Soundtrack: Twenty-six Variations on 'La folia di Spagna'
by Salieri, played by the London Mozart Players.
If you get access to TV in Singapore, there's an excellent Chinese-language (Mandarin, to be precise) documentary on Sunday evening at 6.15 on Channel 8. Last Sunday, the folks and I watched the first part (of a few, apparently) of the documentary.
Quite, quite fascinating, I must say. While there was a sizeable Jewish community in Shanghai from early on, those were there for business reasons. During WW2 and the pressures of the Nazi menace in Europe, some twenty thousand Jewish refugees flooded into Shanghai. Why Shanghai? As the rest of the world closed to desperate Jews seeking escape from the Nazis, Shanghai remained one of the rare free transit ports. Shanghai required neither visas nor police certificates. It did not ask for affidavits of health, nor proof of financial independence. There were no quotas.
Restrictions were put on immigration in August 1939, but still they came in droves as war consumed Europe and other avenues of escape closed. Thousands arrived in rags, with neither entry permits nor any means of support. Housing for latecomers was extremely sparse -- hundreds languished in temporary shelters.
It was a constant struggle, but the community took care of itself until Pearl Harbor in 1941. Foreigners from Allied nations were sent to prison camps. German and Austrian Jews, the largest group, were considered stateless refugees, and were confined to Hongkou ghetto in 1943. "There was no barbed wire and it wasn't heavily patrolled, but adults needed passes to go out," says Hirsch, American director of a group called the Council on the Jewish Experience in Shanghai. Yet, with all its deprivations, Hongkou was like summer camp compared with ghettos in Europe, where Jews were penned in by the Nazis, who eventually sent most to their deaths.
To be sure, there were hardships aplenty in Shanghai, where the influx of tens of thousands of impoverished refugees overwhelmed the abilities of the existing Jewish community, as well as the ruling Japanese, who eventually herded them into the Hongkew ghetto. Food was scarce and survivors vividly describe suffering through the bitter Shanghai winter in rags and homemade sandals. Unlike in Europe, though, the Jews in Shanghai's ghetto fared no worse than the population around them. And there was no policy of repression or genocide.
Quite to the contrary, the Jews flourished in Shanghai for a time. They opened so many German bakeries and Austrian coffee houses, one area of town was dubbed Little Vienna. Those enterprises included 68 fabric stores, 50 coffee houses and restaurants, 26 economy shops, 24 groceries, 19 tailor shops, 14 book shops, 12 porcelain shops, 9 drug stores and factories, 9 electrical appliance shops, 8 leather shops, 7 jewellery shops and 61 other shops including shoe shops, photo studios, rubber factories etc. Those were only part of all the enterprises built up by Jewish people.
As some of the exiled Jews were teachers, editors, reporters, writers, painters, musicians and sportsmen, they became active as they settled down. They opened schools, organised playing teams, built up the moving library and they even started the band and football teams. It is worthwhile to mention that even under such hard conditions, the Jews unexpectedly published tens of newspapers and magazines.
Jewish musicians from Europe dominated the Shanghai symphony, and soon there were theatrical productions and newspapers in a myriad of languages including German, Russian, Polish and Yiddish.
More at Jews of Shanghai
This prompted Mum to tell me of her memories of those Jews in Shanghai. Mum, as a child in Shanghai, lived on Xiafei Street (today's Huaihai Street) in the French concession. Mum's piano teacher was Jewish, and during the war, lived in that ghetto (though with a pass to go out during the day). Mum tells me that her famiily remained quite rich through the war. Indeed, they must have been - for Grandmother arranged DAILY piano lessons (remember this is during WWII) with the teacher so that the teacher could come out daily and earn enough to feed his family. Mum recounts that the piano teacher (she has long forgotten his name) was desperately thin, and was always hungry. Grandmother would always have the servants (yes, that's a plural) fry up a large plate of fried noodles or rice for the teacher - Mum recounts he ate it with much relish. In addition to paying him in cash, Grandmother would tip him something like 5-6 eggs daily, so he could bring them back for his family. Mum says she can still see the look of gratitude on his face daily.
Mum also remembered how there were huge numbers of White Russian (as in Tsarist, not as in Bielorussian) emigres in Shanghai all through her childhood. These emigres were desperately poor and constantly hungry. I won't go into that now, except to mention that one of the daily tasks Grandfather Frank and Grandmother Therese laid down for the servants to perform was that twice a day, together with cooking meals for the family, they were to cook up two large pots of fried rice with bits of vegetable and eggs or sometimes soup with lots of plain rice. These were distributed to the Russian refugees who'd line up twice a day outside their house (which incidentally, was not far from the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in which St John Maximovitch was Bishop).
When asked why they did that for people they didn't know, Granddad Frank and Grandma Therese replied, 'these are people too, and we can afford it.' They could certainly afford it - all through WWII they ate white rice (with meat and veg!) daily and had brown rice once a week, not because of any attempt at economy, but as a slight penance to remind themselves that it was wartime and thousands didn't have enough to eat.
God bless the souls of my grandparents for their charity.