Life in Post-War Shanghai

A rich and varied literature written by both former refugees and academics has shed light on many aspects of the cultural, economic and social history of the 16,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

As seen in my previous blog post, refugees were highly active in their engagement with local and international NGOs in their quest to leave Shanghai at the end of the war. Their pleas for help, often raw with emotion and frustration, help supplement our understanding of post-war Shanghai. As the years dragged on, many found life in Shanghai increasingly precarious. Life was especially hard for the old, vulnerable and infirm, who found themselves alone in an alien city. It is these protagonists, living on the fringes of society in care homes and medical institutions, who have been neglected by historians. I’ve included one such ‘life story’ below, dated 27 December 1949:

My sister had a miserable life in Shanghai where she came from Germany more than ten years ago. Her marriage was unhappy, she divorced her husband, and by all that she became nervous. When I left Shanghai for America in March 1947 my sister lived in this Old Age Home with unpleasant people in a dark room. The manageress is known to be most provoking towards her charge. Unfortunately, my sister lost her temper at such an occasion and was taken to a Nerve Hospital in August 1947. January 1948 already the hospital doctor wanted to release her, which should be proof that her state of health was considered to be normal. But the American Jewish Joint Committee whose support she receives, prolonged her stay for lack of accommodation.

After many efforts made by my sister and a relative of ours, now in Palestine, she was finally released June 1948.

My sister is in possession of three affidavits for immigration to USA. But the American Consulate doctor did not grant her the OK.

We are the only members of our family who survived.

Refugee Memory of Shanghai

The history of Shanghai as a ‘Port of Last Resort’ began to be seriously explored in the 1970s when David Kranzler wrote his seminal work ‘Japanese, Nazis and Jews’ (1976). What is clear from the records held at the American Jewish Archives (Ohio) is that refugees began to digest, historicise and attach specific meanings to their Shanghai experience from 1946, when many from so-called ‘small quota’ countries attempted to enter the United States with help from various Jewish and non-Jewish organisations (namely the Joint, UNRRA and World Jewish Congress). Accounts of life in Shanghai and the Hongkew Ghetto were sent to senators in Washington in attempts to amend U.S. immigration legislation. Clearly, refugees were already acting as witnesses, historians and advocates in the immediate post-war period.

Below is a letter to the editor of the China Daily Tribune from one of the very few refugees able to leave Shanghai for the United States in 1946. He writes: ‘Nine years have passed … nine years full of good and bad days, but through the kind assistance of the Chinese Government, we the refugees and I have been permitted to settle down since 1939, after our flight from the Nazi purge’. 

The more recent historicisation of Shanghai as a ‘Shanghai Ark’ and myth-making at the state level is explored by Yu Wang in his fascinating article ‘The myth of ‘Shanghai Ark’ and the Shanghai Refugee Museum’ (2017), which he describes as a kind of ‘Foucauldian heterotopia’. I’ll write more on this topic a little later.


SJYA diary: final entry (no date)

Day 8 and final entry of Yenta Kleiman’s  Shanghai Jewish Youth Association summer club diary (days 6 & 7 can be found here):

SJYA Summer Club 1938 Newspaper
North China Daily News ‘Presentation to Mr. Horace Kadoorie’, 16 September 1938

The children made the best of the advantages of a spacious garden, and really enjoyed themselves that day at Mr. Albert Hayim’s garden. Some preferred to explore the ins and outs of the place, while others practiced the different sports that were very carefully arranged for them.

The Cafeteria Dinner and Cinema, the Sports’ Day and the day of the presentation of Prizes, were enjoyed as much as the previous S.J.Y.A. meetings, which is saying much.

The last day was especially outstanding in its events. Everybody was happy, the prize winners went to receive their awards and their pals clapped for them. Presently the Camp Fire was lighted, and as everybody raised their young and vibrant voices to sing together the popular songs, they tried to forget the impending breakup. Indeed, despite the gaiety, a little tinge of sadness prevailed as each one of the campers thought of the jolly club activities that were to cease.

The President stood up and asked for attention, and after he had concluded his very interesting speech, I asked permission to say a few words. In my speech, I tried to express on behalf of all the members of the S.J.Y.A. Summer Club how much we are indebted to Mr. Kadoorie for the lovely time we had had. The President and the other members of the Executive Committee each received a little presentation, given with our ever-lasting gratitude.

As everything must have an end, so must our jolly times together.

Looking forward to the following Summer …

SJYA diary: August 11 & 18 1938

Days 6 and 7 of Yenta Kleiman’s  Shanghai Jewish Youth Association summer club diary (days 4 & 5 can be found here):

Scan0007 (2)
SJYA Cantonese Dinner menu (front cover), August 1938
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SJYA Cantonese Dinner menu inside sleeve. Entertainment includes ‘Song with Chin (Chinese Harp). Accompaniment by Miss Buttercup Li.

11 August 1938: Cantonese Dinner

A bowl of rice, and several tasty dishes to accompany it, is really an inspiring dish, and I am sure all present thought so, as the chopsticks clicked and the bowls were constantly refilled. I consider Chinese chow most savoury as compared with European food, and I am sure many would agree with me, had they been party to our Chinese dinner.

A looker-on would have said that the scene that presented itself to him reminded him of Orient; and why not? Real Chinese singing with Chin (harp) accompaniment – or the popular Woo Chen (fiddle) put into use – the tropical sun and palm trees – Chinese Dinner – isn’t it an ideal scene of the Far East?

(After Dinner)

The S.J.Y.A. Dramatic Association developed into something great. First of all, it increased in number, and also its programme is on a larger scale. Formerly, the act they produced was short, this time it was pretty long, and I thought the actors did marvellously well, considering that they has so short a period to rehearse in.

Books of tickets for the Fun Fair were distributed to S.J.Y.A. Club members and their little brothers and sisters at home. Only seven days more and the eminent FUN FAIR will take place. Hurrah! Three hearty cheers for the coming FUN FAIR! Hip, Hip …

18 August 1938: Fun Fair

SJYA Summer Club 1938 x2 photo
Pillow fight at the SJYA fun fair, August 1938

Even a writer would have been a failure to describe the happiness, gaiety, jollity and good-fellowship which prevailed, so I guess I will be a complete one. But just the same I will attempt and perhaps will be so fortunate as to produce a tiny fraction of what I would like to have written.

Never before was Shanghai Jewish School so crowded. The young and old came, and both thoroughly enjoyed themselves – the former trying their luck at different fun stalls and the latter watching their sons and daughters, grand-sons and grand-daughters.

The cats were being knocked off the wall (Cat on Wall); the windows being smashed (Smash the window); ugly faces were being properly smacked (Aunt Sally); fish were being caught (Fishing); profiles were being silhouetted (Silhouette); coconuts were being won (Coconut Shy); roller skates, torches, watches and dolls were being houped (Houp La); pillow duels were being fought (Pillow Fight); AND WHAT NOT!

While some rode the donkeys, others were piloting the aeroplanes. Whereas there was a ring of eager children around the “Ski Board”, a still bigger one surrounded the “Dart Board” and so on.

Two radios were in full blast. In one corner old Fatima, the gipsy, told fortune. The Ice Cream, Sweets and Restaurant stalls were kept extremely busy “valuating the tickets”, etc. etc.

Every participant carried off 4 prizes at least, and some made away with very much more.

“Wonderful” is not the word for it!”

SJYA diary: July 31 & August 4 1938

Days 4 and 5 of Yenta Kleiman’s  Shanghai Jewish Youth Association summer club diary (day 3 can be found here):

SJYA Summer Club 1938 song book inside
SJYA summer club song book

July 31 1938

At 16:30 the sun was still high in the sky, and one would never have believed that it was raining about four hours ago.

The girls as they scattered round the garden, their brightly coloured frocks challenging the beautiful shades of trees and flowers, made the most enchanting picture. Some preferred solitude, while others made up their minds to spend their time jubilantly, and they certainly suited the action to the mind. As the whistle blew, however, all came together to partake of the refreshments served around.

Then there were the sports heats. Such encouragements as “Come on”, “Take your time”, “Make it snappy” “Take it easy” “Faster, faster” and other similarly cheery exclamations were constantly heard, while the greatest excitement prevailed all around.

It was with great reluctance, therefore, that we were obliged to leave, as terrible clouds spread over the sky and something of a storm was imminent. But we yet had time to sing some of the favourite songs, amongst which “Michael Finnigan” usually comes first.[1]

After having given the loudest and most hearty cheers for Sir Elly, we quickly went home, ere the rain began to pour.”

[1] See SJYA song book (pictured)

August 4 1938

Owing to it being a solemn Jewish festival, our merry programme of “Amateur Night” was slightly altered, but it was as equally enjoyed as any of the previous S.J.Y.A. affairs. Instead of Floor Show Night, we were entertained by a very thrilling film entitled The Light-house by the Sea in which a dog named Rintintin took the principle role. A ripple of excitement ran through the young audience, as Rintintin attempted any of his daring pursuits, and then followed sighs of regret or vice versa.

All this took place up on the roof garden. Like grand mandarins, we did not even have to shift from our tables when the dinner was over, but, with ice-cream, fruit and some cold soft drinks at our disposal, there we sat with the movie picture before us.

The picture was long and very interesting. The different scenes were invariably discussed from every angle, and finally acknowledged as one of the most wonderful pictures that ever was.

We all had a topping time!