by Jerry Lindenstrauss, given at the opening of the exhibit “Destination Shanghai”
Before you view this exhibition, I want to tell you that I was one of the lucky ones, having been able to leave Germany. I lived in Shanghai for 8 years, growing up there. First we were free, then we lived under Japanese occupation, and after the war we were able to leave.
I was born in Gumbinnen, East Prussia, Germany, a small town near the Lithuanian border. We then moved to Koenigsberg, the capital of East Prussia. I already had to go to a Jewish school there until Kristallnacht, when the synagogue and school were burned down.
In 1939 it was already difficult to leave Germany because very few countries wanted us, including the United States. But my father found out that Shanghai accepted anyone without a visa. So in July of that year the whole family, all 11 of us, left Germany on the Scharnhorst, a German luxury liner, on its last civilian voyage before being converted into a troop ship. The trip took 30 days and went through the Suez Canal, where we could practically see Palestine. As a 10-year-old boy I had fun on the ship. We traveled first class, and my father had to pay for a round trip even though we obviously did not return.
We arrived in Shanghai in August. The weather in summer there is very hot and humid, not too agreeable for the refugees in their heavy European clothes. Our first impression was pretty bad. We saw many beggars and coolies and rickshaws being pulled by skeletal men.
We first lived in the French Concession, a small, elegant neighborhood. My father expected his cousin in England to transfer $550, an amount my father secretly sent him from Germany, but this money never arrived. So my father and stepmother opened a stand on the market in the winter. It gets cold and windy in Shanghai, and my father got sick and died of pneumonia after a few months. He never got over not receiving his own money.
I said Kaddish every morning for 6 months at the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, an old Russian synagogue in Hongkew. This was a poor working class neighborhood where we moved to, and where eventually all 18,000 German and Austrian refugees had to move by order of the Japanese Army, who by then had occupied Shanghai.
That synagogue has a special significance for me. 3 years after saying Kaddish there, I had my Bar Mitzvah at the synagogue. And 66 years after that, I read from my autobiography on the same bima at the same Ohel Moshe Synagogue. I was invited by the Chinese Government to take part in the opening ceremony for the Shanghai Refugee Museum, located in Hongkew where we had lived. The ceremony was sponsored by the German and Israeli Consulates, and I was honored by being the only refugee to attend. It was a very emotional moment for me.
We lived in Hongkew in the same house and lane with the Chinese as good neighbors. My family occupied a half-room, divided by a Persian carpet which we were able to bring along. The house had no running water, and there was an outhouse on the roof, where we also did the cooking on a small charcoal stove.
The Nazis prodded their allies, the Japanese, to kill us, but for unexplained reasons the Japanese only forced us to move to Hongkew, a ghetto without walls. The Japanese ordered the refugees to organize a police force, or border police, to ensure that none of us would leave without a pass. A Japanese major named Goya was in charge of us, and every day hundreds of refugees stood in long lines in front of his office to obtain a pass. Goya was very moody, stood on his desk, and slapped people around. He was called the King of the Jews.
There were two other Jewish groups in Shanghai, the Baghdadi Jews and the Russian Jews. The Baghdadi Jews came to Shanghai around 100 years earlier and became very rich. They numbered around 4000 and had names like Sassoon and Kadoorie. The Russian Jews came during the revolution and were mostly middle class businessmen.
Mr. Kadoorie donated a building, which became our school. 600 refugee kids were taught English and had after-school activities like sports, music, and Friday night services. I sang in the choir, and maybe because of that I still like going to temple Friday nights and singing L’cho Daudi.
The kids led a fairly normal life. The adults had it much harder. Many refugees made a living selling their belongings, whatever they had been able to take from Germany, on the street. Lawyers sold newspapers on the street. By far the worst problem was the tropical diseases, such as typhoid, malaria, etc. Medicines were scarce, then during the war non-existent. Fortunately, no one was killed.
So, Shanghai was a blessing, and I will never stop thanking the Chinese People for taking us in.
I will end by telling you what I always tell my grandchildren, “If we had not been able to immigrate to Shanghai, I would not be here, so you would not be here, either.”