Voic­es From Shang­hai: Jew­ish Exiles in Wartime China

Irene Eber, ed., trans., and intro.
  • Review
January 10, 2012
His­to­ry is more than names, dates, and facts. His­to­ry is also the small details of every­day life, often not not­ed by his­to­ri­ans. How does one cope with ill­ness, find food, earn a liv­ing, adjust to strange sur­round­ings, and attempt to pre­serve one’s human­i­ty under the harsh con­di­tions of war and pover­ty? Lit­tle is known of the 20,000 Jews who escaped to Shang­hai dur­ing the Holo­caust. Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus Irene Eber has searched archives, libraries, pri­vate col­lec­tions, and defunct news­pa­pers to find let­ters, diaries, poems, short sto­ries, and even car­toons that were com­posed by Jew­ish refugees in Shang­hai in Yid­dish, Ger­man, and Pol­ish. Draw­ing from these doc­u­ments she has paint­ed a col­or­ful pic­ture of how uproot­ed and dis­placed fam­i­lies exem­pli­fied courage, strength, and deter­mi­na­tion to sur­vive and even thrive under the most dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. Shang­hai was a city of 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple, with fifty nation­al­i­ties, and sat­u­rat­ed with pover­ty, nar­cotics, pros­ti­tu­tion, and a Chi­nese lan­guage bar­ri­er which could not be read, spo­ken, or under­stood. Upon arrival in Shang­hai , the refugees were dumb­found­ed to find avail­able street trav­el by bus, trol­ley, car, bicy­cle, water buf­fa­lo carts, or rick­shaw. Wel­come to Chi­na! 

Via let­ters, poems, and diaries, we learn that the refugees cre­at­ed a rich cul­tur­al life of pub­lish­ing, the­ater, and even broad­cast­ing. We can now read their thoughts, hear their voic­es, and share the poet­ry they cre­at­ed. Amaz­ing­ly, there were eleven Ger­man-Jew­ish news­pa­pers and jour­nals. There were even six Yid­dish news­pa­pers, both sec­u­lar and reli­gious. A Yid­dish the­ater had sell­out per­for­mances of the Dyb­buk, Mirele Efros, and even Tevye the Dairy­man, which were all writ­ten from mem­o­ry. Remark­ably, there was even a Yid­dish radio sta­tion that broad­cast three times a week; a per­for­mance of a humor­ous vari­ety show, Haman­tashen with Rice,” even brought laughs to the refugees. 

Doc­u­ments demon­strate the Jew­ish refugees’ com­pas­sion for the Chi­nese chil­dren, clothed in rags and always hun­gry, and for the poor­est of the poor, such as a rick­shaw puller who, run­ning bare­foot at night in the cold rain, stepped on a piece of glass but con­tin­ued to run while the glass cut deep­er and deep­er into his foot. The refugees’ con­cern for the suf­fer­ing of fel­low human beings, and anger and dis­ap­point­ment at our indif­fer­ent world, are themes we rarely read of in his­to­ry books. 

Read­ing their let­ters, we do not find self pity, but wor­ry about those left behind in Europe . We find a descrip­tion of the Jew­ish school in Shang­hai which dur­ing the war pro­vid­ed hap­pi­ness and self-esteem to the chil­dren, had a mod­el cur­ricu­lum, and even found employ­ment for all the grad­u­ates. Impres­sive, too, are the lec­tures and news­pa­per arti­cles that explained and inter­pret­ed the Chi­nese lan­guage, phi­los­o­phy, and cul­ture to the refugees who were eager to under­stand their new neigh­bors. And togeth­er the Chi­nese and Jews worked with super­hu­man strength to res­cue those buried in the ruins when their area was acci­den­tal­ly bombed by Amer­i­cans. For­tu­nate­ly, Pro­fes­sor Eber found a woman’s diary, for now we can read a woman’s per­cep­tion and hear a woman’s voice, so often neglect­ed by historians. 

Remark­ably, Eber was able to trans­late Ger­man and Yid­dish poet­ry into Eng­lish rhyme. (For those who can read Ger­man or Yid­dish, it would have been help­ful if the orig­i­nal text had been print­ed along­side the trans­la­tion.) All writ­ers and read­ers of his­to­ry can learn a valu­able les­son from Eber. Index of names, notes.

Discussion Questions