Review by Marvin Tokayer
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.