Helmi's Shadow

A Journey of Survival From Russia to East Asia to the American West

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Pub Date 17 Aug 2021 | Archive Date 30 Jun 2022

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Helmi’s Shadow tells the sweeping true story of two Russian Jewish refugees, a mother (Rachel Koskin) and her daughter (Helmi). With determination and courage, they survived decades of hardship in the hidden corners of war-torn Asia and journeyed across the Pacific at the end of the Second World War to become United States citizens after seeking safe harbor in the unlikely Western desert town of Reno, Nevada. This compelling narrative is also a memoir, told lovingly by Helmi’s son, David, of growing up under the wings of these strong women in an unusual American family. Rachel Koskin was a middle-class Russian Jew born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1906. Ten years later, her family fled from the murderous pogroms against Jews in the Russian Empire eastward to Harbin, a Russian-controlled city within China’s borders on the harsh plain of Manchuria. Full of lively detail and the struggles of being stateless in a time of war, the narrative follows Rachel through her life in Harbin, which became a center of Russian culture in the Far East; the birth of her daughter, Helmi, in Kobe, Japan; their life together in the slums of Shanghai and back in Japan during the war, where they endured many more hardships; and their subsequent immigration to the United States.

This remarkable account uncovers a history of refugees living in war-torn China and Japan that to this day remains largely unknown. It is also a story of survival during a long period of upheaval and war—from the Russian Revolution to the Holocaust—and an intimate portrait of an American immigrant family. David reveals both the joys and tragedies he experienced growing up in a multicultural household in post–Second World War America with a Jewish mother, a live-in Russian grandmother, and a devout Irish Catholic American father.

As David develops a clearer awareness of the mysterious past lives of his mother and grandmother—and the impact of these events on his own understanding of the long-term effects of fear, trauma, and loss—he shows us that, even in times of peace and security, we are all shadows of our past, marked by our experiences, whether we choose to reveal them to others or not.

Helmi’s Shadow tells the sweeping true story of two Russian Jewish refugees, a mother (Rachel Koskin) and her daughter (Helmi). With determination and courage, they survived decades of hardship in...

Advance Praise

"Helmi's Shadow accomplishes that near-miracle of the best literature: It makes the world new. David Horgan has excavated the story of an amazing woman, his late mother, with such rigor and insight that her personal journey becomes a way for the reader to re-see 20th-century global convulsions, and experience them in an intimate and sensory way. This beautifully written, riveting account is a treasure and an illumination." —Dierdre McNamer, author of Red Rover

“This is a story that might have been lost about a woman who might have been lost. It is the double account of a life lived through statelessness and war and of the detective work it took to retrieve that life. David Horgan skillfully weaves together a family saga that runs from the Pale of Settlement to Reno, Nevada, and an account of his own journey back from Reno to Russia, Shanghai, and Kobe, Japan. The elements of his story are at once the episodes that make up his mother’s life and a mini-history of the 20th century. Unraveling one life, Helmi’s Shadow finds a thread that takes it across half the globe.” —Michael North, professor of English, UCLA,  author of Reading 1922 and Camera Works

 "Helmi’s Shadow is a vivid family narrative that illuminates large historical issues, beginning with pogroms in Tsarist Russia, continuing with a series of exile experiences in China and Japan, and culminating in the simultaneously upraising and uprooting experience of immigrant life in post-World War II America. David Horgan has written a mighty book on a mighty theme." —Richard Drake, Lucile Speer Research Chair in politics and history, University of Montana

"The story is gripping, and Horgan is an outstanding writer. Given that so much of the literature on Jews in Shanghai is devoted to the refugee community that arrived between 1937 to 1941, the history of the Russian Jews is still, for the large part, overlooked and unknown. Moreover, the depiction of the lives of two Russian Jews living in Kobe, Japan during the Second World War adds to our knowledge of Jews in Asia. I would recommend this book in a heartbeat." —Kevin Ostoyich, professor of history, Valparaiso University

"Helmi's Shadow accomplishes that near-miracle of the best literature: It makes the world new. David Horgan has excavated the story of an amazing woman, his late mother, with such rigor and insight...

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Featured Reviews

I couldn't put it down and read all through the night. If you have an interest in Jewish history, particularly as it played out during WW2 in China and Japan, then you'll eagerly get caught up in Horgan's family story. It's readable, well-researched, and quite unique. I hope it will gain wide readership.

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Helmi's Shadow by David Horgan (Helmi's son) is an intriguing and unusual biography about a period and places little known to Americans. Helmi is a Russian Jew who flees east from the Nazis with her mother, Rachel, first to Shanghai and then to Kobe, Japan in the hopes that they can escape the pogroms of the Nazis. Hard workers, they run a boardinghouse that barely manages to keep them in basic necessities. At the same time, Helmi goes to school and distinguishes herself as an excellent student.

In Kobe, Helmi meets a GI from Reno, Nevada, and with his help, she later moves to America to marry him and start a family. Eventually, Rachel also goes to the US, and a seminal part of the book is Rachel's psychotic episodes brought on by the PTSD of anti-semitism and the terror of abuse. Rachel is tied to Judaism; Helmi, on the other hand, is not religious, and is a disinterested secular Jew. The family she marries into is strongly and dominantly Catholic, and the subsequent contrasts and conflicts that arise are well drawn.

Helmi's Shadow is the best kind of biography; Horgan's connection to his subject matter is quiet but unwavering, and he tells the story of his mother and grandmother with clarity and emotional balance. The book is hard to put down, and it is historically accurate and riveting in the way that only a completely comprehensive and unusual family story can be. Helmi's Shadow is highly recommended and will appeal to all kinds of readers.

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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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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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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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