever.

“How can anyone believe that a nation will ever be rebuilt on a foundation of hatreds?” she wrote in 1933 from pre-state Israel to her family in San Francisco. “This will always be a nation of Jews and Arabs — never one or the other.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.