Shanghai became a real option for those Jews who had no place to go and they scrambled to buy all the luxury ship tickets to go to Shanghai because that was the only way you could go at that point.
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A Little Known Thread of Holocaust History Comes into Evocatively Moving View
Documentaries about the Holocaust tend to fall into two classes. The first is the wide view of central events and personalities, subjects that very many people recognize. Intriguingly, a second class of film emerges from time to time: documentaries that educate by illuminating a thread of history relatively or even almost totally unknown to most. Such a film is Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann's subtly powerful "Shanghai Ghetto," the story of frightened German and Austrian Jews who after "Kristallnacht" and before the borders were sealed found refuge in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, the great Chinese port.
With documentary footage and well-edited interviews of men and women who trekked to Shanghai and now appear to live in comfort, as well as with commentary by several academics and narration by Martin Landau, the directors tell a fascinating story.
As Western European countries, Great Britain and the U.S. fell over themselves expressing sympathy for the plight of Germany's Jews while insuring that few would find refuge within their respective nations' borders, Shanghai was a destination where, miraculously, anyone could debark from a ship without passport or visa. Shanghai before 7 December 1941 was an odd city, a metropolis where the Japanese freely and without compunction murdered and brutalized Chinese residents while respecting the international enclaves that enjoyed extra-territorial status from the days of the Opium Wars.
Why the Japanese, in league with their Nazi partners, seemed to care little about the sudden influx of European Jews isn't clear. The film suggests that the Japanese had some sort of bizarre but fixed belief that the myths about Jewish hegemony over banks and industry would somehow benefit their Empire. I doubt that explanation has any validity. I suspect that at first the Japanese simply didn't much care about these refugees and then discovered they had to deal with them. After Pearl Harbor when both British and American nationals were interned the Jews dwelled in a twilight world with some restrictions but overall a remarkable degree of freedom.
The interviewees describe harsh living conditions but it's clear almost from the first comments how relative that concept is. That many if not all the escapees lost an affluent or at least middle class lifestyle is certain. There was disease and insanitary conditions abounded but these were largely endemic to pre-Maoist China, not the result of ghettoization as in Eastern Europe. An Israeli professor and several of the elderly interviewees can't even concur as to whether the Japanese actually established a ghetto. The professor says they didn't and the former residents use the term "ghetto" repeatedly.
There is a curious juxtaposition between the interviewees describing their travails and period footage and still photos showing a fairly vibrant Jewish community with music, art, literature and sports clubs. The Shanghai Jews were free to form their cultural groups and pursue their interests as they wished. This was not Theriesenstadt with its horrific Nazi-created Potemkin Village orchestra and drama company.
Of course the uprooted refugees suffered hardship and a few of them on this film suddenly draw a sharp breath before a sob and tears interrupt the flow of their narrative. In one of my favorite Manhattan theaters, (the small Quad on 13th Street between 5th and 6th) the house was packed people running in age from about thirteen to their eighties. The impact of learning this chapter of Hitlerian monstrosity was palpable.
Near the end of the film familiar stock footage of Nazi death camps and crematoria, replete with victims, is shown alternating with the interviewees' honest, to a degree anguished, reflection that, as several say, they were living in "paradise" compared to the many relatives they lost in the cauldron of evil. Or the survivors in Europe. Not until the war ended did the Shanghai refugees learn the fate of European Jewry.
Whatever the relative scales of suffering by widely separated survivors, the producers/directors have added a unique chapter of Holocaust history to the archives. "Shanghai Jews" is a thoroughly engrossing work, complemented by the music of Sujin Nam and largely performed on the Chinese erhu.
This film won't be shown in many venues but it ought to be widely televised and certainly made available for rental or purchase.
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