Strange Haven: A Jew­ish Child­hood in Wartime Shanghai

Sig­mund Tobias
  • Review
January 9, 2012

Shang­hai is 7,000 miles from Europe, but for some 20,000 Jew­ish refugees from the Holo­caust, it served as a haven. Slow­ly, sur­vivors of this unique sanc­tu­ary have pub­lished their expe­ri­ences, but now we can also hear the authen­tic voice of the chil­dren, and even read a day-to-day diary of a teenag­er in Shanghai. 

Sig­mund Tobias, author of the mem­oir Strange Haven, remem­bers his child­hood days in Ger­many where he was cursed, spit upon, and pelt­ed with garbage and rocks. He remem­bers Kristall­nacht and the trau­ma of see­ing the charred and burned han­dles of the sacred Torah scroll. His father, tall, strong, and proud, was sent to Dachau and returned beat­en and bro­ken, hair shaved off, and drag­ging a foot. After being refused sanc­tu­ary every­where, they fled to Shang­hai, where a visa was not required. 

Tobias was six. Tobias’ well-writ­ten mem­oir describes their new world in Chi­na. Peo­ple ate with chop­sticks, and there was one toi­let for sev­en fam­i­lies in their shel­ter. He describes his school­ing at the Kadoorie School and the Mir Yeshi­va, and how his faith was shak­en by the yeshiva’s greed and self-inter­est. Dur­ing the war, the yeshi­va stu­dents could afford to pur­chase cig­a­rettes and new cloth­ing, and were served expen­sive food such as but­ter and cream, while many refugees were starv­ing and wore clothes made of flour sacks. When fund­ing from the U.S. was cut off to the refugees, the yeshi­va received pri­vate fund­ing, but did not share with oth­ers in need. 

Tobias cel­e­brat­ed his bar mitz­vah in Shang­hai, just after the war, in the pres­ence of a U.S. Army Jew­ish chap­lain with the Star of David on his col­lar, speak­ing slow­ly in Eng­lish and end­ing with Am Yis­rael Chai,” which brought tears to the rab­bi and to every­one in attendance. 

At fif­teen, Tobias came to Amer­i­ca alone, with­out his par­ents, and he describes the warm recep­tion of the Joint Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mit­tee that wel­comed and assist­ed all new immi­grants. He even­tu­al­ly became a high­ly respect­ed uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor who was invit­ed to Shang­hai to lec­ture, and the return to his for­mer home in Shang­hai is a beau­ti­ful end­ing to this memoir. 

Sig­mund Tobias was fif­teen when he left Shang­hai in 1948; Fred Mar­cus was fif­teen when he arrived there in 1939. Mar­cus’ diary, Sur­vival in Shang­hai, cov­er­ing the ten years he lived there, is an absolute gem. 

Writ­ten in poor qual­i­ty wartime ink, on fad­ed pages, it was nev­er trans­lat­ed by the author. For­tu­nate­ly, Mar­cus’ wid­ow con­tact­ed gift­ed trans­la­tor Rena Kras­no, who lived in Shang­hai from 1923, and the two women col­lab­o­rat­ed on this book, adding an illu­mi­nat­ing com­men­tary which pro­vides a detailed pic­ture of Jew­ish life in Shang­hai as well as an excel­lent bib­li­og­ra­phy of the Holo­caust refugee expe­ri­ence in Chi­na. Each page is a trea­sure of infor­ma­tion as the teenaged Mar­cus over­comes obsta­cles of sur­vival, includ­ing depres­sion. We learn of the ter­ri­ble con­di­tions that thou­sands of refugees endured, with only a sheet sep­a­rat­ing fam­i­lies in over­crowd­ed hous­ing, and the hero­ic and ded­i­cat­ed doc­tors who pre­vent­ed major epi­demics. Mar­cus attend­ed lec­tures by refugees on music, Chi­nese cul­ture, art, his­to­ry, etc. Despite the deplorable sit­u­a­tion, six­ty Ger­man plays were pro­duced in Shang­hai, and sev­er­al operettas as well. We learn of Die Gelbe Post (The Yel­low Post) one of twen­ty-two Jew­ish pub­li­ca­tions in Shanghai.

Fred Mar­cus left Shang­hai in 1949 for the U.S., where he grad­u­at­ed from uni­ver­si­ty and received a Mas­ters in Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion. He lec­tured fre­quent­ly on his expe­ri­ences grow­ing up in Nazi Ger­many and as a refugee in Shanghai. 

These two books pro­vide rich new insights into a major chap­ter of the Jew­ish Holo­caust refugee expe­ri­ence. The fact that both authors were so young gives the works par­tic­u­lar poignancy.

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