Murray Polner: Review of Steve Hochstadt's "Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)


Murray Polner is a regular book reviewer for the History News Network

Deftly weaving in the personal and political, Steve Hochstadt, who teaches history at Illinois College, tells an absorbing story of some 16,000 Central European Jewish refugees who fled the Nazis, helped in part by the heroism of Feng Shan Ho, the Chinese Consul-General in Vienna who handed out Chinese visas to Jews desperately trying to escape. (Yad Vashem, the Jewish memorial to Jewish victims and non-Jewish rescuers has honored Feng Shan Ho).

It’s a story that has been told before, most notably by David Kranzler in his seminal Japanese, Nazis and Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community in Shanghai, 1938-45 but which has been forgotten largely because of the understandable attention given the European Holocaust. The singular value of Exodus to Shanghai is that it relies on the personal testimonies of one hundred refugees Hochstadt managed to locate. What he does best is thoroughly set the stage from the panicky departure of men, women and children from Nazi Europe to life in Shanghai and eventual dispersion to the few countries that would have them.

The Shanghai the refugees encountered was a cosmopolitan city divided since the Opium War of 1842, when the British took control of the opium trade in China and thereafter controlled the International Settlement dominated by the UK as well as French, Russian and American commercial and imperial interests. Its Western subjects were governed by the law of extraterritoriality whereby the Chinese had little authority until Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists arrived in 1927. Russian Jews escaping Tsarist and Communist rule and about 1,000 Baghdadi Jews, many of whom had come at the turn of the century to avoid being drafted into the Ottoman army, were living in Shanghai when the new refugees arrived.

Hochstadt obviously has a personal connection to those years. “I grew up with the exodus to Shanghai on my mind. My father and his family were hounded out of Vienna by the Nazis; my father came to the United States, but his parents fled to Shanghai.”

He appropriately describes the immigration as “an exile of little people.” “We basically came penniless,” one woman told him. “There were very many people, very poor people here,” said another. Many newcomers witnessed scenes they had never before seen, paricularly when they saw people lying dead in the streets. Shocked at the sight one said, “Nobody picked them up. It was a very bad time in Shanghai for the Chinese people, too. More than for us, I say.”

Still, the newcomers did their best to recreate their past lives. They opened a school for youngsters, and published the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle. They were doctors and nurses, business people, tailors, actors, a boxer. and even a magician, whose Russian Jewish friend set up a tour to Japanese–occupied territores including Beijing, Tianjin, and Qingdao, where he performed before factory workers and rickshaw coolies. One student attended St. John’s University, where English was the primary language of instruction.

Several thousand refugees followed them. The entire ultra-Orthodox Mirrer Yeshiva crossed Siberia via the Trans-Siberian Railway and received Japanese approval to enter Shanghai. Speaking Yiddish, dressed quite differently from the Central Europeans living near them, they had little or no contact with one another. They even published a Yiddish language newspaper. “As far as they were concerned,” complained a non-Orthodox woman, “we weren’t even Jewish.”

Night life flourished for anyone who had the desire or money. One person recalled seeing “prominent Nazis” in a club “sitting with a Jewish bar girl and buying drinks.” A Jewish dressmaker spoke of a Nazi official’s wife befriending her.

Bands played swing and jazz, in retrospect seemingly resembling an old Hollywood film. Theater groups sprang up. In neighboring Hangkou, night clubs seemed to be everywhere.

Remarkably, the Jews were treated relatively well compared with how badly the Japanese treated interned Western civilians in Hong Kong. Not so the Chinese. “The contrast with Japanese treatment of the Chinese, which during the war approached genocidal proportions, demonstrates what might have happened if the Japanese had also been infected with virulent anti-Semitism,” writes Hochstadt. Despite restrictions and rare acts of cruelty, the Japanese, with no tradition of anti-Semitism, even resisted German urges that they round up the immigrants.

Hochstadt puts it in perspective. “While French police rounded up Jews and delivered them to trains heading toward Auschwitz, and Lithuania mobs publicly beat Jews to death, by resisting German pressure to murder Jews and providing a refuge where thousands could survive, the Japanese most clearly resemble the Italians, the Danes and the Bulgarians.”

After the Japanese surrendered in 1945 a few Jewish refugees remained in Shanghai  but most scattered throughout the world. For many, the experience was hard to forget. After the war, one couple wandered back to Germany. “Then we got this house in Portugal, because I wanted someplace I can go in a hurry in case the shit hits the fan. And it looked a few times like it would. During the Cold War there were many hairy situations.”

If there is a lesson to be learned it is that wars, oppressive governments, ethnic and religious conflicts, and economic deprivation always lead to “exiles of little people.” Despite many acts of decency and kindness, far too many nations and people remain unwilling to welcome refugees.

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