Cover Image: Helmi's Shadow

Helmi's Shadow

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This is a different read for me. As a biography, the author is Helmi’s son, you will be exposed to an accurate depiction of Rachel and Helmi (mother and daughter) and all they endured. While a biography, you will gain much more than the facts of their story. The trials these women experienced as refugees as they fled from Russia to Asia and then America will astound you.

Thank you to NetGalley and University of Nevada Press for my advanced review copy. All opinions and thoughts are my own.

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This is a biography of a mother by her son. It spans over 90 years - the most interesting and exciting we’re the war years in Russia, China and especially the final year of World War II in Japan. Once Helmi has arrived in the United States the story becomes more of a personal tribute from a loving son.

I received a free copy of this book for my honest voluntary review from NetGalley. Overall the story focuses on the abject poverty and prejudice Helmi faced as a Jewish child in 1930s Russia and then in WWII Southeast Asia. Once in America, her Jewishness was only a problem in dealing with the Catholic Church during her first marriage. 

The book is long and at times it  strays off focus. By the final pages, it seems as though the author wants to include every bit of information he has collected making the need for some editing apparent. In the end, this is a sweet tribute from a lovingj son.
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This book was an interesting read about women fleeing during World War 2. I was kept on my toes about what would happen next. The characters kept my attention and I grew attached to these characters. Definitely need to read if you enjoy historical reads.
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I wish to thank NetGalley and The University of Nevada Press for allowing me to read an advanced copy of this book.  I have voluntarily read and reviewed it.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.

This is a story unlike any I have read before.  I have spent a lot of time reading WWII novels but none that can compare to this one.  The point of view is totally different and I learned so much from following these refugees as they escape Russia and are welcomed into China.  When they did so they no longer had Russian citizenship and are not granted Chinese or later Japanese citizenships.  They were people without a country.  Helmi is born in China.  She later goes to Singapore and then on to Japan where she goes to school, studies hard, and masters many languages.  With these skills she is able to go to get college scholarships and realizes her dream of coming to America.  She reconnects with a soldier she met in Japan and marries him.  The soldier lived in Reno Nevada.  Finally she is able to move her mother and other family to America as well.  The story is told by her Grandson with great detail, photographs and memories that make the story into one I really enjoyed.

I strongly recommend this as a way to learn a different point of view of history and life and struggles for refugees in China, Japan and later USA.  The women in the story have amazing courage and strength although Helmi is the strongest as she is always looking forward and Rachel, her mother, is looking back.
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Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Helmi’s Shadow is the true story of Helmi and her mother Rachel, two Russian Jewish women who find themselves stateless at the end of World War II.  The story is told by Helmi’s son, David, who does a wonderful job of explaining the exodus of Russian Jews to Asia.  Harbin, Japan and Shanghai, China were havens for those escaping Russia’s poverty, oppression and imperial manifestos.  

Rachel comes from a middle-class family of Russian Jews in Odessa, Ukraine.  Her parents decide to relocate their family to Harbin, which is controlled by Russia but located in Manchuria, China.  From there, Rachel ventures to Kobe, Japan where her daughter Helmi is born.  Together the two endured being stateless in war-torn countries that were not their own.  At one point, Helmi had an opportunity to come to the U.S., but that would mean leaving her mother behind.  The feelings and emotions conveyed during Helmi’s decision-making process were intense.  Eventually, the two finally find a safe harbor in Reno, Nevada.

This memoir shows the hidden reserves of fortitude and resourcefulness of these two women, who couldn’t be more different in some ways.  For all their shared experiences, Rachel didn’t seem to be able to let go of the past, while  Helmi had a way of always looking forward rather than back.   This is one of the most engaging and interesting books I have read in quite a while, and I enjoyed it immensely.
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Out of respect for the author and his family, I laud their willingness and effort to put this personal account on the record. I think it would be a very useful reference for understanding the nature and history of pogroms, antisemitism, and the long trail of harm inflicted on the human condition.

That said, I found the title intriguing, but the material inside much less so. I would not recommend this book for publication without further proofing, at least, along with editing to give it greater depth and shape an arc for the story being told. The flow was mostly linear, which is understandable in such an account, yet it clouded my grasp of the larger story, eg: each time a certain location was described. I would like to see text added to add context to the scenes taking place at each mention. Helmi's character developed over the arc of the story, but I didn't find that with the other figures. Despite the intense suffering these people endured, I found it hard to identify or empathize with them. 

To me, Helmi's Shadow read more like a textbook than an engaging work of storytelling.
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An absolutely beautiful story of the travels of Jewish Russians that escape the country and eventually find their way to America. Helmi and her family carry so much strength involved through so many trials through several countries. I feel this was wonderfully written from the historical aspect and emotionally had kept you entwined through every hill and valley of the journey.
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Superb biography of the author’s mother and grandmother, two Russian Jewish refugees, whose incredible life stories encompassed countries and continents, until they finally found safe haven in America. It's an amazing story, brilliantly narrated here with insight and empathy, historically accurate and deeply moving, with both women coming to life on the page. Their odyssey is emblematic of so many refugees and displaced persons over the tumultuous 20th century, and there’s an added poignancy reading this during the current (March 2022) war in Ukraine, when once again so many are having to flee their homes with an uncertain future ahead of them.
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This is a story written by the son/grandson documenting the lives of his mother and grandmother in their journey across east Asia and eventual to the United States to seek refuge from the antisemitic and dangerous societal ideologies in Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century. The story is interesting and peppered with historical pictures and data to give both context and to show the extensive understanding and research the author took on throughout this book. This is an excellent book for more background information about WWII as well as the current events in East Asia and around the world today.
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There are quite a lot of book around that tell of life in Japan during WW2, but most are written by Westerners caught up in it either as prisoners of war/internees. This book gives a different viewpoint, that of a stateless Jewish woman, born in Japan to a Russian mother, who spent most of her childhood in Shanghai before moving to Japan and eventually settling in the USA.  
Helmi quickly built a life in the USA, and never wanted to speak of the past. Rachel never quite let go the horrors of the past - plagued by nightmares she was often in a state of anxiety and loud noises startled her. 
It is always hard to review books like this, as ultimately it is a personal story, but the author writes well and helps to bring places and people to life, but Helmi’s unwillingness to speak of the past & Rachel’s struggles meant that the first-hand material was limited. However, he’s done well with what he has and I appreciated this insight into his family history and gained a new understanding of pre-war China and a perspective that is rarely heard. It’s not a book that has significant historic research, or one with an intriguing or exciting story but I did find it interesting to tell the story of the early 20th Century from “the other side”. Ultimately it is a book written by a grandson, telling his family’s story 
“This is an intimate story about my family, not a scholarly history. Nevertheless, I have made every effort to describe events, places, and people as accurately as possible. My intent is to create a portrait of the highly unusual lives of my mother and grandmother, set against some of the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century.” - Helmi’s Shadow by David Horgan
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The story of Rachel and Helmi, told by her grandson, is like no other Jewish story I have read. I especially like that David would go back to his grandmother to get as much history from her to create an well rounded story. 
In all honesty, there was too much history information to take in and I will have to re-read it to understand the politics of that time. That is in no way the fault of the book and more on my own historical ignorance.
That being said, I would definitely recommend this book for someone seeking an in-depth story of refugees seeking asylum and the life that comes after.
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I am not a fan of biographies, however, I loved this one! David Horgan is the son of Helmi of “Helmi’s Shadow” and defines the book as follows:

“This is an intimate story about my family, not a scholarly history. Nevertheless, I have made every effort to describe events, places, and people as accurately as possible. My intent is to create a portrait of the highly unusual lives of my mother and grandmother, set against some of the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century.” - Helmi’s Shadow by David Horgan

Essentially, yes, the book is exactly that but there is another dimension, harder to verbalise, that transcends this. The historical settings are hugely educational, but equally heartbreaking. The humanisation of the traumas, layer upon layer, year after year, are deeply relatable in the tumultuous 2020/21 season we’re in now. The assumptions made about Rachel and Helmi by others highlight our unconscious biases and how they work against us all. All of this is heavy. In amongst it though, as is often in life, are the lighthearted anecdotes, the friendships formed and the joyous moments.

Rachel, at the beginning, is described by her grandson as being all things peculiar. As he reflects on her life, escaping the persecution of Jews firstly in Russia and then from the Nazis, fleeing to in a part of China which subsequently fell to Japan and then was bombed as WWII closed out, my mind boggled at how such horrors were endured. It’s astonishing she kept it all together for as long as she did! Dementia is what finally results in her becoming the unravelled grandmother. I can’t imagine believing you were back in those times. But through all this, you have to admire her endurance, she just keeps on keeping on!

Helmi also has an endurance that is amazing but she is a spunky, modern woman who defines herself, engages with opportunities and takes risks such as moving round the world to America. She fulfills her dreams and raises her sons to appreciate the life they have growing up whilst sheltering them from the pain and suffering she and her mother went through. It’s only in her later years David convinces her to share what she went through and it’s those discussions which are distilled into this book.

So, yes, it’s a biography on two phenomenon lives. But it’s also a history lesson on all the parts of war that are “off-stage”, the pieces not covered in the history books of what fleeing or becoming a refugee or a stateless person actually looks and feels like. It’s hugely moving and a reminder of why we can never forget the importance of pushing back against religious, racial and cultural bias. I highly recommend it, it’s a four out five on the enJOYment scale.

I received a complimentary copy of the book from University of Nevada Press through NetGalley. The opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
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Helmi’s Shadow is a fantastic read. She and her mother’s experiences as Jewish refugees in both Japan and China through the 1920s-1940s, eventually ending up in Reno, Nevada, made engrossing reading. I Learned some new info about how they were treated in Japan, thst I hadn’t read before. I find these stories so interesting and am delighted to have an opportunity to read it.
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I am intrigued by real life stories, however I was not by this book. The story was more suited for the family of Helmii, perhaps as a diary, instead of writing a book for general readers.  Following the family’s moves to various countries was hard to follow. The details of her life were not intriguing or exciting. I would not recommend this book if you want to read a story of one’s family for enjoyment.
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This biography will leave you with your mouth agape at all the misery, terror, and hardship  a refugee often endures.  Fleeing from one nightmare after another, such as, Russian Pograms, Japanese takeovers, World War II; how does one survive?!  Would the steady die-hard survival tactics of two amazingly couageous, Jewish, or part Jewish, women be enough?  Will there be any miracle-like escapes?  Find out as you travel with Rachel and Helmi through one ordeal after another.

                                                    ~Eunice C., Reviewer/Blogger~

                                                                  August 2021

Disclaimer:  This is my honest opinion based on the review copy given by the publisher.

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I couldn't get into this book. Finally after setting it aside for awhile at 18% in I decided I should just review what I had read so far. Written okay, wanted to get into it, but couldn't. Not my cup of tea. Thanks for the opportunity.
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Horgan's memoir of his mother's life is a page-turner and not easy to put down until finished. The memoir is an epic, following the flight of Helmi's mother, a Jewess, from Russia to Asia. Helmi, born in Japan, knows hard life in China until adulthood, living through war, hunger, and poverty. Her beauty and intelligence lift her out of this world, however ,into another world.  Her past, though, remains private, and here we have the results of Horgan's search for his mother's and his past.
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Many thanks to Netgalley for the digital Arc. 
This book was really amazing, a unique insight well written and thought provoking.
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This is truly one of the most remarkable non-fiction books I have ever encountered. It was meticulously researched and documented by Helmi's son which added a personal perspective that enhanced it. It tells the tale of two Russian Jewish women who flee Russia during the pogroms and move to a Russian controlled city in China. They later had to flee to Japan and and then Shanghai, Japan and finally the US. All this time they were considered stateless and at the mercy of all of these warring countries.I did find the beginning hard to get into but once it clicked I couldn"t put it down. It wasn't as easy story to have lived but it was told with a depth and grace that surprised me and kept me intrigued.
Thanks to Netgalley, The publisher and the author for the chance to read this ARC. 5*
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Rachel and her family were Jews in Odessa who fled from pogroms to Harbin, China. Harbin? That’s where Chinese figure skaters train. A large community of Jews sought refuge there. In doing so, they were stripped of citizenship. Rachel met a Finnish pearl trader, Edward Koskin, and followed him to Kobe, Japan. They never married, but had a daughter Helmi. As the daughter of foreigners, Helmi didn’t receive Japanese citizenship. She too was stateless. Edward soon died. Rachel took her daughter back to her family in China, now in Shanghai.  Unhappy at being dependent on her family, Rachel followed another man back to Japan. He soon disappeared, and Rachel and Helmi lived in Japan during WWII. After the war, Helmi worked for the American occupation forces, and to emigrated to the US. In Reno, Nevada, she found a comfortable, carefree life she’d never known. Rachel joined Helmi a few years later, always paranoid and jumpy, but pleased to be in the land of freedom. 
This is an incredible story. I’d heard of Jews going to Shanghai in desperation when no one else granted them refuge from the Nazis. They were allowed in, but lived in squalor. Some, like Helmi’s cousin Olga, married wealthy foreigners and lived in luxury until the war began. Japan, too, allowed Jews in and left them pretty much alone. Their German allies wanted them to turn over their Jews, but the Japanese were disinclined to.
I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
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