Shanghai, as a place of refuge, saved approximately 17,000 to 18,000 German and Austrian Jews. For one city, this was extraordinary. (Britain took in 70,000 Jews by September 1, 1939 and another 10,000 during the war; Australia took 8,200; South Africa, 3500; Canada, 4000; India, 5000.) When the flow of refugees to Commonwealth countries became a trickle during the war, the significance of Shanghai was much enhanced.

During 1938 and 1939, Jews made the journey to Shanghai via Poland and Russia or by sea, on German and Italian liners. For two years, the seldom-cited diplomat-rescuer Dr. Feng Shan Ho issued life-saving visas to nearly 2000 Jews who requested them from the Chinese Consulate in Vienna, facilitating their escape without permission from either the Chinese Ambassador in Berlin or his superiors in the Chinese government. In 1990, Dr. Feng Shan Ho finally wrote his memoirs, Forty Years of my Diplomatic Life. Born in 1901, he died in 1997.

As a result of this extraordinary migration, Claudia Maria Wiener was born in Shanghai in 1948. (Not all the Jews who made it to Shanghai had Ho-issued visas. Her parents didn’t.) She was baptized an Anglican in Shanghai and immigrated to Canada in 1949 with her parents. She attended UBC and the University of Calgary, completed her doctorate in philosophy and became a journalist under her married name, Claudia Cornwall.

In 1988, Claudia wrote to her uncle in Austria, asking for a photo of her father, Walter Wiener, who had left Vienna in October of 1938, to escape Nazism by emigrating. Walter sailed from Italy on the Conte Rosso to Shanghai where he found work as a financial journalist.

A Christmas card arrived for Claudia in January of 1989. In it, was a photo taken in a garden, showing her father at the age of three or four. "I took the picture out of the card and laid it down, thinking I would frame it and hang it on my bedroom wall." There were also two women in the garden. Claudia began to read her uncle's message offering warm wishes and news about his family. But he also had some more startling information. "The lady standing up was our mother," her uncle wrote, "who died in a concentration camp."

Claudia called her mother, Lore, to ask whether she knew the story.

"Yes," she answered.

"Why didn’t you tell me?" Claudia asked.

"If I have to choose between my loyalty to Daddy and my loyalty to you, " her mother told her. "Daddy comes first. He never wants to talk about it. But now the Pandora's box is open."

But by then, the trauma of those years had ebbed some and Claudia found that her parents were willing to speak about what happened. Her paternal grandparents, who were Jewish, perished in the Holocaust, and her father and his brother escaped to Shanghai. The Wieners had kept diaries, letters, and other documents in a large black trunk. Though Claudia spoke some German, she had never read the contents because the old German script was difficult to understand. Her mother helped her to translate them. One of the most exciting “finds” was the diary of her maternal grandfather, Willy Frensdorff. Claudia proceeded to piece together her family's origins, making research trips to Germany and Austria to interview remaining family members and visit archives.

Willy Frensdorff, a naval engineer from Bremen, had been incarcerated in Sachsenhausen for three weeks, even though he had converted to Lutheranism and married a non-Jewish wife, Melitta. Six months after his release from the camp, he fled to Shanghai, sailing away on the Sharnhorst. In 1940, his wife and daughter joined him. But Melitta was unable to handle the heat and foreign environment of Shanghai. She returned to Germany, survived the war and eventually reunited with her daughter in Canada.

In Shanghai, Lore, a trained dressmaker, met Walter Wiener in March,1941. In December, sixteen days after the Japanese had taken control of the International Settlement in Shanghai, Lore Frensdorff married Walter Wiener. Details of that era can be found in David Kranzler's Japanese, Nazis and the Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai, (1938-1945).

The end result of Claudia Cornwall's curiosity and research was Letter from Vienna: A Daughter Uncovers Her Family's Jewish Past (Douglas & McIntyre 1995) which received the Hubert Evans Prize for best non-fiction book in B.C. Cornwall's comments in a review she wrote about Barbara Kessel's book Suddenly Jewish (Brandeis University Press, 2000) express her awareness that her own story is far from unusual:

"At first, I thought that I was the only person in the world who had made such a discovery. But I quickly found out this was not so. I kept meeting people who had similar experience or who knew someone who did. Once when I was interviewed on TV about my 'finding', a cameraman, quite literally, was jumping up and down with excitement. As I left the studio, he told me that he had just learned that his father was Jewish. I fell into conversation with a Jehovah's Witness who came to my door and found out that her mother had uncovered Jewish roots. Several years ago, Madelaine Albright rather famously discovered her Jewish family in the Czech Republic. And recently I read that Elvis Presley may have been Jewish. Sometimes I wonder, is everyone Jewish?"


Letter from Vienna: A Daughter Uncovers Her Family's Jewish Past (Douglas & McIntyre 1995)


Selected by the American Library Association as one of the year's best books, Claudia Cornwall's Catching Cancer: The Quest for Its Viral & Bacterial Causes (Rowman & Littlefield $36) profiles groundbreaking cancer researchers and describes a link between infections and cancer. "For years, we've thought cancer was the result of lifestyle choices, environmental factors, or genetic mutations," says Cornwall. "But pioneering investigators have begun to change that picture. We now know that infections cause 20 percent of cancers, including liver, stomach, and cervical cancer, which together kill almost 1.8 million people every year. While the idea that you can catch cancer may sound unsettling, it is actually good news. It means antibiotics and vaccines can be used to combat this most dreaded disease. With this understanding, we have new methods of preventing cancer, and perhaps we may be able to look forward to a day when we will no more fear cancer than we do polio or rubella." Catching Cancer features Cornwall's interviews with Nobel Laureates, Harald zur Hausen, Barry Marshall, Robin Warren, as well as other notable scientists, taking the reader inside the research labs to describe discoveries that are altering medical approaches to the confounding disease.

Reader's Digest bought the worldwide (non-exclusive) rights to publish an excerpt from Claudia Cornwall's Battling Melanoma: One Couple's Struggle from Diagnosis to Cure (Rowman & Littlefield 2016). The jacket copy for this fine work cannot be improved upon:

"In June 2013, Gordon Cornwall's melanoma went metastatic and spread to his brain. He and his wife, Claudia, thought it was 'game-over.' But his oncologist encouraged them to look for a clinical trial that might work for his form of melanoma. After embarking on a continent-wide search, they found a study in Texas with spots for just two more patients. They scrambled to get Gordon enrolled, and in August 2013, three days after he had his first infusion, he was astonished to see a lump on his shoulder softening and shrinking. Three months later, in November, a CT-scan revealed that all his tumors had disappeared.

"This story of one couple's battle to beat melanoma illustrates how a new treatment, immunotherapy, can defeat even aggressive forms of the disease. It also shows how patients can access the most advanced therapies by enrolling in clinical trials. Claudia describes Gordon's case and learns from conversations with eminent researchers. She paints a portrait of an illness that is difficult but not impossible to combat. With vivid firsthand accounts from their diaries, as well as Claudia's intimate narrative of the ups and downs of cancer treatment, this book will be a ready resource for melanoma patients and their families. It demonstrates how they can fight the disease medically as well as support each other emotionally and physically."

The review periodical Booklist states:

"Melanoma, a term derived from the Greek for 'black tumor' is a cancer of the skin that is difficult to cure if not caught at an early stage. Canadian Cornwall shares her husband Gordon's struggle with malignant melanoma. Diagnosed in 2012, the tumor appeared as a pimply growth on his left arm and metastasized to other sites, including his brain. She describes the multiple doctors who treated him and their occasional differences in medical opinion. Cornwall concludes, 'It seemed that no one person had a monopoly on the truth or the best course of action.' She details the many scans, biopsies, and surgeries Gordon undergoes along with radiation treatment. Paramount is his participation in a clinical trial with an investigational immunotherapy drug which proves highly effective for Gordon and is later approved by the FDA. Cornwall paints the fight against cancer as truly a team effort. Worry and uncertainty accompany the disease, but standing in its way are the bulwarks hope and love. Cornwall's passionate account highlights the importance of diligence and persistence, hunches and luck."

With a foreword by Tyee editor David Beers, Claudia Cornwall's At the World's Edge-Curt Lang's Vancouver, 1937-1998 (Mother Tongue $29.95) is tribute to beat poet and painter turned Renaissance man Curt Lang who met Malcolm Lowry as a teenager and befriended poets Al Purdy, Peter Trower, John Newlove, and Jamie Reid; artists Fred Douglas, David Marshall, and Roy Kiyooka; and musicians Al Neil, and Glenn MacDonald. A street photographer in the early 1970s, he later built boats and fished in the Prince Rupert vicinity. In his forties, he was awarded two patents, and started several companies, within the high-tech industry. He also developed hardware and software for the railroad industry that today is used all over North America. At the World's Edge includes Lang's unpublished photographs of Vancouver, as well as previously unpublished drawings, paintings, and poetry. Claudia Cornwall draws on conversations during her (and her husband's) twelve-year friendship with Curt. 978-1-896949-17-8

Her first book, Print-Outs: The Adventures of a Rebel Computer, was a fantasy for children. In 2009, she co-authored The Life & Art of Frank Molnar, Jack Hardman & LeRoy Jensen (Mother Tongue $34.95) with texts by Eve Lazarus, Claudia Cornwall and Wendy Newbold Patterson.


Print-Outs: The Adventures of a Rebel Computer. Vancouver: Nerve Press, 1982.
Letter from Vienna: A Daughter Uncovers Her Family's Jewish Past. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1995.
The Life & Art of Frank Molnar, Jack Hardman & LeRoy Jensen (Mother Tongue 2009) with texts by Eve Lazarus, Claudia Cornwall and Wendy Newbold Patterson.
At the World's Edge: Curt Lang's Vancouver, 1937-1998 (Mother Tongue 2011) $29.95)
Catching Cancer: The Quest for Its Viral & Bacterial Causes. (Rowman & Littlefield 2013), $36 (9781442215207); e-book, $35.99 (9781442215221).
Battling Melanoma: One Couple's Struggle from Diagnosis to Cure (Rowman & Littlefield 2016) US $38 978-1-4422-4515-0
British Columbia in Flames: Stories from a Blazing Summer (Harbour 2020) $26.95 978-1-55017-894-4

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
At the World's Edge: Curt Lang's Vancouver, 1937-1998

[BCBW 2021] Alan Twigg / HolocaustLit