“Ten Green Bottles” by Jeanette Vivian Kaplan – a memoir of a family forced to flee by the Nazis

We fail to understand the rise of fascism unless we see how it fundamentally changed the lives of individuals. Understanding that Jewish people lost their homes and had to flee from places where previously they had been upstanding citizens and popular neighbours is one thing but reading about a particular family’s experience makes it much more real to the general reader. Ten Green Bottles by Vivian Jeanette Kaplan is the story of one Jewish family who lived in Austria and were eventually forced to flee when the Nazis implemented their race laws in the country.

The author is the daughter of Nini who is a late teenager when things begin to change. The family owns a prosperous business and she, her sisters and her mother are well established in society and have a pleasant home. As the Nazi laws comes into effect they find themselves ostracised by people who were once their friends and slowly everything they have is taken away from them – they are forced to see their business owned and run by someone else, they have to leave their home, they can no longer walk on the streets without being identified as Jews and they have no money. They want to flee Austria but it is difficult to achieve and they eventually settle for a ship to Shanghai as the only prospect.

China is being invaded by the Japanese who have the Nazis race laws out of solidarity with their ally. Things are tough among so many refugees, it is hard to get a job, their living conditions are not ideal and there is always the worry that what has happened before will happen again. Eventually the family make their move to Canada.

This is an interesting memoir because I had no idea about what happened in China and the fate of so many refugees. The author is able to tell us of people who didn’t escape and how so many really didn’t believe what was happening to them and that things could have changed so quickly. She also draws attention to those who preyed on the refugees and those who had other reasons for treating them badly. All this is encapsulated in the story of this one family.

I think that I would have preferred to read this story had it not been told as a narrative in the voice of Nini. This made it seem fictional to me when it was very obviously fact. That is just a matter of opinion, however, and the book is still powerful and interesting. The author tells only the story of this one family so if you want to read about the wider picture you will have to go elsewhere but there is certainly enough here to get you thinking about how easily fascism developed, how many willingly embraced it and the effect that it had on ordinary people.