Dr Irma Frommer

My last blog posting examined the life of Hungarian refugee medic Dr. Jean (Eugene) Frommer and his work attending to wounded soldiers in China during the Sino-Japanese War. His wife, Dr. Irma Frommer, was also a Hungarian refugee and medical professional. She was hired by Hong Kong’s Medical Services Department in 1940 to replace Dr. Fehily, a Russian emigre who worked as the Lady Medical Officer (maternity and child welfare) under Dr. Sewlyn-Clarke from 1939 – 1940.

Colonial Office papers from 1940 reveal considerations such as nationality, pay scales (linked to nationality) and the centrality of the local Medical Register. One Colonial Official writes that:

This must be the ‘Jewish emigre’ referred to in a letter dated 31.5.1940 addressed to Sir Wilson Jameson from Mrs. Fehily, which I have enclosed in her P.F.

As Mr. Blake says, Fehily was a Russian (on both sides) so that we need hardly take exception to the Hungarian origin of Dr. Frommer as long as she is qualified to practice in Hong Kong.

The D.M.S. is satisfied that she is competent to carry out the duties required of her. But they propose to pay her a very low rate of salary and I do not know how this is altogether satisfactory. But I suppose we had better agree? and as well to the creation of an additional appointment of a Chinese woman Medical Officer.

Colonial Office officials were clearly appalled at the low salary offered to Dr. Frommer (at $4,500 PA compared to Dr. Fehily’s $7,500), with one civil servant describing the wage as ‘exploitation’. The Chinese woman Medical Officer’s salary was even lower, at $2,400, paid for by savings made from Dr. Frommer’s low rate of pay. In the event, Dr. Frommer accepted the modest salary and started work in Hong Kong in August 1940.

 

Professor William (Wilhelm) Deman

Horace Kadoorie with Miss Smith and William DemanWhilst working through the World Jewish Congress (WJC) records at the American Jewish Archives, I became intrigued by letters written by Professor William (Wilhelm) Deman. Although Professor Deman did not transit through Hong Kong, his plight tells us much about the Kafkaesque difficulties faced by refugees in the immediate post-Holocaust and post-war world – when immigration barriers and quota restrictions remained firmly in place – as well as refugee decisions to leave Shanghai, contentions surrounding repatriation vs. resettlement, and finally, the schisms within the refugee community itself. I’m also interested in Professor Deman as a refugee humanitarian actor. He ran the Gregg School of Business in Shanghai, a valuable training centre for refugees, as well as the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association club, founded by Horace Kadoorie. From 1947 to 1949, Professor Deman was also the Secretary of the Association of Small Quota Committees, formed to agitate for the rights of so-called ‘small quota’ individuals from Austria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Lithuania and Turkey to enter the U.S.

First, a little background on the bureaucratic impasse faced by those from ‘small quota’ countries in Shanghai. President Truman’s directives on immigration in December 1945 gave two-thirds of quotas for all countries for one year to Germany under blanket corporate affidavits. This measure was good news for German Jews in Shanghai hoping to enter the U.S. Adversely, it also split families, for example a German-born woman married to an Austrian or Polish man could not emigrate to America as a couple. To illustrate the difficulties faced by ‘small quota’ individuals, the total number of quotas allotted to Shanghai for Poles, Czechs, Romanians and Hungarians for the year 1947 to 1948 amounted to only 220. As Marcia Ristaino has written, the Displaced Persons Act of June 1948 was a further blow for Shanghai’s refugees. It centred on clearing Austria, Germany and Italy of DPs, and consequently, Shanghai was forgotten.

Professor Deman wrote regularly to Kurt Grossman, the WJC representative in New York, on the issue of small quota emigration. His letters become increasingly desperate as the economic and political climate in China disintegrates, anti-foreign sentiment takes hold, and the Communists approach Shanghai. Deman’s letters also articulate the desires of some 1,314 refugees to emigrate to the States. They speak of a universal yearning to be reunited with surviving family members and describe how professional, middle aged refugees had learned English in Shanghai, meaning that both their familial and professional lives were tied to the United States. The letters also give a very raw insight into the psychological impact of waiting and of the ruin of lives lived with uncertainty.

The Association of Small Quota Committees emerges as a highly organised and resourceful organisation, demonstrating that refugees were not passive victims of circumstance but highly engaged with the changing tides of international politics and immigration legislation. Committee members write pleading letters to the head of the U.S. Visa Section, the State Department, and even President Truman. They are vocal and imaginative in devising strategies to enter the U.S. – opting for temporary evacuation to Japan, Hawaii or Cuba – and often reject suggestions from the WJC, including evacuation to Samar Island on the Philippines.The organisation also acts as a conduit of information for the WJC, who have no representatives on the ground in China (their China Section is made up of refugees), and the data they provide is used as the basis  for WJC bulletins.

At the beginning of 1949, as the British, French and American governments evacuate their civilians from China, the situation becomes increasingly desperate and this sparks a schism within the refugee committee, a rebellion led by Professor Deman. He becomes disillusioned with futile hopes of resettlement and opts for repatriation. In February 1949, he sets sails on the S.S. Meigs to San Francisco, where he takes a sealed train to New York. Refugees are allowed to meet with friends and family for one hour on Ellis Island before taking a second ship to Italy where they continue their journeys.

Kurt Grossman writes an account of his 60-minute meeting with Professor Deman at Ellis Island. In many ways his eloquent prose captures the desperate plight of refugees across the globe:

‘May I say a word about the procedure which the United States authorities have applied in handling these transports. The Jewish refugees arrive in San Francisco and then are taken under rigid supervision through the United States without allowing anybody to leave either the transport or Ellis Island. The relatives, among them brothers, sisters, and children, are permitted to see their kin for not quite one hour. The psychological effect must be a devastating one. The most depressing scenes take place. From Ellis Island the people can see the Statue of Liberty but the solemn words engraved therein remain just words and the promise they convey remains unfulfilled. Technically and according to regulations everything is in order, but from a human point of view, the treatment of the Jewish refugees coming from Shanghai is cruel. It is obvious that people who have not seen each other for ten years find 40 to 50 minutes inadequate. Departing from Ellis Island, after being with those refugees for one hour, leaves you with a lump in your throat.’

 

 

 

Refugee Physicians and the Aid China Movement

In the 1930s Hong Kong was used as base for Communist and Nationalist activities in support of China’s plight against the Japanese. One key organisation in this fight was the China Defence League (CDL) established in 1938 and presided over by Madame Soong Ching-ling, Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s widow, the leader of the 1911 Revolution and the founder of the Chinese Republic. The CDL was in many ways an embodiment of the internationalist nature of the Free China movement in Hong Kong; with Chinese, New Zealanders, British and Americans working together on the CDL committee. The main function of the CDL was to provide medical and other forms of relief to the fighting fronts in China, particularly the guerilla areas set up behind Japanese lines by the Communists. With the help of leftist committees in Britain, Norway and the CDL in Hong Kong, 17 European doctors were recruited into the Medical Relief Corps (MRC) of the Chinese Red Cross. Known locally as the ‘Spanish doctors’ thanks to their work in the International Brigades in Spain, they were actually Jewish refugee volunteers who had escaped Nazism from Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania. They joined hundreds of young medical school graduates from China and the Chinese diaspora to bring relief to China’s soldiers.

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Members of the China Defence League. From left: Israel Epstein, Deng Wenzhao, Liao Mengxing, Soong Ching Ling, Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, Norman France and Liao Chenzhi. Photo courtesy of China.org

 

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Walter Freudmann (middle) was one of the so-called ‘Spanish doctors’ who worked in the Medical Relief Corps in China. Photo courtesy of DOW.

 

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Bishop Ronald Hall, photo courtesy of Christopher Hall

Hilda Selwyn-Clarke, a British Leftist, was integral to the recruitment of these Jewish refugees. She became involved as the CDL’s Honourary Secretary soon after moving from London to Hong Kong in 1938, and was known as ‘Red Hilda’ as much for her vibrant hair colour as her political sympathies. She was married to Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, the new Director of Medical Services, and the husband and wife duo formed part of a small coterie of western liberal progressives who supported the resistance efforts in China. Sympathy for China was pervasive in Britain’s political leftist circles, but also prevalent amongst Christian groups. The Anglican Bishop of Hong Kong, Ronald O. Hall, was highly active in providing aid to Chinese refugees and was also involved in the Chinese Red Cross. Much like Madame Soong and the Selwyn-Clarkes, he recruited Jewish refugees in China in support of the Free China movement, placing physicians in missionary hospitals and refugee camps across his See, which extended beyond Hong Kong and into southern China. Hall employed refugees such as Dr. Karl Hans Fritz Harth, who had a background in law and took charge of the Chinese Red Cross in Haiphong. He Anglicized his name to ‘Charles John Frederick Harth’ and converted to Anglicanism, later becoming secretary to Hall and warden of the Church Guest House in Hong Kong. He courageously defended St John’s Cathedral and its treasures during the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong.

At the cessation of hostilities in 1945 some Jewish refugee physicians stayed on in China, whilst others went on to new missions in South East Asia or rebuilt their lives in Europe, America and Australia.

Edgar Laufer

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Edgar Laufer, pictured 1948

Edgar Laufer (1917 – 2010) was one of three Jewish refugees employed at China Light & Power (CLP) by Lawrence Kadoorie in the 1930s, and possibly the only Jewish refugee scientist in Hong Kong. His career in the company spanned 42 years (1938 – 1980) and began in CLP’s Chemical Services Department where he set up the lab at Hok Un Power Station. Edgar later joined Head Office in 1958 and became an integral member of management, working on the Esso partnership and the Scheme of Control amongst other high profile projects.

Edgar left Berlin in June 1937 to study chemistry and Chinese at the Lingnan University in Canton with funds sent to him by a friend in the United States, choosing China thanks to his childhood fascination with the stamps sent to him by his uncle, Dr. Bethold Laufer, curator of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Although he never spoke of his escape from Nazism during his lifetime, Edgar described his feelings of loss in a letter to the Colonial Secretariat in 1940: ‘I have always, for impersonal reasons, been most strongly opposed to National  Socialism and all it stands for. When I was disenfranchised as a Jew, I considered myself no longer a German citizen’. Whilst studying in Canton, Edgar was introduced to Lawrence Kadoorie, then Director of CLP by Herbert Samuel, the company statistician. Edgar’s late uncle was known to the family as he had corresponded with Horace Kadoorie on the subject of ancient Chinese ivories. In 1938 Edgar spent his summer holidays in Hong Kong, visiting friends and working for CLP on a part-time basis. He fled China in October 1938 when Canton fell to the Japanese military and the university was moved to Hong Kong, temporarily utilizing the University of Hong Kong as its base. Laufer described the flight in an interview in 2007:

‘I went and studied in Canton, but the Japanese invaded Canton, they’d come south of Burma, but I think in the autumn of ’38, which was when we had to flee from Canton quite suddenly … I don’t remember the details, it meant taking a boat to some part of Guangdong from Canton on the river and then taking a bus to Macau, and eventually taking the boat, overnight boat from Macau to Hong Kong.’

In November 1938 Edgar was employed by CLP on a part-time basis to undertake research on coal and water. He was able to bring his brother and his parents, Thodore Laufer and Kela Carry Laufer, to safety from Berlin to Hong Kong with the help of Lawrence Kadoorie. Edgar later arranged for his brother to leave for Chicago to continue his studies at the Hebrew Theological College. In October 1939 Lawrence Kadoorie proposed a loan of $100 a month to financially support Edgar and his family: ‘the reason for doing this and not requesting help from the (Jewish Refugee) Society is that the boy has a proud nature and will I know endeavor to the best of his ability to repay the loan as soon as he possibly can’.

Following his graduation in 1940, Edgar set up the first chemical lab at CLP’s Hok Un Power Station. During the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong he was at liberty due to his German nationality and he helped deliver care packages to British internees in Stanley Internment Camp. Libby Sharpe, who as a baby was interned in the camp with her mother, described Edgar’s kindness:

 ‘Edgar did a wonderful job. He went from camp to camp, he brought my father the news that I was born, and he brought back … the only thing my father had, and goodness how he had it, was a bar of chocolate, so he sent a bar of chocolate back through Edgar to my mother.’

Edgar was nationalized as a British citizen in 1947 and continued to dedicate his time and energy to CLP’s success. In the 1970s he helped collect information on CLP’s history for Nigel Cameron’s book ‘Power’, which told the story of CLP. He retired to England in the 1980s and passed away in 2010.

 

Refugee Musicians

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Several Jewish refugees worked as musicians at Hong Kong’s famous Gloucester Hotel

In Shanghai, German and Austrian refugees were successful in forging a cultural life of their own replete with newspapers, Viennese cafes and Yiddish theatre troupes as they sought to recreate the cultural practices of their homelands in new, temporary and alien environments. The arrival of these refugees also enhanced Shanghai’s western music scene. Refugee musicians fell into two groups: amateur and professional. Whilst the former performed in Shanghai’s dance halls, cabarets and bars as an alternative means to survive, professional musicians attempted to enter Shanghai’s serious world of music with some success, at least until Pearl Harbour. Refugee composers and artists performed with the Municipal Orchestra and found jobs as music teachers. They also formed chamber music groups, musical ensembles and a light opera company.

Although Hong Kong’s (western) cultural scene was seen as less developed than metropolitan Shanghai, musicians were still in high demand. The Sino-Japanese conflict had created a housing crisis and social problems in Hong Kong but also provided a tremendous boost to the economy as foreign trade was diverted through the colony, bank’s relocated their headquarters and the huge influx of refugees created a boom in land sales and government revenues. Despite the Chinese refugee crisis, the outbreak of war in Europe and hostilities in China, there was an attitude of ‘business as usual’ in Hong Kong as galas were held at The Peninsula Hotel and cafes and dance halls were as crowded as ever. The memoirs of Dr. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke recall the care-free British attitude following the fall of Canton ‘… the pleasures of life appeared to suffer little interruption … in the evening there was the endless exchange of dinner parties, drinks and dancing in the big hotels’. The German and Austrian refugees employed as musicians in Hong Kong’s top-tier hotels and restaurants were of a professional calibre but due to their small numbers they were unable to organize a distinct musical community to rival that of Shanghai. Most were recruited directly from Shanghai and performed in bands together with other refugees. Some had been highly successful in their native Austria and Germany but were grateful for the lesser opportunities afforded in Hong Kong, which meant survival and a livelihood.

Of the 94 refugees registered as enemy aliens from September 1939 to August 1940, 64 were employed by Hong Kong firms or managed their own business interests in the colony. Of this group, nine were engaged as musicians. Adolphe ‘Aaron’ Landau, a French citizen from Shanghai and subscriber to Hong Kong’s Ohel Leah Synagogue, employed seven refugees at two of his restaurants: Jimmy’s Kitchen and the Parisian Grill. Landau partnered with Shanghai-based Jimmy James to open a Hong Kong branch of ‘Jimmy’s Kitchen’ in 1928, a popular western style restaurant with branches in Shanghai. Landau employed several German and Austrian refugees as managers and cashiers of his restaurants in Hong Kong and procured professional musicians directly from Shanghai. He entered into a bond of $7,000 at the Colonial treasury on behalf of at least three of these refugees, all of whom were musicians. Landau’s employment of husband-wife partnerships and the undertaking of government bonds on behalf of refugees indicate a clear humanitarian motive.

A further five professional musicians were employed by the Gloucester Hotel in 1938-1939. Opened in 1932, the hotel restaurant was installed with a special sprung dance floor that became a popular destination for Hong Kong’s wealthy residents and tourists. Mary’s father was employed by the hotel in 1939. In Vienna he worked as a professional musician: ‘he had his own band at times, played for the opera and as a young boy he was part of the Viennese choir boys’. The family left Vienna for Shanghai in November 1938 when Viktor’s saxophone was confiscated by the Nazis. Once in Shanghai friends helped him purchase new instruments and Viktor soon secured a job at Hong Kong’s Gloucester Hotel: ‘he was able to obtain a yearly contract in Hong Kong to join a band, which he did. We did, we left in April of 39’ for Hong Kong. And that was, we thought, we found heaven. And he was very happy working there and we had a nice place to live and I went to a lovely school and it was very nice.’ Other refugee musicians were also able to procure jobs in Hong Kong: ‘In the band there were three other, or four, three or four other families that were also refugees only they were able to join the band on their way to Shanghai, because we went through Hong Kong on our way to Shanghai but we, we just had to double back’.