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COLUMN ONE

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.

July 15, 1997|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When they docked along the Bund, Shanghai's famed waterfront walk, the immigrants were greeted by an elegant skyline of European-style architecture, built by the colonial powers that had carved up the port between them. The city itself was a roar of bewildering sights, sounds and smells: the British gentlemen in their suits caning coolies and rickshaw drivers; the din of ship horns and crowds and street hawkers; the scent of death from the bodies that had succumbed to starvation, disease or cold in the muddy lanes.

"It was a culture shock for a Western European," said Rubin, 66, who now lives in New York.

Relief groups funded by U.S. and local Jews met the new arrivals and processed them at Embankment House. Those without sponsors or relatives in Shanghai were shipped to one of several shelters across the city.

The dormitories teemed with more people than could fit. At the Ward Road facility in Hongkew, scores of men shared a single washroom, said Cohn, who spent five years there. Scarlet fever killed 100 people in the shelters in 1939.

Jewelry and Skills

The luckier refugees had brought jewelry and furs to pawn or skills to put to immediate use, which enabled them to buy houses and apartments outside Hongkew, a rundown district badly damaged by Japanese bomb attacks. Some, like Wilmot, whose father had been an executive with Bally shoes in Vienna, settled in Shanghai's fashionable French Concession, with servants and spacious accommodations.

But most stayed in Hongkew, site of the future ghetto, relying on menial work or charity to eke out reduced existences. Cohn, barely in his teens, pulled in a meager wage mixing ash and water to mold into coal briquettes for stoves.

"It was kind of a hand-to-mouth life," said Vienna-born Otto Schnepp, 71, who bounced between the International Settlement and the French quarter as his father continued to practice medicine. Schnepp, who served as a U.S. diplomat in China in the 1980s, is now director of USC's East Asian Studies Center. "Sometimes you could earn something, sometimes it was harder."

For a while, the refugee community thrived alongside the established Jewish enclave. Children attended British-run Jewish schools. Synagogues held services on Friday evening. There were Zionist youth groups, Jewish recreational clubs, musical and theater performances, dances, boutiques, kosher butcher shops.

"We had a wonderful life in Shanghai," said Michael Medavoy, 78, who had arrived as a Russian immigrant in the 1920s and whose son, movie mogul Mike Medavoy, was born here.

But time was running out.

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In 1941, after more than 15,000 Jewish immigrants had arrived in the previous two years--an influx that some Jewish relief groups had tried to stem for fear of overcrowding--the war in the Pacific broke out. U.S. and British citizens were interned. Jewish children stopped singing "God Save the King" and had to learn Japanese. Food was rationed and foreign aid to Jews was cut off.

The flow of refugees was also staunched. One of the last groups to reach Shanghai comprised 1,000 Polish Jews, including 400 teachers and students of Mir Yeshiva, the only traditional Jewish religious school in Europe whose people nearly all survived the war. They had fled via Lithuania. There a sympathetic diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, often referred to as "the Japanese Schindler" because he, like legendary German businessman Oskar Schindler, saved many Jews--had granted them visas to travel to Japan.

Then, in 1942, Nazi Col. Josef Meisinger arrived in Shanghai. The "Butcher of Warsaw," Meisinger was the Gestapo chief in charge of the Polish ghetto, where up to 500,000 people died or were deported to extermination camps.

Meeting with Japanese officials, Meisinger proposed a "final solution" for Shanghai's Jews. They could all be rounded up while worshiping on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, he suggested. Then they could be packed onto barges and set adrift to starve or shipped to a concentration camp to be set up on nearby Tsungming Island. (Canisters of the same type of gas used in the death camps in Europe were later discovered in some German warehouses here.)

Exactly why the Japanese resisted Meisinger's recommendations remains a source of debate. Some say Japan still harbored a sense of gratitude to the Jews because Jacob Schiff, a prominent

Jewish American, had lent Tokyo money during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. Others attribute it to a desire to use the refugees as a hedge with the United States, where the Japanese government believed Jews exercised great influence on Washington.

But bowing to continued Nazi pressure, Japanese military commanders issued a proclamation on Feb. 18, 1943, ordering all recently arrived, undocumented refugees--which did not cover the Sephardic and Russian Jews who had come a generation earlier or more--to move to the tiny ghetto in Hongkew within three months.

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