Vladka Meed Part 8: Not an Epilogue

Vladka and Benjamin fled the ruined city in a Polish medical wagon. They rode out, hidden beneath a sheet, wearing Red Cross armbands. Once out of Warsaw, Vladka and Benjamin made contact with some friends hiding on a large estate. Only their expertly forged false documents shielded them from German discovery.

In early January 1945, Benjamin received word through the underground that his parents were alive and looking for him. Benjamin and his parents were reunited in mid-January, and Benjamin and Vladka married shortly thereafter at his parents’ insistence.

Now married, they returned to Warsaw five months after their initial departure. They found nothing. They rubble of the ghetto–all that remained of their former lives–yielded no answers. At the Jewish cemetery, it was almost impossible to find a grave; the place was in ruins: nothing but overturned tombstones, desecrated graves, and scattered skulls as far as the eye could see.

They remained in the deserted city for a short time before moving to Lodz. They tried to build a life there, but realized that they had no future in the country of their birth as Polish anti-Jewish violence rose in the post-war years.1 So, they set out for the United States. Following the circuitous route typical of Jewish refugees in the larger 1933-1950 period, Vladka and Benjamin finally arrived in New York City on May 24, 1946.

Benjamin launched a business in the fur industry, and later opened a successful import-export business. Vladka meanwhile, worked as a writer for the Jewish Daily Forward. In 1948, they had a daughter named Anna, now Dr. Anna Meed Scherzer, and in 1950, they had a son named Steven, now Dr. Steven Meed. Vladka and Benjamin attained their American citizenship in the early 1950s, and formally changed their names to Benjamin and Vladka Meed.

In the late 1940s, Vladka began the work that would dominate the rest of her life. She had seen the Holocaust, seen her world before and after, and she was adamant that no one ever forget what had befallen her people.

She traveled across the United States, lecturing on her war-time experiences in partnership with such organizations as the Jewish Labor Committee and the International Rescue Committee.

Over the course of the next 30-odd years, Vladka and Benjamin would become influential voices in the realms of Holocaust education and commemoration. For example, Vladka led an (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to create a Holocaust memorial in Battery Park in the 1960s, and helped to found the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance Organization in 1962.

In 1978, Yad Vashem officials reached out to Vladka and Benjamin to invite them to a memorial service in Warsaw. They accepted, and, through Yad Vashem, received two visas allowing them to return to Poland for four days each. During these four days, they were to find in their former home a radically different relationship with the Holocaust than the one Vladka and Benjamin had dedicated their lives to building in the United States.

1 More on this in Part 9.

The sea peoples of the Bronze Age Collapse™ sound like something Buzzfeed would write. Do we actually have no clue where they come from or is it one of these over-hyped non-mysteries like the crystal skulls ?

Just fyi, this is not intended to be one of my hardcore scholarly posts, and it has been quite a few years since I’ve looked deeply into these issues. This response is more like I’m your quirky grandma pounding wine over lunch.

So, the Sea Peoples. You know how when you’re younger you think it was The
Barbarians who caused Rome to Fall in 476, but then you get older and
eventually learn that the “Barbarians” were actually hardcore Romanized and a
massive empire can’t just fall in one year because of one group of icky
outsiders anyway? Well, the “Sea Peoples” are to the Bronze Age Collapse as the “Barbarians” are to the Fall of Rome.

The Eastern Mediterranean Empires of the Late Bronze Age were a series of highly cosmopolitan, internationalized, and interconnected economic and political system ranging from Ancient Greece, to Asia Minor, to Egypt, to Sumeria. Complex systems like
that take a long time to build up, and require a lot of little problems building up over a span over the course of years to cause a widespread collapse. And when we say
“collapse” I think it’s incorrect to think of just cities being destroyed. By “collapse” I
mean the breakdown of international trade routes and economic systems and
systems of communication.

So as for what actually happened. We have primary resources; a lot in fact. We have a rich archaeological record, linguistic evidence, not to mention evidence from
geologists and climatologists. But these pieces of evidence tell a lot of little stories which only together could form a situation in which all that infrastructure could totally break down.

There were climate related problems; droughts, for example, unusual flooding patterns. There was unusually heavy volcanic and seismic activity. Some of the trade routes were impacted by these natural occurrences, causing minute snafus over a variety of interconnected economic systems, leading to a lot of big economic snafus over time. Empires were dealing with civil unrest and rebellions, undoubtedly partial results of the earthquakes and droughts and economic issues.

Though I’m primarily speaking of Sumeria and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Western and Central Mediterranean were hardly isolated from these economic and natural incidents, and these dominant international systems. Peoples of the West and Central Mediterranean responded to these disruptions by migrating east to the great imperial centers, which where all lowkey already breaking down.

These migrants, the “Sea Peoples,” likely settled and assimilated into into the civilizations they are purported to have destroyed. Some, I’m sure, were met with hostility upon their arrival. Others wanted to relocate politically and engaged in warfare, and others still wanted to plunder these slowly failing economies for all they were worth. So really, the “Sea Peoples” were multiple groups of migrants from dispersed areas migrating to a massive geographical area in a series of waves in response to a widespread set of structural problems. Meaning, that they were reacting to a set of pre-existing problems, not causing them.

Also, a lot of archaeological and linguistic evidence points to the “Sea Peoples” being of Etruscan and Aegean descent and I can’t tell you how much that thrills me.

Secondary Sources: http://historicity-was-already-taken.tumblr.com/Jewish%20History%20Bibliography#Bronze%20Age%20Collapse-Babylonian%20Exile

“Jewish Refugees and Shanghai”  by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

A reader wrote:

I spotted this exhibition (“Jewish Refugees and Shanghai”  by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum) on the first floor corridor of the main building of the University of Basel the other day. Apparently the Confucius Institute at the University of Basel organised the exhibition here (the Jewish Museum of Switzerland, which is only two blocks away from the University, is not involved). Do you know anything about this exhibition?

I do. And as you may expect, I have some very strong feelings about it.

My problem with the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and that traveling
exhibit is that they both rest on a narrative of saviorism. And that narrative is false.

When the Central and Eastern European Jewish refugees began arriving in Shanghai in 1938, they were allowed in not because the city’s governments wanted nothing more than to save the Jews, but because the city lacked a united government that would be able to keep them out. By 1938, the city existed as three separately governed polities with Great Britain, the United States, France, and Japan as the main power holders. All three governments attempted to devise exclusionary policies, but the divided nature of the city governance created a situation in which neither these policies nor passport control
could be enforced to effectively keep Jewish refugees out of the city.

The Communist Party of China won the Chinese Civil War in 1950. Under the rule of Mao Zedong, most evidence of the Jewish refugees and their built environment was erased, their cemeteries built over, and their buildings re-purposed. The Jewish refugees and their historical experience in Shanghai had no place within the new post-imperialist Chinese state. This began to change in 1991.

In 1991, China officially recognized the State of Israel. In 2004, the government of Shanghai designated the Ohel Moshe synagogue—built by the Russian Jewish community of Shanghai in 1927 and later used by the WWII-era refugees—as an architectural treasure. In 2007, the People’s Government of the Hongkew District budgeted for a full renovation of the synagogue in accordance with its original architectural drawings. When the renovation was complete the government installed in the space the brand new Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. In 2008 the museum featured an exhibit dedicated to developments in the Sino-Israeli relationship; its website boasted:

“Mr. Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister, commented during his visit to Shanghai, ‘To the people of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.’”

In 2012, historian Irene Eber wrote:

“Chinese interest in Jews and Israel as well as in Jews who once lived among them is
widespread today. Not only scholarly works, but also a number of recent popular publications support this interest. Several universities have Jewish Studies Institutes and visiting professors teach courses on Jewish topics. Translation work is flourishing and books on Jewish topics and fiction by major Israeli novelists are being translated. A new and very different chapter in Chinese-Jewish relations has begun.”

This is the context in which the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum must be understood.

The Museum’s website reads:

“From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai became a modern-day ‘Noah’s Ark’ accepting…Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe. In the ‘Designated Area for Stateless Refugees’…about 20,000 Jewish refugees lived harmoniously with local citizens, overcoming numerous difficulties together…Dr. David Kranzler, a noted Holocaust historian…commented that within the Jewry’s greatest tragedy, i.e. the Holocaust, there shone a few bright lights. Among the brightest of these is the Shanghai haven…the original features of the Jewish settlement are still well preserved. They are the only typical historic traces of Jewish refugee life inside China during the Second World War…[Hongkew] was the place where Jewish refugees lived in greatest concentration during the Second World War…in those days. Mr. Michael Blumenthal, ex-Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and the present curator of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, once lived in a small garret at 59 Zhoushan Road.”

As geopolitics move China and Israel together, the history of this refugee community suddenly has a place within the history of the Chinese state; it is no longer a forgotten moment in the imperialist chapter of Chinese history, but a piece of history which demonstrates China’s enduring interest in and care for the Jewish people.

The museum’s narrative is clear: Shanghai was a Noah’s Ark, not a city which, by accident of its history, had on opening into which ~20,000 Jews could squeeze; the Jews and the Chinese lived in harmony, not in separate communities which rarely interacted; the Chinese government is the preserver–the savior–of the history of the WWII-era Jewish refugees, not the Mao-era destroyer.

In the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, Shanghai is legitimized not simply as a place where Jewish refugees spent the years before, during, and after the Second World War, but as a space in which the refugees were actively saved. This museum, then, neither serves the memory nor speaks to the experiences of the refugees, but instead speaks to and serves contemporary Chinese political interests.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum currently has a traveling exhibit making the rounds with the cooperation of a variety of non-profit organizations. This, of course, is what you encountered at your university.

I attended the Capitol Hill kick-off event for that exhibit; one of my professors got me on the invite list. The event really had nothing to do with the historical experience of the Jewish refugees who spent ~1938-1950 in Shanghai. To be quite honest, it made me angry and upset, especially on the behalf of several former Shanghai refugees present. The event was filled with giggling Congressional staffers and interns who were only there for the free wine and food, and the exhibit got several simple facts wrong.

And then the speeches started. They had nothing to do with history. But, they did have a lot do with the relationships between the United States, China, and Israel, with a
little Japan thrown in as well.

Was it naive of me to be as taken off guard as I was? Yes. Should I have been surprised considering what I already knew about the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum? No. Am I well aware of the fact that the identities of and relationships between modern nation-states in the context of global capitalism are all about narratives and myth making? Yes. Am I still annoyed by that exhibit? Absolutely.

I’m glad that more people are becoming aware of this history, and I am glad that, despite the motivations, the Chinese government is preserving the history of this community and offering resources for researchers. I love that so many people in China are becoming more aware of and demonstrating a growing interest in Jewish history in China.

But I’m a historian and this is my research. I want to see those refugees and their memory put out there because they’re an important and fascinating piece of Holocaust history, not because they’re politically useful. But, here we are.

And those are my feelings on that museum and that exhibit.

Why German Jewry did not Leave in 1933 Pt. 4: World War I and the End of an Era

“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn

When Europe fell into the First World War, German Jews were enthusiastic about the war effort. They were eager to do their part to bring Germany to victory, and excited to prove themselves as Germans. Some elements of German Jewish society went so far as to call World War I a “Jewish war,” as Germany’s primary enemy was Russia, and German Jews opposed Russian treatment of their coreligionists.

It seemed that non-Jewish society was finally ready to respond in kind; even Kaiser Wilhelm declared, “I recognize no parties anymore, but only Germans.” But by 1916, public opinion turned once more against the Jews as the military effort failed to yield German victories. In October 1916, the War Ministry took a count of the number of Jews in the military, implicitly accusing German Jewry of cowardice and national disloyalty.

At the end of World War I, a civil conflict called the November Revolution (November, 1918-August, 1919) resulted in the replacement of Germany’s imperial government with the Weimar Republic. The November Revolution gave rise to the “Dolchstoßlegende,” the “stab-in-the-back-myth.” The stab-in-the-back-myth was the notion, widely held in right-wing Weimar circles, that Germany did not lose World War I, but was undermined and betrayed from within by civilian groups on the home front—such as Communists, Socialists, Jews, and Catholics—with presumed extra-national loyalties.

While the right-wing elements of Weimar society blamed primarily Communists and the Social Democratic Party (the SPD) for the loss of the War, more mainstream elements of Weimar society drew on age-old money-related stereotypes of Jews to scapegoat them for post-war hyperinflation. This said, the Adolf Hitlers of the Weimar political world were the exceptions, not the rule.

And then came 1933.

When the Nazis came to power, they made the stab-in-the-back-myth an integral part of their official history of the Weimar Republic. The blame which right-wing political elements once placed primarily on Communists and the SPD were appropriated by Nazi propagandists in keeping with Hitler’s fanatical anti-Semitism. Thus, the stab-in-the-back-myth was recast; it was now the Jews, with their extra-national loyalties and their international contacts, who had colluded with the Bolsheviks to bring down the German Empire from within.

Armed with recurring German anti-Semitic tropes and the recast stab-in-the-back-myth, between 1933 and 1938 the Nazi government persecuted the Jews, robbing them of their livelihoods, forcing them out of the civil service, public sector work, and cultural production. They instituted a boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933, and barred Jewish men from the workplace in 1938. Nazi legislation made it impossible for Jewish teens to attend high schools, and uncomfortable for Jewish children to attend elementary schools. These are examples from the legal side of the process put in place to transform German Jews from citizens into outcasts; each legal change was aided socially by non-Jewish society.

This transformative process was a long, drawn out one, so drawn out, in fact, that German Jews were not able to see the dangers it posed to them; it took Kristallnacht—a government sponsored, as opposed to popularly incited, pogrom—and the resulting arrests of Jewish men for German Jewry to see the precariousness of their lives in Germany.

The Nazi government rolled out their anti-Jewish legislation with one goal in mind: to make life so unpleasant for German Jewry that they would have no choice but to leave. However, in that policy was the assumption that the rest of the world would be totally down with absorbing those ~half million German Jews. The rest of the world was not, in fact, down with that.

The Nazis came to power in a world stricken by Great Depression. The governments of nations with the ability to receive Jewish refugees feared that the refugees would take away jobs from their citizens and add to the welfare rolls. Even when the worst of the Depression was over, immigration policies remained tight.

At first, many German Jews fled to nearby Western European nations which liberalized their immigration policies out of the belief (shared by the émigrés) that the Nazi regime would soon fall and the refugees would return home. However, they lost hope that such would be the case after the Anschluss. As a result, German Jewry began to look overseas rather than next-door.

The United States government accepted more refugees than other countries: a quarter million between 1933 and 1945. However, the United States had the capacity to accept far greater numbers than it did. The primary reason the United States could not live up to its potential was the quota system, created in 1924. Had the quotas been completely filled between 1938 and 1941, 206,000 German refugees could have entered the United States. The American Congress did not widen the quotas because of popular hostility towards the notion, fueled by Depression-induced nativist sentiments, domestic anti-Semitism, and fears that German Jewish immigrants might be German spies.

Great Britain opened its doors only to those Jews able to enhance Britain’s intellectual, cultural, and business capital. Its restrictive policy was due to a combination of the global economic crisis, domestic xenophobia, and social anti-Semitism. In all, Britain accepted approximately 70,000 refugees, in addition to the 10,000 German Jewish children whom arrived via the Kindertransports. However, Britain did allow a large number of Jews in on visitor’s visas. In 1939 the British government passed the White Paper, which stipulated that Jewish immigration to Palestine was to be limited to 15,000 per year until 1944, letting in approximately 75,000 Jewish refugees.

The British Commonwealth members (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, and Newfoundland), more concerned with maintaining their Christian, Anglo-Saxon composition than with saving lives, admitted only a combined total of some 13,000 Jewish refugees.

Latin American Republics, desiring to maintain domestic racial composition, changed their policies to effectively bar Jewish emigration after 1938; Brazil did so by requiring baptismal certificates for all émigrés, and Bolivia simply made anyone of Jewish blood ineligible for entrance into the country. In all, approximately 17,500 Jewish refugees were able to emigrate to Central and South America.

In a 1938 move perceived by Canada as nothing more than an American “exercise in public relations,” President Roosevelt called the Evian Conference—an international conference to be held on July 6, 1938 at the Hotel Royale in Evian-les-Bains, France—to address the refugee problem. He invited twenty-nine European and Latin American nations, the Dominican Republic, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in addition to thirty-nine private organizations. The Union of South Africa, Poland, and Romania attended as observers, Ireland and Luxembourg weren’t invited (though Ireland did crash), the Soviet Union assumed that the conference was a Trotskyist plot, and Switzerland refused to allow the conference be held within its borders. Germany was not invited. Of all the attendees, only the Dominican Republic committed itself to taking a substantial number of refugees.

The Evian Conference accomplished none of its goals, and its failure confirmed to the Nazi government its view that the Jews were indeed an unwanted people.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Shanghai

Turn of the century Shanghai was a hotbed of imperialist engagement, capitalism, revolutionary politics, crime, and intellectualism. Therefore, it is no coincidence that it was in Shanghai that the 1905 anti-American boycott was conceived, and that it was in Shanghai that a work of American literature gave Chinese intellectuals a new vernacular.

The United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This Act prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country for ten years, and required every Chinese person traveling in or out of the country to carry an ID. In 1888, Congress passed the Scott Act, making re-entry into the United States after a visit to China impossible, even for long term US residents. In 1892, Congress passed the Geary Act, extending exclusion for another ten years, and in 1902, Congress extended Exclusion Act indefinitely while expanding it to cover both Hawaii and the Philippines in addition to the mainland US.

This Act, combined with the humiliating treatment Chinese immigrants and laborers received once on American soil, were met with widespread anger in China. On May 10 1905, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce called for a boycott of American goods. They sent telegrams to merchant guilds across China urging them to take part. The boycott officially began on July 10, 1905. It received an enthusiastic response as Chinese merchants ceased to order or sell American goods.

The boycott was not merely a creature of the merchant class. People of all levels of Chinese society partook. Students, writers, artists and intellectuals turned to literature to illustrate and find new ways to understand the suffering of Chinese in the United States.

In 1901, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into Chinese and titled “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens.” By 1905, “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens” was so popular in Shanghai that it existed in multiple reprints, was included in numerous anthologies of fiction, was frequently referenced in other works, was adapted into an opera, and performed by traveling theater groups.

The story gave Shanghai-based Chinese intellectuals a language to use to understand and discuss American imperialism, race-based oppression, and European imperialism. Through the plight of the characters in “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens,” they saw the struggle of their countrymen and women. Through the treatment the characters received as a result of their skin color, they saw their own treatment under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Historian Meng Yue refers to this as “compassionate association.” This association, however, was part of a larger pattern. Chinese intellectuals looked to the experience of Indians under the British Raj, the diasporic Jews, the Poles under Russian rule, and the Cubans under American rule to understand the experience of their own overseas. The boycott lost momentum by September 1905 as the Chinese government feared that it would turn into an anti-government, rather than an anti-American, movement, and it was over by the early months of 1906. However, as the boycott died, the language of compassionate association only grew stronger.

“Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens” traveled from Shanghai to Japan, where an amateur Chinese theater group performed an adaptation of the story in Tokyo in 1907. Not only was the performance praised by Japanese journalists, writers, and critics, but it was quite possibly the vehicle through which Japan first encountered the story of American blacks. It was through these performances that the language of compassionate association first nurtured by intellectuals in Shanghai traveled outside of China.

It is interesting to note that Japan declared an imperial protectorate over Korea in the same year as the Chinese anti-American boycott, and officially annexed the peninsula five years later. I can’t help but wonder what those Tokyo based writers and critics thought of this imperialist aggression in light of the new language the Shanghai actors introduced to them in “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens.”

The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai: 1938-1949

January 11, 2019: This post represents a combined version of my previous posts on this subject, and was cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana. Further, I wrote this post before completing my MA thesis on the topic. You may read that here: “An Uncertain Life In Another World”: German and Austrian Jewish Refugee Life in Shanghai, 1938- 1950           

German Jews did not immediately begin to put their emigration papers in order after Hitler came into power, or after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws. As far as they were concerned, they were fully assimilated Goethe reading, WWI fighting German citizens. They could not believe, and would not believe, that the country they loved would turn against them.

Hitler introduced his anti-Jewish legislation slowly over the course of the 1930s, giving German Jewry time to rationalize each new piece; this especially held true for Jewish men, as they tended to work in traditionally Jewish occupations. Jewish women, on the other hand, through their regular contact with gentiles allowed to them through their place in the domestic sphere, became aware of the “social death” being imposed on them by Nazi legislation long before their husbands took notice.

In the wake of the mass arrests of Jewish men during Kristallnacht, it fell to these women to free their husbands, typically from Dachau. Nazi officials would not release men until their families provided proof that they would depart from Germany immediately upon their release. Thus, not only did women have to rescue their husbands, but they also had to navigate the emigration process by themselves. Due to the complex legal frameworks enacted by possible destination countries to keep Jewish refugees out, it was immensely difficult for Jews to secure visas out of Germany, made even more difficult when they were confronted with the massive exit tax forced on emigrating Jews.

There was, however, one destination which had not put up legal roadblocks to fleeing Jews: Shanghai; this had more to do with the decentralized and highly colonized nature of Shanghai than with any sort of altruism.

While the Chinese government had the right to demand to see emigration papers before new arrivals would be allowed to enter Shanghai, this was seldom enforced. Thus, to get to Shanghai, all fleeing families needed were boat tickets. For this reason—in accordance with the necessity to present proof of emigration to Nazi officials before male family members would be released—Shanghai became the only option available to some of the families of incarcerated men.

The journey to Shanghai began by train to an Italian port. From these ports, refugees boarded luxury liners serviced by German and sometimes Japanese crews, sailed across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, into the Indian Ocean, and around to the east coast of China. Their ship then made its way down the Whangpoo River until it docked at the Bund, Shanghai’s harbor-side financial district. This route was in use through Italy’s entrance into the war on June 10, 1940—although a few ships full of refugees did depart from Portugal and Marseilles before the Mediterranean was fully closed to passenger traffic. After the Mediterranean route closed, Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai via the trans-Siberian Railroad. This overland route took them across Russia, through Siberia, and into North China, where they boarded a ship for Shanghai. The overland route was in use until December 7, 1941. After that date, all escape routes to Shanghai were closed.

Though I’ve focused on German and Austrian Jews, about 1,800 Polish-Lithuanian Jewish refugees—including a large population of yeshiva students—too found refuge in Shanghai. This population of yeshiva students and their families first fled to Vilna, and then to Kovno, Lithuania after the German invasion of Poland. The Dutch and Japanese consuls in Kovno collaborated to grant the refugees visas to the Dutch Caribbean holding of Curacao; the trip to Curacao involved a stopover in Kobe, Japan. Both consuls were aware of the fact that it was not possible to cross the Atlantic during a time of open warfare, meaning that they illegally granted the refugees admittance into Japan.

This group of refugees remained in Kobe until 1941, at which point the Japanese government sent them to Shanghai. The Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, was later fired in disgrace, while the Japanese consul, Chiune Sugihara was merely asked to step down. Sugihara saved 10,000 Jews total and is listed by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations; it is probable that his actions were merely in line with general Japanese policy towards the Jews, which will be expounded upon below.

Map of Shanghai during this period from "Japanese, Nazis, and Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai 1938-1945" by David Kranzler

The first wave of refugees to arrive at the Bund in 1938 disembarked with little more to their names than the clothes on their backs, a suitcase or two, and the equivalent of about fifteen American dollars; Nazi policy forbade them to take much else out of the country. This poverty could be seen in each subsequent boat full of refugees. The visible poverty of these Jews embarrassed the established Russian and Sephardic Jewish communities of Shanghai; the Sephardic Jewish community was Baghdadi in origin, and had traveled to Shanghai as businessmen under the auspices of the British Empire, while the Russian Jewish community arrived in Shanghai in two main waves: first fleeing from the pogroms of 1905, and then from the violently anti-Semitic White Russian forces during the Russian Civil War.

One year before the refugees began to arrive, hostilities of the Sino-Japanese War were waged in the streets of the Hongkew district of Shanghai, leading to its partial destruction. Because land and property in Hongkew were thus so inexpensive, and because of the destitution of the new arrivals, Jewish relief organizations in Allied and neutral countries along with the Sephardic and Russian communities in Shanghai—the Hardoon and Kadoorie families in particular—collaborated to set up refugee homes based in Hongkew for the refugees. These homes (Heime), though obviously better than nothing, were crowded, unsanitary, and the time spent there was extremely distressing for the formerly upper middle class refugees.

While some refugees received money from relations in Allied or neutral countries, had smuggled money and/or valuables out of Germany, or had been able to quickly find gainful employment and relocate to the French or International Districts of Shanghai,  many were never able to accumulate the funds needed to secure housing outside of Hongkew. Some, so traumatized by Kristallnacht, leaving Germany, arriving with nothing to the Heime, and their loss of identity, became depressed and never left their Heim; this was especially true for those who had held high status professions in Germany.

Shanghai Jewish ghetto

Shanghai, China, 1944, An alley in the Jewish ghetto. Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Photo Archive.

Some refugees were able to establish a fairly normal life in Shanghai, complete with jobs, refugee schools founded by Horace Kadoorie, and synagogue attendance. However, in February 1943, the Japanese rulers of Shanghai announced that all “Stateless Persons” who had arrived in Shanghai after 1937 had to relocate to Hongkew—an area of about one half mile in length already populated by thousands impoverished Chinese refugees—by May 1943. This proclamation was directed at Jewish refugees as an attempt on the part of the Japanese to appease their German allies. The “designated area” to which the refugees were relegated is, and was, colloquially known as the “Shanghai Ghetto.”

Conditions within Hongkew were deplorable, with the available housing insufficient to shield the residents from the extreme temperatures reached in the summer and winter months, lack of access to adequate health care, a contaminated water supply, a barely sufficient sewage system, trash-lined streets, and targeted Allied bombing raids.

The refugees also had to contend with poverty, malnutrition, and health problems associated with a contaminated water supply. This said, refugee children were still able to attend school, adults could secure passes out of Hongkew to go to work, and the refugees were so vigorous in shaping their surroundings that, by 1944, the main thoroughfare of Hongkew looked more like a street in Vienna than a bombed out section of Shanghai. In fact, the refugees created such a rich cultural life in Hongkew that, when some groups of refugees began to stage theatrical productions, other refugees penned editorials in refugee-run periodicals complaining about the quality of said productions.

Shanghai, China, A sports class at the Jewish Youth Association school.  Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Photo Archive. Click for source.

Jewish refugees_cafe

Jewish refugees bar

Men and women at a Shanghai bar. Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Photo Archive.

Despite having forced the Jewish refugee population to relocate to Hongkew, the Japanese took no directly aggressive or violent steps against this population despite the urging of their German allies. There are two reasons for this, both based in Jewish and Japanese isolation from each other throughout most of their respective histories. The first, is that the Japanese formed a positive view of the Jewish people after private Jewish American financier Jacob Schiff funded their efforts in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Though positive, this view characterized the Jews as a wealthy, powerful people. Not long after, Japan fought alongside the White Russians in the Russian Civil War. The White Russians circulated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion among the Japanese troops, and when this document reached the Japanese government, that body saw it as a confirmation of their prior characterization of the Jews. The Japanese then enacted a policy of appeasing these people with such control over the Western governments, thus refraining from abusing the Jewish refugees in their care.

American troops occupied Shanghai in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s 1945 surrender. After a year or so of peace, the refugees once again found themselves in a precarious political position. The economy was failing under the rule of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, and every day they received news of the progress made by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces. By 1949, the year in which Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, most of the Jewish residents of Shanghai—Polish, German, Austrian, Russian, and Baghdadi alike—had fled to the United States, Australia, or Israel. By 1956, 171 Jews were left in Shanghai.

A total of about 20,000 Jews (estimates vary) sought refuge in Shanghai. Others—though very few—made it to safety in such locales as the United States, Argentina, and Palestine. Many of the Jews who had fled Germany in the early 1930’s for other European nations ended up trapped in the late 1930’s, early 1940’s as those nations were invaded and occupied by the Nazis. Of the German Jews who escaped from Germany before 1941, only half of them survived the Holocaust.

Some more on the WWII Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai…

A month or two ago I made a post about the “Shanghai Ghetto,” the probable topic of my Master’s thesis. Since making that post I’ve done a large amount of research and spent about a month writing a research paper about a subset of life for the Jewish refugees in Shanghai. So, in light of that, I want to clear up a few things I got wrong, or over-simplified in my last post on the subject.

-German and Austrian Jews fleeing Germany first took a train from Germany to either Naples or Genoa. There, they would sail through the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, into the Indian Ocean, and all the way to the coast of China. Their ship would then make its way down the Whangpoo River until it docked at the Bund (Shanghai’s harbor-side financial district).

Jewish refugees flooded into Shanghai via this route from 1938 until it was closed upon Italy’s entrance into the war on June 10, 1940. After this closure, Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai via the trans-Siberian Railroad. This route took them across Russia through to Manchuria, at which point the majority boarded a ship for Shanghai. This route was open until December 7, 1941. After that date, all escape routes to Shanghai were closed to Jews.

And now we can celebrate the return of my mildly inaccurate MS Paint maps (both courtesy of Google Maps)! The first map shows the Italy-Shanghai route in use from 1938-1940, and the second shows the overland train route in use from 1940-1941. Obviously the ships did not sail over India or Japan; that is just me being incapable of drawing accurate lines on MS Paint.

-Also in Shanghai were Sephardic and Russian communities. The Sephardic Jewish community was generally Baghdadi in origin, and traveled to Shanghai as businessmen under the auspices of the British Empire. Members of this community—specifically the Kadoorie and Sassoon families—gave great sums of money to the Jewish refugee community. The Russian Jewish community had fled to Shanghai from Russia in the midst of the Russian Civil War; they were fleeing from the violently anti-Semitic White Russian forces.

When the refugees—many newly destitute as Nazi policy forbade them from taking many valuables or more than about fifteen American dollars out of the country—arrived in Shanghai, their impoverished status embarrassed the pre-existing Jewish communities who feared that the presence of these impoverished (white) Jews would take away from their own status within Shanghai.

-The “Shanghai Ghetto” moniker is a misleading one. The Hongkew District of Shanghai was home to the city’s poorest Chinese inhabitants. It was partially destroyed in 1937 by hostilities in the Sino-Japanese War, and had not been rebuilt when the refugees began to arrive in 1938. Jewish relief organizations in Allied and neutral countries along with the Sephardic and Russian communities in Shanghai set up refugee homes based in Hongkew for the newly arrived refugees, as structures were inexpensive in that location. These homes (Heime), though obviously better than nothing, were crowded, unsanitary, and the time spent there was extremely distressing for the formerly upper middle class refugees*.

Though some refugees received money from relations in Allied or neutral countries, had smuggled money and/or valuables out of Germany, or had been able to quickly find gainful employment and relocate to the French or International Concessions, many were never able to secure enough money to get out of Hongkew. Some, so traumatized by Kristallnacht, leaving Germany, and arriving with nothing to the Heime—so traumatized by their loss of identity—became depressed and never left their Heim.

In February 1943, the Japanese rulers of Shanghai announced that all “Stateless Persons” who had arrived in Shanghai after 1937 had to relocate to Hongkew by May 1943. Though it was not specified in the language of the proclamation, it was taken to be directed at the Jewish refugees, and was directed at them as an attempt on the part of the Japanese to appease their German allies. Thus, it was only a “Ghetto” for the Jews in the last two years of the war.

-Many dates are attributed to the time at which this refugee community was in Shanghai, a popular one being 1938-1945, but I prefer 1938-1949 because it was in 1949 that Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, and it was by 1949 that most of the refugee community had fled to the United States, Australia, or Israel. By 1957, only 100 Jews were left in Shanghai.

*I could tell you more about the conditions within the Heime and Hongkew as a whole which caused these refugees such existential distress, but I am not sure if you want a post about toilets, sewage, sanitation, etc. I personally find history relating to sewage and sanitation to be really interesting (if not gross) but I don’t know if you want to read about such things. Let me know if you do.

The Shanghai Ghetto

Welcome to one of those posts that is secretly derived from my thesis research. Contains mention of the Holocaust.

My research is still in its early stages, so this breakdown of its background may contain some vaguaries, and some theories which have not yet been thoroughly researched. These will be clearly marked.

My inquiry starts in the early years of the Third Reich. It’s easy to look at these years and wonder why German Jews didn’t start to get their emigration papers in order when Hitler implemented the 1933 boycott of Jewish businesses, but in asking this, we are ignoring the fact that these German Jews saw themselves as 100% German. They fought for Germany in WWI, read and valued and prized German art and literature and philosophy; the idea that their country would turn against them was inconceivable.

Because Hitler introduced his anti-Jewish legislation slowly over the course of the 1930’s, he gave German Jewry time to rationalize and get used to each new piece; with every new law they would think to themselves “Well this must be it; it can’t get any worse than this; what more can they do to us?”

German Jews did emigrate out of Germany over the course of the 1930’s (often, as previously discussed, at the urging of women) as they lost the ability to rationalize the legislation to themselves, but some were not able to see that it was going to keep getting worse until after Kristallnacht. By then, it was too late for many of them to secure the documentation and funds they would need to emigrate (in addition to the sheer amount of time it took to get emigration papers, and the fact that prospective countries had strict emigration quotas, the Nazis charged emigrating Jews a massive exit tax).

There was, however, one place that would accept these Jews without any papers or visa requirements: Shanghai. A sizable number of German and Austrian Jews fled to Shanghai in the late 1930’s and stayed there through the course of the war as Stateless Persons. While most of the Jews who had fled to Shanghai were German or Austrian, there was also the entire student population of the famed Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland whom had been rescued by a Dutch official in Lithuania*. Also present in Shanghai, specifically in the International Concession, was a community of very wealthy Sephardic Jews, many of Iraqi descent.

When the Japanese occupied Shanghai after declaring war on the United States (and thus the Allied Powers) in 1941, they forced the Stateless Persons to move into a very small area of crowded, low standard housing in the Hongkew district of Shanghai—this area became known as the Shanghai Ghetto. Though it was officially only the Stateless Persons who were forced to move into this area, the relocation was aimed at the Jewish refugees (as they made up the majority of the Stateless Persons). This was an attempt of the Japanese to appease their German allies.

While the living conditions within Hongkew were terrible, the Japanese took no further steps against the Jews, focusing more of their direct aggression and violence towards the Chinese population of Shanghai. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that in the Japanese government was given financial assistance against the Russian tsarist government in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) by American Jewish financier Jacob Schiff. This gave the Japanese—who hadn’t had much interaction with Jews—a positive view of the Jewish people, and may have influenced their decision not to persecute the Jews in their territory.

The second possible reason is that the Japanese—in their non-experience with Jews—had been exposed to anti-Jewish propaganda of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion variety by the White Russian troops they fought alongside against the Communists in 1919 and took it seriously. They feared that if they treated the Jews poorly, the powerful Jewish financiers behind Western governments would exact revenge on Japan. It also may have been a combination of the two.

Though General Ghoya—the often violent and unpredictable Japanese officer and self-styled “King of the Jews” who had been put in charge of issuing papers allowing people in and out of the Hongkew District—made no attempt to murder these Jews, poverty, malnutrition, lack of access to health care, unclean drinking water, disease carrying insects, Allied bombing raids, and exposure to unfamiliar climates were all effective killers.

After Japan surrendered in 1945, Shanghai was occupied by American troops. Some Jews stayed around for a few years, working for the American military and saving money for an eventual emigration to New York—most of the Jews who had fled to Shanghai did aspire to live out the remainder of their lives in the United States. Some returned to Germany to register with the new government and attempt to get government restitution for their property which had been seized by the Nazi government; this was often a traumatic and unsuccessful venture. Fewer still made their way to Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Palestine/Israel (depending on what part of the 1940’s we’re talking about). The few Jews who had remained in Shanghai through the 1940’s left as the Communist regime made its way to Shanghai, and by the Cultural Revolution, none were left.

And just a note about German Jewish émigrés, not all went to Shanghai or Palestine or New York or Australia or Argentina or England. Many traveled and settled in other Eastern and Western European nations, believing that Hitler would not invade those countries, and/or underestimating Hitler’s devotion to lebensraum. Many were trapped and murdered in these countries as they were overtaken by the Third Reich. Ultimately, of the Jews who escaped from Germany, only half of them survived the Holocaust. That figure of 50% does not take into account those who died or committed suicide after arriving in their émigré countries.

*After the invasion of Poland, the student population of the Mirrer Yeshiva fled to Lithuania. Knowing that Lithuania would probably be the next to fall to Germany, one student visited the Dutch consul in Kovno, and got the official to write in his passport that no visa was needed to travel to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. The Japanese official in Kovno—Chiune Sugihara—gave the student a transit visa to cross Japan on his way to Curacao. This student’s Yeshiva colleagues were all given this allowance. Both officials knew that there was no way for these Jews to reach the Caribbean, meaning that they were implicitly and illegally smuggling these people out of soon to be conquered Lithuania into Shanghai through misuse of consular power. These students would later say that they had been saved by an angel. Both officials were later penalized by their respective governments for their actions.

Why Gender History is Important (Asshole)

This weekend I was schmoozing at an event when some guy asked me what kind of history I study. I said “I’m currently researching the role of gender in Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich,” and he replied “oh you just threw gender in there for fun, huh?” and shot me what he clearly thought to be a charming smile.

The reality is that most of our understandings of history revolve around what men were doing. But by paying attention to the other half of humanity our understanding of history can be radically altered.

For example, with Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich it is just kind of assumed that it was a decision made by a man, and the rest of his family just followed him out of danger. But that is completely inaccurate. Women, constrained to the private social sphere to varying extents, were the first to notice the rise in social anti-Semitism in the beginning of Hitler’s rule. They were the ones to notice their friends pulling away and their social networks coming apart. They were the first to sense the danger.

German Jewish men tended to work in industries which were historically heavily Jewish, thus keeping them from directly experiencing this “social death.” These women would warn their husbands and urge them to begin the emigration process, and often their husbands would overlook or undervalue their concerns (“you’re just being hysterical” etc). After the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and after even more so after Kristallnacht, it fell to women to free their husbands from concentration camps, to run businesses, and to wade through the emigration process.

The fact that the Nazis initially focused their efforts on Jewish men meant that it fell to Jewish women to take charge of the family and plan their escape. In one case, a woman had her husband freed from a camp (to do so, she had to present emigration papers which were not easy to procure), and casually informed him that she had arranged their transport to Shanghai. Her husband—so traumatized from the camp—made no argument. Just by looking at what women were doing, our understanding of this era of Jewish history is changed.

I have read an article arguing that the Renaissance only existed for men, and that women did not undergo this cultural change. The writings of female loyalists in the American Revolutionary period add much needed nuance to our understanding of this period. The character of Jewish liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century is a direct result of the education and socialization of Jewish women. I can give you more examples, but I think you get the point.

So, you wanna understand history? Then you gotta remember the ladies (and not just the privileged ones).

ask historicity-was-already-taken a question

Jews, Food, and Socialism

January 11, 2019: This post was a bit of a thought experiment to see if this theory could go anywhere after taking some intensive courses. I still think some of these ideas are interesting, but much more work is needed before I could defend any of this.

In traditional Eastern European Jewish society, and specifically within the Russian Pale of Settlement for the purposes of this post, communities were bound together by food: everyone followed the kosher laws, from the richest person to the poorest. Because of this, all members of these Jewish communities felt entitled to eat well regardless of class. Since the consumption of kosher food was divinely commanded, no one had the right to deny it to another. The poor felt as though that the wealthy owed them food, and the wealthy felt obliged to supply it.

That said, this society was hardly egalitarian; on the contrary, it was heavily stratified and class lines were rigidly upheld—one of the primary purposes of arranged marriages was to uphold these class lines. However, the attitudes towards food created a communal consciousness in which the idea that the poor somehow deserved to have a harder time in life by virtue of their poverty was not present.

This society also had a very rigid concept of proper gender roles. Men were expected to be Talmudic scholars and dedicate their lives to the study of the holy texts. Certainly not all men were or could be scholars, and not all families had the funds to allow their sons to dedicate themselves to this study, but the figure of the Talmudic scholar was the masculine ideal.

Women, on the other hand, were not allowed access to the holy texts. They were expected to venture out into the public sphere to earn a living for their families while their husbands were at home studying. Thus, young women were given a secular education to prepare them for their role as breadwinners. Some families sent their daughters to public schools, if there were any available, while others paid for a private education, or private tutors.

Because secular education was prized for women, and because nineteenth century Russia was a multi-lingual society, many of these girls were fluent in both Russian and Yiddish, and sometimes French and German as well. Over the course of their secular educations, they encountered modern and revolutionary literature written in these European languages which their male peers were not encountering in the cheder (pre-yeshiva Jewish elementary schools for boys). It was in this literature that these young girls and women, raised in communities which rejected the notion that the poor deserved to be punished for their poverty, encountered socialism. This socialism did not inform, but rather cemented the world view of these women.

Between 1880 and 1920, 2.5 million Jews emigrated from the Pale to America, and most settled in New York City. The vast majority of the young women who came to America with their parents found work in the factories and workshops of the garment industry.

These young women became rapidly dissatisfied with the unsafe and unregulated conditions in which they had to work. Because of the views on class which they had learned in Russia, it never would have occurred to these women to think that they deserved to work in awful conditions by virtue of their low socio-economic status. When the management was unresponsive to their concerns, they went on strike. As these women went on to marry and become housewives, they channeled this conception of class into protests against unaffordable grocery prices, exploitative renting practices, and other such working class concerns.

These women were distinctive. They weren’t revolutionary socialists, and they weren’t American capitalists. While these women were eager to Americanize and showed great enthusiasm for consumer culture, they rejected the tenet of American capitalism which dictated that poverty was a result of personal failings. They combined the socialist class conceptions of their lives in Europe with consumerist aspects of working class America to form their own distinct reality.

Thus, I would argue that the class consciousness instigated by the necessity of observing the kosher laws in the tightly knit Jewish communities of the Pale allowed these women to take the socialism they encountered in Russian revolutionary literature, and make it their own. This socialist consciousness traveled with them across the Atlantic to America where they used that consciousness to create their own working class experience.

I do not argue that the American Jewish experience was informed by the kosher laws—in the face of Americanization, many once Orthodox families became far less zealous about their upkeep, sometimes leaving them by the wayside entirely—but that the kosher laws informed the consciousness from which the distinctive experience of pre-WWII American Jewry rose.