As the Nazis increased their discrimination against their Jewish population in the 1930’s, many Jewish residents looked for ways out of Germany. Before war was declared Germany was happy to have their Jewish population leave, but it wasn’t easy for the Jews to do so. They needed sponsors and visas to immigrate to other countries. Furthermore, countries had restrictive quotas, and even if they found a country that would take them in, they needed cash to pay for the paperwork and their transportation.
One route that was available for those who had no other way out and had money for travel and were willing to take the risk was to travel to Shanghai, China where, due to a specific set of circumstances, visas were not necessary. So as many as 20,000 Jewish refugees sold their assets for what they could get and embarked on a journey that in most cases took them overland to Italy and from there by ship to Shanghai.
This film tells this story through interviews with a handful of the refugees who, as children, had spent their early years in Shanghai. It includes archival footage of the Jewish community of Shanghai during the war as well as a few scenes of some of them returning to Shanghai as adults.
The interviewees tell versions of the same story: They and their families were shocked at the conditions they found in Shanghai. Most were sent to live in the poorest area, Hongchew, where accommodations were primitive. They did not have flush toilets, for example, a fact of life that the formerly well-off German refugees found hard to imagine. They had to find jobs, but many could not earn enough to support their families and they relied on the largesse of a large established Baghdadi Jewish community who had settled much earlier in Shanghai and on charity from the American Joint Distribution Committee. Conditions were especially difficult during the war in the 1940’s because of dwindling food supplies.
From the moment they got there, they formed a community and did their best to adjust. Like immigrants who settled elsewhere, they brought their culture with them, setting up small businesses to cater to their needs. They created newspapers in German and Yiddish, and schools for their children and entertainment for the adults, but when the war was over they wanted to leave. They again went through the process of looking for places to settle and scattered across the world, many emigrating to Israel or the United States.
During the interviews the refugees also remarked with their voices full of emotion, that as difficult as it was to live in Shanghai, most of them survived, unlike most of the members of their families and friends who never made it out of Germany and other countries in Europe.
To watch a trailer for the movie click here.
To read a travel article about visiting the former Jewish ghetto in Shanghai and the refugee museum that has been established, click here.
To read a post on this blog of a memoir, Strange Haven, by Sigmund Tobias who is interviewed in this documentary, click here.
To read a post on this blog of a young adult novel that tells the story of the author's Russian family's stay in Shanghai before and during the war, click here.
Those interviewed in the film: Alfred Kohn, Harold Janklowicz, Betty Grebenschikoff, Sigmund Tobias, Evelyn Pike Rubin; and Laura Margolis - employee of the American Joint Distribution Committee
Three interviews are included on the DVD as extras: Gary Matzdorf, Henry Meisel, Susie Lipsey