S.F. scion finds the courage to tell her Uncommon story

Deborah Strobin’s life story haunts her. And she describes herself as “a very private person.”

Yet Strobin, a well-known Bay Area philanthropist who lives in San Francisco, has decided to pull back the covers and tell her harrowing story — a 12-year odyssey that began when her family narrowly escaped the Nazis in Europe, only to wind up living in a ghastly ghetto in China.

Strobin has written “An Uncommon Journey” with her brother, Ilie Wacs, an artist and former fashion designer who lives in New York. Subtitled “From Vienna to Shanghai to America — A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II,” the book was published in the fall of 2011.

“A lot of people hadn’t a clue that I was Jewish or that I had lived in China, because in spite of being involved in public events, I never gave out any information about myself,” Strobin, who organizes large-scale fundraisers, said in a recent interview. “Now, once people read the book, it breaks the ice. That feels freeing.”

Deborah Strobin

But if the story troubles her so, why did she decide to finally tell it?

Because she saw a ghost. On a visit 13 years ago to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Strobin walked into an exhibit dedicated to the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai, a 1-square-mile area that was in existence from 1938 to 1945. In that exhibit, Strobin saw a photo of herself as a child, seated in a park with two other children.

“I stared at it as if the little girl in the photo was not me,” Strobin writes in the book. “We were 5, maybe 6 or maybe 4 years old, and already, our eyes were full of worry. We still wore the plump, smooth cheeks of leftover baby fat, cheeks that would have been pinched by aunts and uncles, grandparents, and visiting family friends had they not all been murdered, gassed, shot.”

After seeing the photo, Strobin found the courage to speak to her brother about their past.

She didn’t know much, because when Strobin was a child, her mother lied to her — purposely misrepresenting circumstances — to protect her. Wacs is 10 years older than Strobin, and he had much more insight into the family’s situation.

In “An Uncommon Journey,” which took three years to write after almost a decade of conversation, Strobin and Wacs take turns telling their versions of their shared past.

The story begins in Vienna, where they barely escaped with their lives, and then moves to Shanghai, where the family of four lived “like rats” in an apartment with one room and a small anteroom, with an outhouse at the back of the building. Strobin and Wacs also cover their later years in the United States and Canada.

“Reading it back to myself, I wish it were fiction,” Strobin said. “But it’s not.”

As a child in Shanghai, Strobin wished for a different life. She spent hours daydreaming behind a thin curtain that covered a small closet. She wished for a bigger place to live, a private bathroom and a pool like those in the Esther Williams movies she watched.

“She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen,” Strobin said. “Those movies kept me going.”

Decades later, Strobin designed a home in San Francisco for her family that had eight bathrooms and a pool. “When all was said and done, the bathrooms and the pool didn’t mean anything, didn’t make me any different,” Strobin said. “I never went into the water.”

Strobin kept her history not just from friends — she protected her sons, Mark and Mitchell, too. “My children didn’t know anything about me, about the horrors of my childhood,” Strobin said. “I was my mother again, in a different way.”

Even Strobin’s late husband did not know her whole story. Edward Strobin, chief executive officer of Banana Republic and one of the founders of the Discovery Channel, died in 2000. “My husband didn’t know a lot of it, because when he was alive, I didn’t know a lot of it,” Strobin said.

Today, Strobin, who used to live on the Peninsula, is active in Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, and continues to help raise money for good causes in the Bay Area. She is a well-known scion in local philanthropy and civic circles; she chaired one benefit, in 2006, that was reported to be the largest fundraiser ever for stem cell research, and earned a proclamation from then-Mayor Gavin Newsom for her charitable prowess.

She thinks now that her childhood made her strong, and confronting it made her stronger. “I am still stoic,” Strobin said, “but for so long I was continuously hiding what was in the past. Now I’m not.” She laughed.

“It’s all out there now.”

Deborah Strobin and Ilie Wacs are scheduled for a book signing at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in April. For events in the Bay Area, visit www.deborahstrobin.com.

“An Uncommon Journey: From Vienna to Shanghai to America — A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II” by Deborah Strobin and Ilie Wacs (288 pages, Barricade Books, $24.95)

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.