Diplomatic Pouch / November 19, 2015
By Larry Luxner
In the midst of partisan bickering over whether the United States should accept Syrian war refugees following last week's deadly, ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks in Paris, here's a lesson from China.
Back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, well over 20,000 European Jews escaping Nazi persecution found refuge in Shanghai, a teeming international city thousands of miles from the shtetls of Poland and the cafés of Berlin and Vienna.
Survival in Shanghai is a film tribute to the hospitality and decency of the people of Shanghai, who even under brutal Japanese occupation opened their doors to the Jews when no one else would let them in.
On Nov. 17, the Chinese Embassy - in an unprecedented joint effort with the Embassy of Israel and the American Jewish Committee - screened a 26-minute English-language of the film produced by Shanghai Media Group.
About 200 people gathered in the embassy's auditorium to watch the film, later moving afterward to the main banquet hall for an exhibit on China's Jewish history and a kosher buffet spread featuring tilapia, Chinese vegetables and traditional Israeli falafel.
“Over the past 10 months, our crew traveled to the U.S., Germany, Israel, Austria and throughout China, interviewing 40 survivors who wanted to share their experiences in Shanghai,” said director Yan Xiaoying, whose film contains archival footage of Jewish life in Shanghai during World War II, interviews of Jews now living in Florida, New Jersey and elsewhere, and their emotional visits back to Shanghai 70 years later.
“What impressed me the most is that we hear directly from those who experienced those horrible years, and we can feel the happiness and the sorrow,” she said. “All of them are getting old, and some have unfortunately passed away, so we feel the urgency to put their stories on camera.”
Among the survivors who appear in Xiaoying's film is 89-year-old Michael Blumenthal, a German Jewish refugee who along with his family lived in the Hongkou ghetto of Shanghai from 1939 to 1947, and eventually became U.S. Treasury secretary during the Carter administration.
“If I had been smarter, I would have taken the trouble to learn to speak and read and write good Chinese, and to learn more about Chinese culture and history, but I didn't do that,” said Blumenthal. “At that time, I was very busy earning enough money to eat, so it didn't happen, and I regret that.”
Another is I. Betty Grebenschikoff of Ventnor, N.J. Author of the memoir “Once My Name Was Sara,” she attended the Nov. 17 screening and was eager to tell her story to the throngs of Chinese journalists waiting to interview her.
“If I hadn't gotten to Shanghai, I would not be here today, because Shanghai was the loophole that allowed 20,000 Jewish people from Europe to find a haven,” said Grebenschikoff, who lived in China's largest city from 1939 to 1950. “There was no other place where we could go at that time.”
The original version of Survival in Shanghai is 90 minutes long and has won high acclaim throughout China, which today has no more than a few thousand Jews - virtually all of them foreigners - out of a population of 1.35 billion.
But back in 1937, with anti-Semitism on the rise in Hitler's Germany, Jews began flocking to Shanghai, thanks to Chinese diplomats such as Dr. Ho Feng Shan who saved Jews by issuing them visas; the since it was one of the few places in the world that didn't require a visa to enter.
Until 1940, the Jews who came to Shanghai arrived by boat from Italian ports, but after Italy declared war on France and Great Britain, Jewish refugees could only come via land, crossing Siberia and reaching Shanghai by way of northeast China, Korea or Japan.
But with the outbreak of fighting between Germany and the USSR, that route was cut off too, and once Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 - bringing the United States into the war - Shanghai found itself totally isolated from the outside world.
By then, some 18,000 Jews had arrived, adding to the Jews of Russian, Iraqi and Indian descent who had already settled in Shanghai in previous waves of immigration. Gradually, an area along Hongkou District's Chusan Road came to be known as “Little Vienna” for its European-style cafés, delis and shops.
Life became much harder after the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. An edict issued on Feb. 18, 1943 forced all Jewish refugees into Hongkou's Tilanqiao neighborhood, in what amounted to a ghetto where Jews and native Chinese were forced to live side-by-side in filth and squalor.
Yet anti-Semitism among the Chinese local was virtually unheard of.
“If the Hongkou people would not have been so tolerant, our life would have been miserable,” wrote Jerry Moses, a former Jewish refugee. “In Europe, if a Jew escaped, he or she had to go into hiding. Here in Shanghai, we could dance and pray and do business. In my heart, there will always be this amazing experience as a boy, of how people that were even more worse off than I was could feel sorry for me.”
Once World War II ended and Israel was established in 1948, Jews began leaving Shanghai. In 1949, the communists took over mainland China, and the Jewish exodus picked up, with refugees heading to new lives in the United States, Israel, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa; only a few returned to Europe.
In 2007, the Hongkou District government renovated the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue and built the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which has been visited by tourists from all over the world; its artifacts are featured in the film Survival in Shanghai.
After the screening, Jeffrey Stone, chairman of AJC's Asia Pacific Institute, spoke to the audience against a backdrop of Chinese, Israeli and American flags.
“It's impossible to watch this movie without thinking about the hundreds of thousands of refugees leaving the Middle East today, afraid, scared and alone, not able to find a refuge anywhere in the world that will welcome them as Shanghai did in the 1930s and 1940s,” he insisted, noting that Jews everywhere “are forever grateful” to China.
Stone said he hoped that “as free democratic people, we will stand strong against the scourge of terrorism and hatred” spreading across Europe and the Middle East.
“So tonight as we celebrate this moment in history,” he concluded, “we also use it to remember what the core values that united us as a people mean for today's world, and what it means for the future of our children and our children's children.”