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Return of a Shanghai Jew

After decades of trying to forget the miseries of his refugee childhood during World War II, a Southern Californian circles back to China to embrace the people who saved his life.

January 15, 2006|Adam Minter | Adam Minter is a freelance writer based in Shanghai.

At the market, Gaoyang Road widens and hooks toward a set of encroaching Shanghai high-rises. Below, in their shadows, is a gray, run-down, two-story building that holds a tobacco shop, a beauty parlor and a noodle restaurant on its first floor. The top level is residential, and it juts over the first, creating a covered lane hung with laundry. Just south of the building, Jerry Moses, a retired Southern California businessman, squints and looks up, hands clasped behind his back. "I don't know, I don't know," he says with long vowels stretched by his German accent. "This isn't right." He takes a deep breath and walks slowly toward the lane, brow furrowed. "All this is new. I can't recognize it."

Moses last walked on Gaoyang Road in 1947. It was called Chaoufoong Road then, and it was home to many of the 18,000 European Jewish refugees who had sought refuge from Nazi Germany in Shanghai's Hongkew District (today known as Hongkou) during the run-up to World War II. He casts his gaze at the lane, his brow loosens and he begins to nod. "This is it, this is it," he says softly. "I know this is it." One week into his first visit to Shanghai in almost 60 years, Moses has found his third home in an exile that lasted from 1941 to 1947.

He strides into the space, his manner now much closer to that of the 12-year-old boy who had left than the 70-year-old man who has returned. "I used to ride a bike up and down here," he declares, pointing toward the weathered bricks. A single red door colors the building facade. Moses runs his hand across the wood and sits on the step below it. "I have to think," he sighs. "Give me a second." That second scarcely passes before he sings a faint melody. "It's a Chinese song I knew as a kid," he says. "I don't remember the words. It just came back to me." One word, however, is very clear: ZuGaNin, the name for a local in Shanghai dialect.

Moses stands and skips a hand along the bricks. From 1945 to 1947 he lived inside with his mother, father, older sister and younger brother. He walks to the end of the alley, where a middle-aged man suddenly emerges pushing a bicycle. "Nong ho!" Moses says, greeting the man in the dialect he learned as a boy. "Ala ZongGoNin," he says, stabbing his chest with a finger. Then, pointing to the building, "Ala YouTaNin!"

We are Chinese. We are Jewish.

The man with the bicycle is startled: A white foreigner in this back alley who speaks the notoriously difficult dialect? He looks at Moses, then at me--a white man in his 30s--and finally at a Japanese woman, a photographer with a large camera. "YouTaNin?"

Moses nods excitedly. "Jewish. YouTaNin. Ala YouTaNin! Shanghai YouTaNin!"

The men launch into a loud mash of Mandarin, Shanghainese and English, interrupted by laughter and handshakes. They really don't understand each other, but after a few minutes (and translation help), the Shanghainese man, whose first name is Yide, understands that Moses is one of the celebrated Shanghai Jews, and that he used to live in his building. Yide invites Jerry into his home.

The low door leads into a dank space. "That's where we lived," Moses says, pointing at locals hovering over steaming noodle bowls. "It was a single room and it used to have a raised Japanese floor," he adds. "Now it's a restaurant!" Beside the restaurant is a staircase at an 80-degree angle. With Yide's help, Moses climbs to a dim apartment filled with two beds and a small table. A pretty middle-aged Chinese woman named Xiaomei takes Moses' arm and escorts him to the most comfortable chair. When he speaks in dialect, she looks at Yide and giggles. Soon, the three are laughing and talking like old friends catching up on the last 60 years.

"YouTaNin, Ho!" declares Yide. Jews are very good.

"ZongGoNin, Ho!" replies Moses. Chinese are very good.

They laugh and Moses says, "Come here." Yide does, and they embrace. "Tell them I am so grateful. That the Chinese people were so nice to us," he says, asking me for a precise translation. "Tell them I would be dead without this country." He looks away and says softly to himself: "Shanghai."

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