Book Chat: Exodus to Shanghai

By Hannah Lee

Heartbreaking are the testimonies of Jews who sought every avenue of escape from Nazi-controlled Europe, but were foiled at every turn, with diplomatic and bureaucratic obstacles. They had limited access to accurate news. They had limited resources to buy their freedom and even the ones with means and the forethought found themselves victims of covetous maneuvers. Nazi regulations forbade bringing most valuables from the country and limited cash to 10 Marks or $10 per person.

First-hand testimonies are found in a book published in July, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich by Steve Hochstadt. As part of the academic Palgrave Macmillian studies in oral history, Professor Hochstadt’s research focused on the odyssey of 16,000 Jews who escaped from Nazi-run Europe and found refuge in Shanghai, China when all other doors had slammed shut. The book distilled the transcripts of 13 narrators chosen from over 100 oral histories conducted with the survivors.

Most of the narrators left their homes in the frantic and brief period between the Anschluss (the occupation and annexation) of Austria in March 1938 and the beginning of war in September 1939. They came from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and represent a cross section of all refugees. The book does not cover the odyssey of the religious Jews from Poland, including the entire Mirrer Yeshiva, who spoke Yiddish and dressed differently from the cosmopolitan Berliners and the Viennese.

Desperate and resourceful women found out that a visa to Shanghai could release their men from concentration camps. Assistance came from the philanthropic organizations, Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden in Germany and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York, including tickets to Shanghai for the poorest families.

In the 1930s, Shanghai was the banking center of Asia and “an open port where the Chinese Nationalists and Communists, organized gangsters, Western capitalists, and the Japanese military competed for authority,” wrote Hochstadt. “Extremes of wealth and poverty jostled in the crowded streets.” Upon arrival, the refugees experienced culture shock in the form of the tropical heat, an alien language, and wartime inflation.

The marvel was that the refugees quickly developed a community in exile, with Jewish institutions and forms of self-governance. The Austrians even created a café life on the streets of their new home. The most ambitious and successful creation was the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, affectionately known as the Kadoorie School. About 600 students enrolled in a curriculum of religious and secular subjects, taught in English by the refugees and modeled after Jewish schools in Germany.

“The remarkable thing about Jewish life in Shanghai until 1943 is that there was no persecution,” wrote Hochstadt. The Japanese already controlled most of the city but, while they were allies of the Nazis, they adopted a completely different policy toward Jews. They finally took action on February 18, 1943, when they forced all “stateless refugees” who’d arrived after 1937 to live within less than a square mile in the neighborhood of Hongkou. However, the February Proclamation showed “the ambivalent nature of the Japanese attitude… the word Jew was not mentioned in the Proclamation ,” and the existing Baghdadi and Russian Jewish communities in Shanghai were spared.

With the end of the war, these refugees again had to find new places to live. Nearly all refugee families wanted to leave Shanghai as soon as possible. “Very few had been able to create a life they wanted to continue in China. Remaining in post-colonial China…meant learning and adopting Chinese culture; only a handful of European Jews accepted that challenge,” wrote Hochstadt.

Illustrative of the enormous difficulties for displaced persons after the war, one of the last groups to leave Shanghai, 106 of them without U.S. visas, were supposed to travel across the Pacific on the “General Gordon,” but the Chinese refused to allow the ship to anchor offshore.  So, on May 1950,

the refugees had to take a train to Tientsin, then board barges in heavy seas to get out to the ship. When they arrived in the United States, they were put on a sealed train and transported across the country to Ellis Island…In June, another boat took them to Bremerhaven [Germany], and they entered DP camps, where they stayed for one more year. Finally they were given visas to the United States in 1951.

By the time of the Chinese Communists’ Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Jewish communities of Shanghai “were just a memory.”

The book gives the history of the slight majority of the Shanghai refugees who came to the United States. Life in the United States meant assimilation, letting go of their German culture. They had to adjust to a new world order. One refugee, Lisbeth Loewenberg, reminisced about her adjustment to stability:

My first job that I found after one week when I walked around, that was with Collier’s magazine. This place took subscriptions, they had salesmen go running around and selling subscriptions to Collier’s and Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, and so on, and I processed these orders. People took subscriptions for one year. I said, “But how do people know that after one year they will still be at that address?” I couldn’t believe in permanence anymore. I was completely shocked that some people took two-year subscriptions. It floored me. But you don’t know where you are going to be tomorrow, was my reaction. And life has actually always seemed to me not permanent.  It’s all just transitory.

Remarkably, these refugees, most of whom had been children or teens during the years in Shanghai, can even look back and say, as did Doris Grey, that they were “the best years” of her life. Another, Gerald Kohbieter, said, “It was a lifesaver. The Chinese were polite people, and they put up with a lot with us…There were some frictions, but all in all, I must say there were good hosts.”

The resilience of youth allowed many of them adapt to, and even profit from their refugee experiences. Lisbeth Loewenberg said,

All the barriers fell. It didn’t make a difference, what does your family do…because everyone was there and started from scratch, nil, nothing, in Shanghai. All things being equal, if all people start under the same adverse conditions, this is where your true ability will show or your true survival instincts or your enterprise…Don’t ever blame the condition, blame yourself.  Because under the most impossible conditions, some people will make it one way or another.

A friend pointed out to me that W. Michael Blumenthal who served as United States Secretary of the Treasury under President Jimmy Carter was one of these refugees.  He arrived in the United States in 1947 at age 21.

Professor Hochstadt earned his Ph.D. in History from Brown University, taught at Bates College in Maine for 27 years, and is now professor at Illinois College. He has just published another Holocaust oral history, Death and Love in the Holocaust: The Story of Sonja and Kurt Messerschmidt (Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine).

History Lesson By Teen Troupe

By Hannah Lee

From the mouths of babes and the brainstorming of teens: “Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together” is the result of an outreach effort to bring together the Jewish and Dominican populations of the Upper Manhattan neighborhood. Teens performed in song, dance, and rapping monologues this past Sunday at the National Museum of American Jewish History.  Their performance highlighted the little known fact of synergy that occurred in 1938 when the Dominican Republic was the only country of the 38 nations invited to the Évian Conference, organized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to offer a haven to Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled countries.

One of Latin America’s most repressive dictators, General Rafael Trujillo, had ulterior motives for rescuing Jews.  His nation bordered Haiti, his army had massacred 15,000 unarmed Haitians, and he wanted to deflect the international outcry.  Also, as documented by Allen Wells in his 2009 book, Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa, Trujillo “sought to “whiten” the Dominican populace, welcoming Jewish refugees who were themselves subject to racist scorn in Europe.”

Trujillo offered to accept up to 100,000 refugees, although only 750 Jews succeeded in crossing the Atlantic Ocean between 1940 and 1945.  Mostly from Germany and Austria, the Jews settled in the small seaside town of Sosúa and they created a dairy and cheese cooperative, named Productos Sosú, on the grounds of an abandoned banana plantation,  which is still in existence today.  Most of the descendants of the original settlers moved away to New York or Miami, including the abovementioned author Wells, but some still live in Sosúa, where they maintain a synagogue and a museum.

The inter-racial and inter-cultural project was conceived by Victoria Neznansky, the chief program officer of the YM & YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood, where the German and Russian Jews do not mingle with the larger Hispanic population, comprised mostly of immigrants from the Dominican Republic.  In 2008, the Museum of Jewish Heritage held an exhibit on Jews who had found shelter in the Dominican Republic just before the outbreak of World War II.  That historical link gave Neznansky the spark to reach out to noted composer Elizabeth Swados about creating a dance theater piece for her teen constituency.  Art would be the lure to bring in the two groups of participants.

Neznansky started with a group of 10 Jews and 10 Dominicans in 2009, but now the project reaches out beyond its neighborhood.  The current performers hail from 17 schools in the greater New York area.  Ranging in age from 12 to 18, the participants met weekly to study the historical episode, bond over their shared history of discrimination, and rehearse the production. Each year’s teens add their own stories, interpretations and raps.  One of the participants, Kaitlin Abreu composed a Spanish song to add to Swados’ original score.

Part I tells the story of how the Jews arrived in Sosúa.  A memorable prop of clear plastic Magen David (six-pointed star of David) was held aloft by teens and torn apart to depict Kristallnacht, also referred to as the Night of Broken Glass, in which coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria occurred on 9-10 November 1938.  Part II recounts how the Dominicans welcomed the Jews into their midst, often resulting in marriage between the mostly male Jews and the local Latina girls.  At the finale, two large red hands are linked together and flipped to represent a stylized heart.

In one monologue, a teen offered the ice cream sundae as a metaphor for racial harmony: Hitler only wanted vanilla, Trujillo wanted to get rid of his country’s fudge sauce, but “everyone knows that the best ice cream sundae has all of its parts.”  And in another segment, another teen noted that “one’s man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and what happened in Sosúa went “way beyond recycling.”

At the talkback after Sunday’s performance, an audience member referred to a piece of monologue about middle school being the pivotal period when children no longer play together innocently, regardless of racial or ethnic background.  As the performers are all in their teens, what would they suggest for parents who wish to raise their own children with tolerance?  One performer recommended communal projects such as theirs.  A Dominican girl told about living on the Jewish side of her mixed community and being asked to turn on lights for her religious Jewish neighbors.  She had no context for what it meant.  Another Hispanic teen enthusiastically spoke about joining in a Chanukah celebration with his Jewish peer from the group.  A third girl endorsed the study of world history, to learn about the cultural contributions of people other than our own.  Another boy endorsed “celebrating other races,” other cultures.  Finally, several teens raved about their theatrically focused high school programs for facilitating tolerance, as the performing arts tout excellence, regardless of background.

“Sosúa: Dare to Dance Together” has since been performed,  amongst other venues, at the United Nations and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan.  According to The Jewish Week, the filmmaker Peter Miller, whose documentaries, such as “Jews and Baseball” and “Sacco and Vanzetti,” have aired on PBS, has begun co-directing a documentary about the project with Renee Silverman,  a member of the Washington Heights Y.  Neznansky reports that the filmmakers have recently received a grant from the Kroll Foundation to edit and complete a rough draft of the documentary.   However, the Y needs funding to continue the project beyond the original three-year grant from the UJA Federation of New York.  Indeed, at Sunday’s performance, an appreciative audience member voiced the hope that every school could see the performance.

Photo credits: Historical black and white photographs courtesy of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives. Color teen photos courtesy of Roj Rodrigues.