Deborah Strobin: Author, Philanthropist New Book: An Uncommon Journey with her Brother, Artist Ilie Wacs
Introduction By Dr. Pola Rosen, Transcribed by Erica Anderson
Deborah Strobin, San Francisco philanthropist and author and her brother Ilie Wacs, NYC artist and author, have had childhood experiences that rival those in the Twilight Zone television series with Rod Serling. Born in Vienna, they had to escape in 1939 to the only place that would take them, Shanghai. There they lived in poverty for 10 years and as Deborah recalls, she was hungry all the time. Sometimes she traveled to school in a rickshaw. Finally, they came to the United States where Deborah attended Julia Richman High School and Hunter College until her marriage to the man who was to become the CEO of Banana Republic. Her brother Ilie was able to study art in Paris and was very successful in the fashion and design field as well as painting. Some of his huge canvases are on display in his Central Park West apartment as well as the Hamptons.
Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): Tell us a little bit about your life in Shanghai.
Deborah Strobin (DS): Well, if I had to sum it all up in one word, I would say hunger. I remember being hungry the entire time I lived in Shanghai – it was over ten years – and I don’t recall even having had a childhood. I just remember we were all living in one room, that’s four of us in one room. The only privacy I had was my own little theater behind a curtain. The curtain was where I fantasized about all the things I read or heard about, the United States: everybody has a pool, everybody has a home, everybody has everything. I think I really lived most of my childhood through the eyes of Esther Williams [movie actress who swam in pools] though I never learned to swim like her. But in my dreams I did. She was diving, I dove in with her. She was my idol. That was what my life was about in terms of fantasy. That’s really the only way I could keep alive.
PR: Shanghai became the home for about 18,000 Jewish people who were fleeing the Nazi regime in fear of losing their lives and could not come to the United States. We owe Shanghai a debt of gratitude in saving all these lives, including you and your family.
DS: Right. We also owe it, frankly, as well to the Japanese because it was under Japanese occupation at the time. It was the Japanese really that let us in.
PR: Of the 18,000 expatriates and Jewish people who were living there, how many would you say were poor, like yourself?
DS: I would say maybe 17,999; pretty much all of us. We all lived in a ghetto which the Japanese called the “designated area,” which sounded better than the word “ghetto.” We were confined, to approximately a mile of 18,000 people, cramped together.
PR: One of the things I found so interesting about the school is you write about teachers using corporal punishment, hitting students with a ruler?
DS: Oh yes, with a ruler. I always felt they needed a quota somehow, the amount of kids they used to hit. It was a rule: you had to put your hand out if you did something or said something.
PR: It sounds like such a difficult life, not enough food at home, very cramped quarters and then at school, corporal punishment.
DS: Life was tough but you learn to adapt. You actually learn a lot faster than you would [otherwise]. We were just worried about staying alive. There wasn’t much of an option.
PR: When you were in school, is there any teacher that stands out in your mind as a mentor?
DS: Yes; one of my teachers, in the second grade, was called Ms. Manessa. I was always hoping she would adopt me, that secretly I really belonged to her. She was kind, she took an interest in the children. She could see the hardships we had. She lived a little bit better, she lived outside the ghetto. On weekends, she used to pick a few children and take them home for the weekend. I wasn’t always one of them; I had to work hard to be noticed.
PR: You co-wrote the book, An Uncommon Journey, with your brother Ilie. How was he able to study art in Paris?
DS: It was a matter of survival. We weren’t sure we’d ever get out, and there was at least somebody who could get out. We weren’t sure if we’d see each other again, we didn’t even know if we’d survive. Ilie had an opportunity to go to Paris; my parents didn’t want him to give it up. He was lucky, and he was talented.
PR: How did the book come to be written?
DS: It was something that I’ve always thought about but never really wanted to do. I’m a very private person. There are a lot of things I didn’t know until we wrote the book. Recently, we went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington; we wanted to see information about the Jewish population in Shanghai, and suddenly Ilie calls out loudly, “I don’t believe it! This is my sister.” And there was a picture of me! I remember having the picture taken but more important, seeing the picture at first it was hard to believe. Looking at them was a very uncomfortable feeling.
PR: You must have been so shocked to see it in the museum.
DS: More than shocked, absolutely. I expected not to see anyone alive when I went there, and even more identify them. [The museum staff] asked, “Why don’t you come back here? We have so many more photographs, perhaps there are other people you could identify.” I was in so many of them.
PR: What happened after Shanghai? I know you always wanted to come to the United States: this was the dream, the house, the pool, whatever the fantasy is, and then you ended up in Canada. How did that all happen?
DS: We couldn’t stay in Shanghai. So then we went to Canada and we stayed there for two years. We left Canada when I was almost sixteen. Then we came to New York.
PR: What school did you go to in New York City?
DS: I went to Julia Richman High School. Then I went briefly to Hunter College, and of course met my husband who whisked me out of college.
PR: How did you make the move to San Francisco?
DS: My husband was recruited by the GAP Corporation, s o we moved to San Francisco in 1977. This was where I started my fundraising projects.
PR: What were some of your favorite causes?
DS: Stem cell research, pediatric brain tumor research. I might do a fundraiser for the International Medical Corps.
PR: So medicine seems to be a point of interest?
DS: Yes medicine, I think it has a lot to do with Shanghai and the suffering, it really seems to have taken hold of me.
PR: I know your brother is a great artist, and he has done a lot of design and fabrics, as well as painting, and that artistic thread runs in your family. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve done in the art world.
DS: Well, my felt I needed to ultimately become a teacher . I didn’t want to be a teacher . I became an interior designer. I went to school, I studied it and I was pretty good at it, and I enjoyed it. Then when we came to San Francisco, I opened up my own studio with a friend. That lasted for a couple of years. After that, I became active in organizations as a volunteer, and then as time went on, I found that my work interfered with my fundraising. #