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The Jews of China

In the 30s and 40s a community of refugees flourished in the open port city of Shanghai.


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There were two conventions at the Marriott O'Hare over Labor Day weekend. The hotel was full of casually dressed young mothers and fathers and their well-nourished babies, who were attending a convention of the Illinois La Leche League. Tucked away in a side room were about 300 Jews who spent World War II exiled in Shanghai; it was their fifth reunion since 1980.

Very little was known about the Jews of Shanghai until 1976, when Ernest Heppner, an Indianapolis businessman and human-rights activist, began giving presentations to Jewish organizations. Heppner --a Shanghailander, as they proudly call themselves--has written a book, published this year, about his experiences.

In the late 1930s and early '40s nearly 20,000 European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution boarded boats or the trans-Siberian railroad and made their way to Shanghai. The Chinese didn't ask for visas or other identification papers; the city was an open port. It was divided into three distinct areas: the French Concession, the International Settlement, and the ghetto of Hongkew. The new Jewish immigrants, mostly Germans and Poles, joined Jews who came to Shanghai in two earlier waves-- wealthy Sephardic Jews who came in the 1880s and joined the city's economic elite, and Russian Jews who came in the late 1920s and early 1930s as middle-class merchants. Of those who came in the third wave, some arrived with enough capital to start their own businesses; others found jobs with Chinese businesses.

Jewish culture thrived in Shanghai: there was a Viennese light-opera troupe, a Jewish radio station, and 26 publications, including medical journals in German, English, and Chinese. Heppner, who was 17 when he arrived in 1939, worked in a Chinese bookstore that sold pirated editions of American and British novels. He read Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and the Bronte sisters. "We were teenagers, and we all got our education there," says his wife, Illo Heppner, whom he met in Shanghai shortly after she arrived in 1940. "There were discussion groups. You could get courses or education on any level. I came out of Shanghai with the equivalent of a college degree." She says she learned all about music and literature in Shanghai. Her husband received his mechanical-engineering training from a ship's captain he visited. "Every night he told me something. He would give me his books. German books."

But he learned English by going to American films with Illo, who translated for him. "You take a girl on a date, and you take her to the movies," Illo says. "Now which girl would do this? She really has to be committed. Imagine an American movie with Chinese subtitles, and there is my date sitting next to me understanding 5 percent of what's going on. So he's saying to me, 'What is going on here?' and I am simultaneously translating--always missing the punch lines."

While life in Shanghai was an adventure for the teenagers, it was much more difficult for many of their parents, who'd arrived dressed in fur hats and coats, accustomed to being served breakfast by a steward on the boat. After they went through customs they walked up a plank into the cattle truck that would take them to the housing they'd been assigned. "I feel in retrospect for the older people," Ernest Heppner says. "This transformation was perhaps the worst thing that could happen to them--from having breakfast on the boat, for lunch you'd line up in the soup kitchen."

Most of the wealthier Jews found homes in the International Settlement. Others could afford to live only in the Hongkew ghetto. Yet even in the ghetto there were class differences. "Some people had relatives in America," Ernest says. "They got regular American dollars. Some had brought some money somehow from Europe. Some came there like my mother and I--we got there with 75 cents in our pocket. Some, like my wife, arrived very late, via Siberia, in 1940. She lived in the International Settlement with her parents--very European-style apartment houses: central heat, running water, porcelain sinks."

In 1941 the Japanese took over Shanghai. They gradually took away the Jews' freedoms, until finally in 1943, under German pressure, they issued a proclamation that all Jews were to be relocated to the Hongkew ghetto. Some were placed in tent camps, where the poorest Jews had been living since they arrived. Others moved into one- or two-room apartments, 15 to 20 people per room. None of the apartments had running water; water had to be purchased from Chinese shops. Almost no one had working toilets, and they emptied their waste into buckets that were picked up only weekly.

The class situation changed entirely. "There you only have two divisions," says Illo. "The people who lived in the [tents] and the people who didn't. The people who were totally dependent for food and shelter on the [American Jewish] Committee, and people who were not quite totally dependent. The difference was in amount of food and level of privacy."

At the Chicago reunion Sig Simon, a retired chef from Indianapolis, is tanned and wearing a polo shirt and khaki slacks. His boyhood friends and his wife Rita, with whom he lived in the Shanghai ghetto, all look equally healthy and comfortable. He and his friends often wonder out loud how they got where they are--financially stable middle-class grandparents, retired, cultured, and free to travel.

When the reunions began in 1980 there were a lot of Shanghailanders around to reminisce, but their numbers are dwindling. Now they're treating every reunion like it's the last, and their conversation is more insistent. They talk about the fun of growing up in a foreign country, but they focus on their hardships.

Simon and most of his friends lived in the tent camps from the day they arrived in Shanghai in the late 30s. "We were poor white trash," he says. "We all lived in Hongkew, everybody. We lived in the camps. It was a group of people that did not stay in touch necessarily with people outside the camps."

"I lived in the hospital," says Hella Hauer, who lives in Philadelphia with her husband, who was also in Shanghai.

"We were the young ones," says Rita. "When we left Shanghai we were all between 18 and 20."

They pass around photo albums. Sig has photographs of the storefronts, of the all-Jewish soccer team, of people pulling rickshaws, of Rita at the harbor.

"At first it was great, because every Saturday night we had a dance," Hella Hauer says. "Everybody was there."

"From all walks of life," Sig says.

"Everybody was equal," Hauer says.

Though the Germans pressured them, the Japanese never drafted an extermination plan for the Jews. Apparently they clung to the notion that Jews ran the world's financial institutions, deciding that if they treated the Jews decently they would be in better financial shape after the war. Nevertheless around 3,000 Jews died in Shanghai, some of tropical diseases, some in the Allied bombings of 1945, and some of hunger.

"You didn't know what the next day would bring," Sig says. "To survive you sold the clothes off your back."

"My father took my trousseau," Hauer says. "He went and sold it to rich Englishmen. But the only thing that sticks in my mind to this day is that my father sold his tuxedo. Nothing bothered me. My linens-- we were too young to care. But my father sold his tuxedo, and I knew that was the end."

"We sold everything," Rita says.

"Despite all the deprivation and the hunger and the misery and the health and the lack of sanitation, most people maintained their dignity," says Ernest Heppner. "It is something really to be proud of, how we carried through."

In 1943 the Jews were put under the charge of a power-hungry Japanese bureaucrat called Ghoya, who called himself "the king of the Jews," ruling the ghetto residents seemingly according to whim. He was the only person who could give Jews work permits to get out of the ghetto. Everyone at the reunion has a story about Ghoya.

"Everybody knew him," Sig says. "He was a little tiny shrimp of a man and got a big charge out of lining people up and beating them. Big people. He'd stand on an orange crate, that little son of a gun. He would beat people up for no reason."

The Shanghai Jews kept their schools open, even after 1943. Hauer says her teacher, whom she admired, only recently died. She was in school on July 17, 1945, when American bombers strafed the Hongkew ghetto, where the Japanese had moved most of the munitions in the city. "We actually stood outside and cheered them," she says. "We were so glad they came."

When the Communists took over China in the late 40s, Europeans were forced to leave the country. By 1948 all the Jews had left Shanghai.

"You try to put any bad experiences in the past," says Illo Heppner. "We came here, we had to make money, we had to get ahead, we had young families, we created families--and this was not uppermost in our minds. As a matter of fact, you forgot about it, you wanted to forget, you had to forget. And now, at the end of our lives, we're saying, 'My God, what happened to this time? It's gone.'"

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