Just when you think nothing completely different can be written about the Holocaust, along comes "Ten Green Bottles," the dramatic story of a Jewish family during World War II that uniquely combines "Schindler's List," with Gus Lee's Chinese family memoir, "Chasing Hepburn."
It's not just the dual settings that remind one of those two books, however. Author Vivian Jeanette Kaplan uses novelistic techniques in fashioning her family memoir by telling it in the first-person voice of her mother.
This blurring of nonfiction with the novelist's ability to create a scene with immediacy isn't bothersome as long as every effort is made to be true. It's interesting, though, that Thomas Keneally's "Schindler's List" was classified as a novel, as are the historical works of Michael and Jeff Shaaras, while Lee and Kaplan can be found in the nonfiction section. Perhaps family members are given more latitude than third parties who are trying to reconstruct historical events.
"Ten Green Bottles" has one other quality in common with these other works: It is a great, great book.
The story opens in 1921 as the Karpels, a close-knit religious Jewish family, are expecting the birth of a new baby. Five-year-old Gerda - nicknamed Nini - and her two older sisters finally have a baby brother. The next significant event in the family's life is the death of their father six years later, and their mother has to take over the family business of three large Vienna department stores.
Things are good for the Karpels, but they are not unconcerned about the rumblings of hate coming from Germany and the ascendance of the Nazis. Even as more Austrians align themselves with Hitler, the Karpels consider themselves Austrians and do not entertain the notion of leaving everything they had worked for behind.
Nini becomes active in anti-fascist organizations, fighting the battle of ideas as any patriotic young person would do in a society they assume would remain true to its democratic traditions.
As much as any book I've ever read, "Ten Green Bottles" explains why many so many Jews did not flee the Nazis en masse and emigrate to free societies.
First, Western nations placed strict limits on Jewish immigration; the Roosevelt Administration was particularly unhelpful. Second, the Nazis ingeniously made it difficult for them to leave, first freezing and then gradually confiscating Jewish assets. Jews faced the prospect of fleeing into an uninviting world as beggars and possibly starving. While things were bad, death camps were still unimaginable in everyone's mind - save for the evil few.
This is vividly illustrated in the heartbreaking story of the parents of Nini's fiance, who sell their ticket on what turns out to be the last boat out of Europe for a great deal of money because a last-minute obstacle makes them fear they will lose their place on the boat and their fare.
Later they, along with the principled Austrian attorney who helped the Karpels escape to Shanghai, are rounded up and never heard from again.
Once in China, the Karpels live on a subsistence level, helped by Catholic charities. Soon, however, their entrepreneurial talents serve them well in Shanghai's wide-open though unbelievably harsh marketplace. The Japanese and Chinese are already at war, but France, Germany, Britain and the United States have carved out sovereign territory in Shanghai's International Settlement.
The family is just getting back on its feet when Pearl Harbor is attacked in 1941, and the Japanese turn their attention from slaughtering Chinese to oppressing everyone. At first, however, they mostly let the refugee Jews alone, seeing them as an economic benefit - until the Nazis decide that the Shanghai Jews have foiled their plan to send them abroad to starve. Pressure from the Nazis turns the Japanese occupiers on to the economic benefits of confiscation.
While "Ten Green Bottles" - the title comes from the British Royal Navy version of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" that Nini hears working in the British concession - has a broader historical perspective than any similar story I can think of, the focus never waivers from the Karpels and their extended family.
This, however, stays a very personal story of triumph and tragedy, of heroism and perfidy, of survival and death made immediate and gripping by Kaplan's decision to tell the tale through her mother's voice.
Best of all, it is suitable for most ages; it is accessible to anyone with the reading level to appreciate "The Diary of Anne Frank." "Ten Green Bottles" is an instant classic that should make an appearance on a lot of school reading lists.