Monday, September 13, 2010

Strange Haven: A Jewish Childhood in Wartime Shanghai by Sigmund Tobias, 1999

[T]he cold, calculated, disciplined, and controlled violence of the SS ... is what historians know. It is ever more vivid when seen through the eyes of a six year old child."  From the introduction by Michael Berenbaum.

Sigmund Tobias (b. 1932), was six years old when, shortly after Kristallnacht, he and his family fled Berlin, Germany for Shanghai. Tobias’ parents were originally from Poland. When they wanted to leave Germany, his father, who had no papers, tried to escape to Antwerp but he was picked up at the Belgian border and sent to Dachau. When his mother learned that they could go to Hongchew, the Japanese -occupied section of Shanghai, without a visa, she bought her husband a ticket which secured his release from Dachau. She and her son followed five months later.

Tobias, in a memoir of little more than 150 pages, gives a vivid account of life in Shanghai which housed over 16,000 Jews in the Hongchew neighborhood, including several group of Yeshiva students and their rabbis. Living conditions, including no in-door plumbing, were a particular shock to the Tobias family after having lived in Berlin. Life was very difficult, but the refugees were thankful to be alive, despite the additional problems of little income, overcrowding, severe food shortages, and bombing by the Allies. Of course they all worried about the relatives they had left behind and they were alert to any news they could get from the west about the progress of the war. They read the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle and copies they were sent of the Aufbau, which was published in German in the U.S.

Tobias describes the various Jewish groups: the German,  Austrian, Polish and Russian Jews, as well as Sephardic Jews and then he writes about their synagogues, and how they did or did not interact with each other. He spends considerable time discussing his time as a student at the Merrer Yeshiva. The Yeshiva students and their rabbis were able to immigrate from Lithuania because of the actions of the compassionate and heroic Japanese Consul-general Chiune Sigihara in Lithuania where the Yeshiva had re-constituted itself after fleeing its home in what was then Belarus. Because the Yeshiva received funds from the American Joint Distribution Committee,  the Yeshiva students and their rabbis did not suffer deprivation to the extent the other refugees did. In fact that was one reason that the author’s parents as well as refugee parents of other children enrolled their children at the Yeshiva, even though these families were often not as religious as the Yeshiva students who had arrived with their rabbis.

After the war the Mirrer Yeshiva moved to Brooklyn. The author left Shanghai for New York in 1948 at the age of 15 alone because he had clearance as a German citizen. His parents followed in 1949 when their visas came through. In the last few chapters the author writes about his return to Shanghai many years later. There are only traces of the refugee community left, and Tobias had trouble finding them.

This memoir includes photos, an index, and an introduction by Michael Berenbaum, a professional colleague and friend.
To read an in-depth article on the Jewish refugee population in Shanghai written by Dr. Peter Vamos and published in the Pacific Rim Report click here.
To read an article in the Los.Angeles Times about the emerging interest in the WWII Jewish community if Shanghai, click here.

To read an interesting article about  tours of Jewish Shanghai click here.

Moses and Frieda Tobias
    Sigmund Tobias – their son; married to Lora; author
      Susan and Rochelle - their children
             Daniel and Jessica Shapiro - Sigmund and Lora's grandchildren
Solomon Windstrauch – Frieda’s father
    Malka – daughter of Solomon; sister of Frieda; married Philip Jaffe
        Sigi and Max – children of Malka and Philip; first cousins of author
    Sarah – daughter of Solomon; married ? Baufeld; sister of Frieda
        Sol and Puppe – children of Sara Baufeld; author’s first cousins
    Aaron Windstrauch– son of Solomon; brother of Frieda
    Melech Windstrauch – son of Solomon; brother of Frieda
    Ida – daughter of Solomon; married Herman ?; sister of Frieda
    Rachel – daughter of Solomon; married David Reiner; Frieda’s sister

Horace Kadoorie
Isaac Atterman
    Willi – his son
Rita Atterman Feder
Meyer Frankel
Yechezkel Lowenstein
Meir Ashkenazi
Norbert Seiden
Siegfried Loebel
Moshe Fastak
Lucy Hartivich
Leo Meyer
Robert Knopp
Joseph Tukachinsky
Abraham Aaron Kreiser
Morris Gordon
Alfred “Laco” Kohn
Max Buchsbaum

Places and Institutions
Berlin, Germany
Shanghai, China
Hongkew section of Shanghai
Szendiszov, Poland
Beth Aharon
Oihel Moshe
Mirrer Yeshiva

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