I was staring up at the synagogue today, this hundred-year old building in the middle of Shanghai, and it suddenly hit me how small, transient and wide-spread the Jewish experience has been, and for so long. I tend to think of the time before commercial airplanes as slow, and somewhat lazy or relaxed, when it took forever for anything to get very far, especially information and people. Things like the morse code or telegrams had to exist because otherwise nothing would get done. And travelling from Europe to the edge of the Pacific, on either side, seems to have been a trip too long to bother with. Which is probably why only soldiers and rich people did it.
Within this frame I suddenly thought of what it must have been like to be a Jewish refugee here in Shanghai during World War II. Because those are the only other people who would make that trip – people with no other choice.
Let’s picture it. You’re in your teens, arriving with your parents, or maybe in your twenties, arriving by yourself. You have to go through Japan, via Panama, or via the trans-Siberian railroad. Imagine the weeks (the months!) on trains or boats or both! Imagine the discomfort, the motion-sickness, the hard beds. Kids playing games to pass the time. Reading and re-reading the few available books, maybe sharing them with each other. Knowing with certainty that undertaking such a trip – with all its difficulties – is better than the horrors you left behind. Maybe that’s what kept people sane.
In Japan you stay for a few days, a week, with another thousand refugees, because it’s just one more country that can’t – wont’ – take you in. It’s just part of the trip out of death-ridden Europe. Salvation, of course, but too temporary to be a sustainable solution. Maybe there’s a camp there. Bunk-beds, open showers, too little food and too many people, dirt, lice.
Then, finally, Shanghai. The only city in the world where you don’t need a visa, where you are welcome. Another crowded boat, children and parents on the deck, and you standing there alone with your meager belongings wrapped up in a bundle, lying at your feet. You gaze out and see the spectacular outline of this strange city, this city that you hope will be a free and safe, if temporary, home. High European buildings line the riverfront, hiding the truly local Chinese lifestyle that sprawls behind.
You disembark, cross a bridge over a big creek, and arrive at your new neighborhood.
The people are nice there, warm, friendly. They help with the children, with the food. They are your neighbors. Not refugees, but owning perhaps exactly the same amount of stuff. You learn to communicate with each other. You learn from them. Maybe even make friends. When else in history – how else – would once-affluent European Jews get to share their daily lives with lower-class Chinese? Even today, with all the traveling and mixing, this is a hard thing to achieve.
Then one day, the neighborhood closes in on itself, enveloping everyone in it. The Japanese, to appease the Gestapo, create the first and only Jewish ghetto in Shanghai. The uniqueness of this ghetto is evident. Jews and Chinese coexisted as semi-prisoners, both suffering under the hardness of the Japanese rule.
Life becomes less comfortable. Working is hard, as is going to school, because you need special permit to leave the ghetto. Nonetheless, Jewish books, magazines and newspapers are published. People celebrate the holidays. Shops, bakeries, pharmacies, cafes open and flourish. Children are born. People get married. Maybe you are one of them.
And then, just like that, a decade passes. Suddenly it’s 1950, and almost no one is left. The Japanese are gone. Communism is coming, and business becomes impossible. People found their surviving family members, moved to America, Australia, Israel. So you pack you bags, now perhaps significantly bigger, get on a boat, and go to reunite with the few distant cousins left to you.
Subsequently, the refugees thought very fondly of their time in Shanghai. It seems that the significance of it lies not merely on the fact that they were saved from a horrendous death, but also in that they were truly welcomed by the local population, and were allowed to flourish. Even the Japanese had nothing against the Jews, and were much more severe on their Chinese neighbors.
A beam of light in an otherwise horrendous decade.