Shanghai on My Mind

What we never knew about this Jewish Diaspora

If you didn’t know where to look, you could easily miss it — faint writing on a brick wall in an old section of Shanghai. The words are German: “Horn’s Imbiss Stube” and “Café Atlantis.” A snack bar and a coffee house. Remnants of an almost forgotten time, when some 18,000 Jews, mostly German and Austrian, fled Hitler and found haven in Shanghai.

The history of these Jews has all the elements of gripping narrative: the highly refined Jews of Germany and Austria arriving in Shanghai harbor with their furs and woolen suits, ignorant of the hot and humid clime rife with typhoid; rich Baghdad Jews and Russian Jews who maintained their separate worlds; Chinese coolies pulling rickshaws to opium dens and gambling establishments; a European community of merchants, diplomats and spies; Japanese occupation forces maintaining a low level of law interspersed with cruelty. All this in the one city in the world open to entry without visa or passport.

The story of these Jews who escaped the Nazi crematoria by finding refuge halfway around the world seems largely untold, perhaps because the horrors of Hitler’s Final Solution make everything else pale in comparison, perhaps because Jewish cemeteries with the 2,000 dead from that time have vanished. The relatively few Jews who stayed on after the war left when the Communists took over in 1949, one year after the founding of the State of Israel.

Shanghai Refuge, A Memoir of the World War II Jewish Ghetto (University of Nebraska Press, $15.95) by Ernest G. Heppner is a scrupulously researched history, and includes pictures of the dashing young Heppner from refugee Rover Scout to Shanghai bridegroom along with archival photos of life in the ghetto. It’s only too bad that Heppner, who arrived in Shanghai in 1939 at the age of 17, sold his own camera early on.

Heppner’s “Survival” chapter documents how starving and sick Jews, amazingly, created a cultural life of concerts, lectures and plays in the Hongkew ghetto. Starting in 1943, the stateless European Jews were confined to this area roughly three-quarters of a square mile in size, coexisting with the slum’s impoverished Chinese population. At least as important for Jewish memory is the chapter’s far-reaching indictment of Jewish aid organizations in Shanghai. Heppner’s mother was a major source of information on the Jewish assistance organizations. A high-energy woman, she went from running the family hotel in the German mountainside to supporting herself and her son as a caseworker for Shanghai refugee relief committees. She then became a social worker with the Joint Distribution Committee. Documenting her experience, Heppner details the shocking lack of supervision and the self-serving behavior of staff within the various Jewish associations trying to keep the Shanghai refugees alive. He criticizes the established Jewish communities for giving the refugees handouts rather than funds to start their own businesses.

Belying the Jewish stereotype, Heppner was not particularly close to his mother. In fact, he doesn’t even mention her name. (He does name his father and sister, whom he never saw again after he and his mother left for Shanghai.)

Mrs. Heppner may go nameless, but she does emerge as a spirited woman. Defying German orders to take no valuables, she dared to smuggle some wristwatches out of the country. She might well have been sent back following the border body search if Heppner hadn’t convinced her to throw the wristwatches from the train en route to Italy. And when Heppner, his wife, his wife’s family and his mother finally made it to America, he settled in Indianapolis and his mother stayed in Brooklyn. She eventually moved to Switzerland, living to the age of 97 in a retirement home in Basel.

In reconstructing history, we’re on shakier ground with Ten Green Bottles, The True Story of One Family’s Journey From War-torn Austria to the Ghettos of Shanghai by Vivian Jeanette Kaplan (St. Martin’s Press, $23.95). In this vivid recreation, Kaplan seemingly channels her mother, writing in the first person voice of Nini Karpel. Nini, who grew up privileged in Vienna, fled with her family to Shanghai after Kristallnacht. She was then 23. Kaplan herself was born in Shanghai after the war and immigrated to Toronto with her family at the age of two.

The book, which will appeal to young adults and beyond, certainly captures important parts of the story of survival. One surprise is Nini and her beloved’s non-stereotypical survival. They manage to smuggle the family’s European goods out of Shanghai to Harbin, near the Russian border. There they sell the valuables for dollars to Russian Jews, then smuggle the cash back to Shanghai via Japan. Nini and husband use the money to become partners in a bar (those “Ten Green Bottles”) in Shanghai’s French Concession.

In a work of historical fiction set in some of the same locales, Angel Wagenstein, a Sephardic Jewish Bulgarian screenwriter-novelist who was a partisan fighter in World War II, captures the big picture and the haunting details, the daring intelligence work and the heartbreaking ironies of life and death in Shanghai during the war. Wagenstein’s Farewell, Shanghai, translated from Bulgarian by Deliana Simeonova and Elizabeth Frank (Handsel Books, $24.95), mixes fictional characters with historical composites. Most memorable among those rooted in history are the blonde, beautiful Hilde Braun, the Jew who becomes private secretary to the Third Reich’s representative in Shanghai; and the charming, elusive Vladek, whose nationality is “polyglot.”

This may not be the most scrupulously authentic story of the Shanghai ghetto, but the drama is sweeping and the history largely accurate, right down to the files of Soviet intelligence on the Far East declassified in this century, and Wagenstein’s recounting of the tragedies of intelligence ignored by the Allies. Angel Wagenstein is not the Barbara Tuchman of the Shanghai ghetto, but he certainly keeps history alive in a deftly ironic tone.

And in modern Shanghai, in the neighborhood of the fading snack bar and café signs on a brick wall, the story is returning to life. Israeli journalist Dvir Bar-Gal has started leading tours of the wartime Jewish ghetto and searching out tombstones from the destroyed Jewish cemeteries.

Amy Stone, a founding mother of Lilith, spent two years in China as an editor with the Shenzhen Daily and the China Daily.