Ten Green Bottles

The Book of the Week is “Ten Green Bottles, The True Story of One Family’s Journey From War-Torn Austria to the Ghettos of Shanghai” by Vivian Jeanette Kaplan, published in 2002. The author was actually the writer of the story of her mother, Nini.

The story started in Vienna in 1921, when the five-year old Nini, her thirteen-year old sister Erna, ten-year old sister Stella, and newborn brother Willi, began to mourn the loss of their father, the owner of dry goods stores. Their mother then had to run the business. They continued to enjoy the benefits of growing up in a wealthy Jewish family, with lessons in piano, violin, skiing, skating and French. They went to the opera and belonged to a synagogue.

However, beginning in 1933, the Social Democratic state of Austria  was occupied by German anti-Semitic Fascist agitators called Nazis. Nini attended rallies that defended the political status quo, to no avail.

Nini’s uncles and aunts were naively optimistic, rationalizing that eventually, the oppressive conditions would go away when Austria’s leadership changed. The Nazis brainwashed non-Jewish Austrians into believing that the Jews were to blame for the country’s problems, as it was clear that the Jews had conspiratorially amassed power and wealth. Jews were beaten in the streets, had their jobs, assets and civil rights stripped from them by the Nazis.

As the months passed, the Murphy’s Law variant, “Nothing is ever so bad that it can’t get worse” applied to Nini’s family and her new Polish boyfriend– who encountered Mussolini’s wrath when he went to visit relatives in Milan.

As is well known, Austria was annexed to Germany in spring 1938. Nini’s family hired a Jewish attorney to help them procure documentation that allowed them to flee to Shanghai. Nini’s family’s new home was not much better than the old one. Just different. The Japanese were oppressing the Chinese, Nazi-style. The Jews weren’t being treated significantly better, either.

Eventually, Nini’s kin found their way into communities of people of their own kind (Jewish) who rebuilt their lives and again prospered. Poldi fit right in, as he had a knack for bartering on the black market. Even under occupation, they re-created civilization– starting small businesses like coffeehouses, a school, a chamber orchestra, and a movie theater that screened old Hollywood movies. They secretly got access to shortwave radios so they could hear war news from Europe and the Pacific.

Nevertheless, Hitler’s persecution machine learned of the Jews’ new-found happiness and put the kibosh on it by having the Japanese herd them into ghettos in spring 1942. So their fortunes changed again.

Read the book to learn of Nini’s and her people’s postwar fate, considering that the reputation of “… the new State of Israel was rumored to be a hostile desert in the Middle East where thousands of Arabs angrily resist the arrival of Jews.”