Fourteen years ago, on his 70th birthday, designer and artist Ilie Wacs was visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. with his sister, philanthropist Deborah Strobin, and his daughters Maris and Darin. Suddenly, in a small exhibit devoted to the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, Deborah spotted a picture of one of her childhood friends; then she saw herself.
Wacs and Strobin remember their stay in Shanghai during World War II as a time when they were always hungry, and the city was overcrowded and hot in the summer. But their circumstances were considerably better than those many of their friends and relatives faced back in Vienna. Their mother’s sister, Rosa Josefberg, and most of the family died in Dachau.
Now Wacs and Strobin, 84 and 75, respectively, have written a memoir with S.J. Hodges, “An Uncommon Journey: From Vienna to Shanghai to America, A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II” (Barricade Books). The Chinese city — then occupied by Japan — was the only place in the world at the time that accepted refugees with no restrictions, and between 1938 and 1945, about 18,000 Jews lived there. Their father, Maurice, an excellent tailor who had had a thriving business in Vienna, was just able to keep the family afloat in Shanghai. When they first arrived, he didn’t have a sewing machine, but he got a commission to make a suit, which he sewed entirely by hand. “The client never knew what a work of art he had,” Ilie recalls. The fee was enough to buy a machine. Ilie, a gifted artist, worked with his father and also made a few cents by creating drawings for other children (Mickey Mouse and Daffy Duck were favorites).
When World War II ended, the family had nowhere to go. Maurice, a Romanian-born deserter from World War I, was stateless, while his wife Helen was Polish. There were many others in the same position. Charles Jordan of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee got Ilie a scholarship to study at l’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Ilie found it stuffy, so he went to the Academie Julian instead. Finally, in 1948, the U.S. passed the Displaced Persons Act, agreeing to take in hundreds of thousands of the stateless, and the Wacs family headed there. Ilie found a job as a sketch artist for the suit house Philip Mangone, then went to work as a designer at Seymour Fox and later as the head designer at Originala. Next, he started a business of clean-cut sportswear under his own name; he was noted for his great coats. By the late Sixties, Ilie had become a well-known designer and WWD, along with Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, featured his tailored designs on a regular basis.
“Even during a world war, you need a tailor,” he says. One advantage of his background, he notes, is that, “A patternmaker couldn’t tell me that something couldn’t be done when I knew it could.” As for Shanghai, “In retrospect, it wasn’t bad living in a culture that was totally alien to us. We came there with only the clothes on our backs.” Permits to leave the ghetto for work or for other reasons were given out by a sadistic, erratic official called Kano Ghoya, who would sometimes suddenly spit at or slap people. However, Ilie notes, “You don’t die from being spit at.”
The siblings have very different memories of their years in China. When the family left Vienna on the last ship to Shanghai, the Italian liner SS Conte Biancamano, their mother “told me we were going on vacation, and they couldn’t get a nanny, so they had to take us along; I believed it all,” says Deborah, who was only three at the time. “My parents always wanted us to stay quiet, to keep us out of the way,” she adds, noting that they were made to take a lot of naps. “My past — I couldn’t stand it.”
Her late husband Ed Strobin, whom she married at 19, was a remarkably straightforward, unpretentious man. As a prominent businessman whose accomplishments included helping launch the Banana Republic stores, he often socialized with Ivy League graduates, but he liked to tell people that he had worked his way through Brooklyn College. When a group of Texans began talking about their private planes, he said that he flew, too — B-52s in World War II. He also liked to bring up the fact that Deborah was a refugee from China. She disliked this immensely.
Their father’s family in Romania had paid for their boat ride to Shanghai, so the siblings eventually decided to sponsor two of their young cousins from Romania. The cousins arrived — with seven other relatives, some of whom were much older and not in good health. It didn’t work out well. “They wanted what we had,” Deborah says. “Everything was fine until they went to the market; they thought everything was free.” The group stayed with them for a year; a conflict arose when Ed, who had found the original two jobs, bought them a used car. They wanted a new one. Then they asked, “When are you buying us a house like yours?”
As Ilie writes, “They came from a culture where they had to take advantage to get ahead, in order to survive. In Romania, if you don’t take advantage, you won’t have a job, you won’t have money, and you will have nothing. Everybody outside the family is a potential enemy and even inside the family, who knows.”
Ilie, who became an artist after closing his fashion firm, says his late wife, Sylvia, played a major role in his success. She handled their financial affairs, running the business side of his company for years and making their personal decisions about money, too. “I didn’t even know what our rent was,” he says. One day in 1977, she decided that they needed to buy an apartment. Since they had a rent-controlled floor-through in a Manhattan brownstone, he didn’t want to move, but she insisted. Sylvia found a light-filled apartment on Central Park West for $200,000. When he told his accountant about it, his response, Ilie says, was to say, “I speak to you like an uncle. Don’t do it!” Her reaction: “Now I’m for sure buying that apartment.”