Film uncovers Shoah history in China

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Shanghai Ghetto offers a glimpse of an unlikely place where Jews found refuge from the Shoah in Europe, the Japanese-occupied city of Shanghai China.

The intriguing, well-made and researched documentary is the featured film on Sunday, Mar. 25 at 2 p.m. at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center on the Millstone campus. The documentary is part of the museum’s free Sunday Afternoon Film Series. The film will be introduced by Shanghai ghetto survivor Rudy Oppenheim, who eventually emigrated to the U.S.

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Actor Martin Landau narrates this documentary about how thousands of Jews came to Shanghai in the late 1930s. Shanghai was an international city but the Jewish refugees, and other foreigners, were confined to selected, less desirable portions of the city. While conditions were harsh and the refugees had little money, they were able to survive and even form a sort of community in the Shanghai ghetto.

The film is largely in English and features both archival footage and stills, and interviews with survivors. The film is the work of Israeli-born Amir Mann and U.S. and Israeli-raised Dana Janklowicz-Mann, who both served as producer/director on this film.

This fascinating documentary uncovers the facts about how German Jews found themselves on the other side of the world in China. Shanghai Ghetto is indeed about a Jewish ghetto in China and how that came about in the late 1930s.

In the late 1930s, most countries stopped accepting Jewish refugees from the escalating danger in Nazi Germany. As more Jewish families sought to escape Hitler’s increasingly oppressive policies, more and more countries closed their doors to them, citing economic hardship in the Great Depression. Countries that would still accept them, like the U.S., required visas and subjected them to long waiting periods. The only place that didn’t require a visa, where Jews were just free to go without waiting, was the Japanese-occupied city of Shanghai, China. The documentary’s narrative is told through letters, documents, film footage, photos and interviews with a small group of survivors and with historians. Interestingly, the filmmakers choose a group of five survivors who were children at the time, to tell individual family tales. This child’s- eye view of their world and the events there gives the film a unique emotional and personal resonance. First-hand tales like theirs are especially important to preserve, as the Shoah recedes in time.

Kristallnacht was the event that galvanized many families to act. But money was an obstacle to flight, as the Nazis had seized Jewish bank accounts. Families were only allowed to withdraw enough to live on and no money could be taken out of the country.

Doors continued to close to other countries, until only the door to Shanghai remained open. Still, it was a hard decision to make, to travel to China and arrive there penniless. One of the ironies of the trip was that one had to book first-class passage on a luxury ocean liner to reach Shanghai, where families then went to live in a squalid slum, noted from its frequent floods and primitive sanitation. Many families who made that decision actually hoped to be able to immigrate to another country after escaping to Shanghai. The port city itself was an exotic mix, with a large European population from Russia, Britain and other European nations. It also had a reputation for crime and corruption.

Once the war started, the Jewish families in the Shanghai ghetto, who called themselves Shanghailanders, lost contact with Europe and were unaware of what was happening there. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, international Jewish communities had sent the Shanghailanders aid in the form of food and medicines. Once the war began, this support was cut off and the families faced severe hardships, although, of course, they were unaware of what was happening in the death camps.

The film also has footage of the modern day Shanghai ghetto, which is little changed.

In the film, a pair of the survivors returned there to visit and remember their experiences. One aspect they recalled was how, while they were restricted to the ghetto and hunger was rampant, the unprejudiced attitudes and generosity of their equally poverty-stricken Chinese neighbors, and the kindness of the international Jewish communities, had helped them survive.

Shanghai Ghetto is an eloquent and moving piece of documentary filmmaking, a worthy addition to the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center’s Sunday afternoon film series.

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