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Shanghai's Jews Live to Tell Story at Last

As refugees from Nazis, they suffered but survived under Japanese rule. Now many are setting aside guilt they felt for avoiding the Holocaust to relate the history of their war years.


SHANGHAI — Ingrid Wilmot of Palos Verdes stopped eating apple cores just a few years ago. She had picked up the habit as a girl in this freewheeling treaty port during World War II, when food and dignity were scarce among the Jews who fled to China from the Nazi juggernaut in Europe.

They came by the thousands to the only city on Earth that would accept them without passports or visas--no questions asked. Shanghai, den of vice and iniquity, opium addicts and imperialists, was their improbable haven.

But in 1943, to appease the Nazis, the city's Japanese occupiers rounded up the newly arrived Jews into a ghetto here less than 2 miles square. For more than two years, 18,000 Jews, most from Austria, Germany and Poland, battled squalor, fear and want in the little-known Hongkew ghetto on Shanghai's northeastern fringe, half a world away from the Holocaust in Nazi-controlled Europe.

They fought diseases so virulent that even bananas and oranges had to be soaked in chemicals for an hour before being eaten. They sweated out rumors that they might all be deported without warning. They suffered at the hands of a capricious Japanese overseer.

Yet miraculously, they nearly all survived to see the end of the war, a testament to human resilience--and to the fact that their Japanese captors, who brutalized the Chinese, were less monstrous toward the Jews, despite Nazi proposals to slaughter them.

"The conditions in Shanghai were terrible, but it [wasn't] Auschwitz," said Wilmot, one of the scores of "Shanghai-landers" who eventually settled in the Los Angeles area after the war and who was interviewed by telephone. "So you have to be grateful."

Now scholars are scrambling to preserve stories of Shanghai ghetto survivors before time overtakes them. After half a century of reluctance by many to speak out about the past, and limited access to records and material in China, a new urgency has taken hold to save a slice of history unknown even to many Jews.

Academics have begun collecting oral histories. Survivors are writing memoirs. Diplomatic ties between China and Israel, established only five years ago, have finally made scholastic exchanges possible between the two countries.

"I see my work as racing against time," said Xu Buzeng at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, who is one of a handful of Chinese experts trying to document the Jewish wartime experience here.

Steven Hochstadt, a history professor at Bates College in Maine who has interviewed more than 100 Shanghai ghetto survivors, added: "The documents are getting old; the people are getting old. A lot of stuff has already been lost. The whole question of refugees, people who left [Europe] before 1941, hasn't received as much public attention, even academic attention, as what happened in Europe."

Even the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington issues only an eight-paragraph blurb on the Shanghai ghetto in its interactive learning center. Some of the hesitancy, however, has come from the former refugees themselves, who know that their tales of survival do not compare with the horrors undergone by those who stayed behind.

'A True Survivor'

"It was always felt that anybody who was not in a concentration camp wasn't a true survivor, and we in Shanghai felt that a little too," said Evelyn Pike Rubin, author of "Ghetto Shanghai," an account of her childhood in Hongkew. "I wrote my book because I felt it was a story of the Holocaust that's a little different--and that needed to be told."

For her and thousands of Jews who escaped to China, the story started on Nov. 9, 1938, with the Nazi rampage known as Kristallnacht, when thousands of Jewish businesses were destroyed and synagogues burnt down in one of the Nazis' first pogroms. Terrified Jews began looking for a way out.

Word quickly spread that cosmopolitan Shanghai, even under its new Japanese rulers, placed no restrictions or quotas on Jewish immigrants--unlike the rest of the world, including the United States. Indeed, thousands of Jews were already living in Shanghai by the 1930s. Sephardic Jews such as the Sassoons and the Kadoories landed here in the mid-19th century and founded vast financial empires trading in silk, tea and opium. Decades later, Russian Jews poured in, on the run from political upheavals at home.

In early 1939, Heinz Joachim Cohn, then 12, watched his father, Carl, sell the rest of his once-successful hat factory in Berlin and buy train tickets to Italy for his family. Then, with hundreds of other Jewish refugees, the Cohns boarded the Conte Biancamano in Genoa and set sail for Shanghai.

"It took four weeks to get to China," recalled Heinz Cohn, now 70 and a resident of Chabad House at UCLA. "My father booked first class, but they were so overcrowded that we wound up in third class, which was a horror."

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