In Europe we were the Jews and in Hong Kong, we were the Germans.
The USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education was founded in 1994 by film director Steven Spielberg one year after the release of his Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List. The original aim of the foundation was to create an audio-visual archive of survivor and witness testimony of the Holocaust (which in Hebrew is called the Shoah). It’s fair to say that the foundation has achieved this goal with eminent success. During the five-year period from 1994 to 1999, a staggering 52,000 video testimonies were recorded, constituting over 112,000 hours of testimony and creating a Visual History Archive that has become one of the largest digital collections of its kind in the world. Snippets of the collection are available online but researchers who wish to gain full access must do so via access sites: university portals situated across Europe, the United States and Australia (but sadly not yet in Asia). Thankfully I found an access site located not too far away at Royal Holloway university in leafy Egham, a short train journey away from London.
With so few Jewish refugees in pre-war Hong Kong it is testament to the foundation’s global reach (and in-depth cataloguing!) that I was able to find five interviews with survivors who had either transited through, or temporarily lived, in Hong Kong. All survivors were interviewed in the late 90’s, a decade which saw a proliferation of Shanghai Jewish refugee literature and autobiographical accounts (see for example Ernest G. Heppner’s Shanghai Refuge, published in 1995). In the same decade Steve Hochstadt stressed the importance of recording Holocaust testimony: ‘the problem of interpreting oral accounts are actually opportunities to gain new insights, but these opportunities are rapidly disappearing as the number of survivors dwindles.’ (1997). Twenty years on, such opportunities are now all but lost. Despite the challenges posed by the oral history method, testimonies recorded almost two decades ago are today crucial to our understanding of refugee migration to the East. They help inform historical perspectives on exodus, reveal refugee identity in exile and unpick what was for many the first memory of a Chinese city. Oral accounts take on yet greater significance for the study of Hong Kong’s history in light of the paucity of pre-war records held at the Public Records Office. Such refugee testimony helps inform our understanding of both colonial and Jewish responses to this small refugee group.
John was born in Karlsruhe (Baden, Germany) in 1920 and was interviewed by the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project at his home in California in 1997 (the interview was later acquired by the Shoah Foundation in 2001). John fled his home town in 1939 and arrived by connecting flight to Hong Kong the day before Britain declared war on Germany. Perhaps surprisingly for some readers, it was in Hong Kong that John first experienced internment: This was September 1 1939. That day war broke out, the British police came around to this group home and I was arrested as an enemy alien and taken to jail in Hong Kong in La Salle College. And, again, interestingly enough, I was appointed the camp cook, they found that I was a cook [NB: the arrests occurred on 3 September 1939]. Later, John was released by the British and permitted to make his way to a second Asian port, where he would spend the remainder of the war years: Anyway after two weeks in that camp, which was my first experience with being interned, all of a sudden a black Moriah appeared and took me down to the harbour and put me on a ship, it was an Italian ship … and went to Manila, took me to Manila, because they saw that I had a passport that gave me a visa for the Philippines, they knew I was a Jew, probably, and I arrived in Manila. John’s internment raises important questions about the fluidity of identity in exile and colonial contexts. As another interviewee explains: in Europe we were the Jews and in Hong Kong, we were the Germans.
And yet not all experiences of Hong Kong were wholly negative. For many young children transiting through Hong Kong on their way to Shanghai, the city was viewed with childlike wonderment. Herbert remembers the Peak as a nice place way up in the hills, whilst another interviewee recalls his ‘fascinating’ first contact with a Chinese city. Such viewpoints rested on a transitory contact with Hong Kong as well as a youthful perspective – for many, the flight from Nazism was the first experience of a foreign land. Other interviewees had more permanent experiences of Hong Kong, with mothers and fathers procuring visas and finding employment in the colony: My mother was a milliner. She was a milliner in Vienna, and when she came to Hong Kong my uncle Herman had arranged for the lease of a small millinery shop, a shop that she turned into a millinery shop … we lived in Kowloon but the millinery shop was on the Island of Hong Kong. Such vivid memories contrast with more fragmentary recollections, images that had been dulled with time but nevertheless provide important glimpses of refugee life in Hong Kong: visits to the Ohel Leah Synagogue, meeting Chinese neighbours, familial tensions. Such memories of emigration, survival and community are crucial in helping piece together Jewish refugee experience of pre-war Hong Kong.