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TSM 17-10 Hiding in a Cave of Trunks: Internment in a WWII POW Camp with Ester Shifren

Their Story Matters with Sara Troy and her guest Ester Benjamin Shifren, on air from March 7th

Hiding in a Cave of Trunks: A Prominent Jewish Family’s Century in Shanghai and Internment in a WWII POW camp. Against an impressive historical background, China-born Ester Benjamin Shifren relates the saga of her family’s century-long existence in Shanghai, the city often referred to as “The Paris of the East,” and details the culture and tribulations of the colorful multi-ethnic population. In the early1840s a vessel brought the Benjamins from India to Shanghai, where they prospered for five generations. Some members of the family achieved high-level diplomatic positions. Owners of prize-winning horses, the family even conducted business at the race- track, sometimes on a handshake! World War II abruptly terminated their privileged lifestyle. In 1943, the Japanese interned the Benjamins for three years in a POW camp. Along with other internees, they endured great hardship and loss of all worldly possessions. In 1948, shortly before the Communist takeover, the Benjamins relocated to Hong Kong, where the ensuing Korean War embargo eventually caused their irreparable financial collapse. In 1951 the family immigrated to Israel. Ester served two years in the army, married a South African in 1957, and spent thirty-six years in South Africa. After spending five years in Canada Ester immigrated to the USA in 1997 and now lives in Los Angeles, California. Ester Benjamin Shifren is an author, artist, musician, and dynamic international speaker. In 2005, in England, she was featured in the BBC1 program “We’ll Meet Again,” and was a guest lecturer for several days at the Imperial War Museum.


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How life changed overnight, and more, of which I’ll speak. So recently from China, with little to our name, Depleted of well-being—the enemy had no shame! First, Israel and tented, then moving to a hut, So many people idle, most doors to work were shut. New roofs of tin still missing, our ceilings were just wood, A Heavy rain fell early—we did all that we could! Pouring in it drenched us, some neighbors from a tent Piled in—that day all old umbrellas were truly heaven sent! Some songs we sang in English were mimicked, hardly fun… We all spoke different languages in 1951! The army came to help us, we needed tons of aid! The government took note, and important changes made. More or less a year went by, we got the tiniest place On roof top of a building, the view its saving grace. We bartered our possessions to pay the purchase price, We traded fridge for icebox, and daily purchased ice From vendor (horse and buggy!)—who shouted out his wares! We heaved ice block, both up and down, more than one hundred stairs! But we were young and healthy, and never said a word, Just happy to have shelter, and freedom of a bird. The next best thing to being like birds that at our level flew, Was being at top of mountain with the most breathtaking view! And soon we started working, in different styles and ways, And started feeling better with how we spent our days. And now I think I’ll end this piece of memoir that’s in rhyme, And leave continuation for another day and time.



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