Reviewing Isaac Shapiro’s ‘Edokko’

If you think you’ve heard everything about what happened to our fellow Jews in those dark years of the 1930s and World War II, please think again. I learned a great deal from a 202-page paperback autobiography that tells the tale of an incredible life lived in Japan.
Isaac (“Ike”) Shapiro’s autobiography is called “Edokko,” a word denoting someone who has lived an entire lifetime in Japan, preferably representing at least the third generation of a family. But the book’s subtitle clarifies his status: “Growing up a Stateless Foreigner in Wartime Japan.” How could such a thing be?
The author’s forebears might well be the perfect examples of the proverbial “Wandering Jews.” The families of his parents, Constantine Shapiro of Moscow and Lydia Chernetsky of Odessa, fled the pogroms of Russia. The Chernetskys ended up in Harbin, China, in 1905, while the Shapiros settled in Japan after the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Constantine and Lydia, both professional musicians, met and married in Berlin, then left Germany. They tried, unsuccessfully, to make a decent living by playing with orchestras and giving private lessons in both Palestine and China, before giving up and joining Constantine’s parents in Japan. That’s where Isaac was born in January 1931, the fourth of four boys — twins among them.
It was not a peaceful life, especially as the parents separated just six months after their youngest son’s birth. His mother returned to Harbin, China, to live with her now-widowed father.
According to the author, “As far as any of us knew, there never was ‘another woman’…all we knew was that in July 1931, at the age of 25, she decided to leave Papa; she found herself married to a man who had taken her to live in far-off places, and who appeared unable to earn enough money to provide for his family.”
Of course, the boys went with her. “Being only six months old at the time, I have no memory of our taking leave of Papa or Japan,” Shapiro wrote, “so that when we returned there in June 1936, when I was five, it was like a first encounter.” And, in 1939, Isaac became a big brother when his mother gave birth to a fifth son.
Shapiro had a classical education at the Yokohama International School, and was a quick study of required languages, including French and English. But it was his fluency in Japanese that determined the course of his life. He absorbed all the history being lived at that time: Hitler’s “non-aggression” pact with Russia, all the invasions and occupations of European countries that triggered World War II. However, he recalled that “The coming of the war with the United States and its allies was a slow but steady tidal wave…Japan was now allied with Hitler, and we feared that the Japanese would develop a more hostile attitude toward foreigners who were neither Italian or German, and — in particular — toward Jews.”
The Shapiro family learned from German-Jewish refugees arriving in Japan about the new racial laws of Nazi-occupied Germany, but not at that early time about the extermination camps.
What happened next proves Mark Twain’s wisdom: Truth is always stranger than fiction because fiction must look to what’s possible, but truth can turn the impossible into the possible.
The Shapiro family lived through all the Allied bombings and, with Japan’s occupation, young Isaac was taken under the wing of American Marines, who offered him work as an interpreter. This led to his move with to the United States at age 15 under a protective mentor, to graduation from Columbia University and its law school, to serving in the U.S. Army, and to becoming an American citizen. Today, Shapiro is recognized as a premier international attorney, with offices in the United States and Europe.
The only thing more remarkable than Shapiro’s life story is his incredible memory for detail. The “bite” I’ve given you here is just an appetizer to an amazingly satisfying full meal.
Issac Shapiro’s “Edokko: Growing Up a Foreigner in Wartime Japan” is available on Amazon.

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