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.


New York, New York

Lady LibertyI recently spent two weeks in New York and finally ticked off three archives that have been on my ‘to do’ list since 2016. These were the United Nations archive, the American Jewish Joint Distribution (JDC) archive and the Jewish Centre for Historical Research. It was a fascinating trip punctuated by icy blizzards (I enjoyed a ‘snow day’ in the hotel – one of my first for many years!) and avid cable news consumption as President Trump came under increasing pressure to defend his charge of wiretapping against the former administration.

In this article, I’ll be sharing my research experience at the JDC archive, an NGO founded during the First World War and the first Jewish organisation in the United States to dispense large-scale international funding. Over the past five years the JDC has digitised its vast holdings and these digital records are now searchable and accessible online here (on PDF format). Portions of the archive’s holdings are available in-house only, including the New York Head Office collection (pertaining to China) – records most relevant to my research. The JDC’s post-war China records provide a fascinating insight into the organisation’s Shanghai office and their struggles to deal with large-scale refugee movements from China to Australia, Canada, Israel, South America and the United States amidst rampant inflation, fluctuations in the currency market, lack of funds and the complexities of the Western immigration landscape. The records also reveal the JDC’s collaboration with United Nation legacy agencies such as UNRRA and IRO, as well as other Jewish refugee organisations. The collection is available in digitised or microfilm format, and the archivists are most helpful. They can be reached via email, here.

Most records in the New York UN archive were created by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA), a UN agency from 1945 until its closure in 1947. UNRRA was active in China dispensing relief services to millions of internally Displaced Persons, both Chinese and European. For those looking for UNRRA’s successor organisations, such as the International Relief Organisation, you’ll need to go to the Archives Nationales in Paris, France, whilst the records of the UNHCR are held in the United Nations archive in Geneva (confused yet?). Researchers should note that the New York office is in the midst of a large-scale digitisation programme in collaboration with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and quite significant portions of its holdings are currently held off-site. The bitter-sweet upside of this is that by the end of the year, most UNRRA records should be accessible online, possibly negating the need for that expensive research trip to the States.

From Strongroom to Seminar

img_4680Today I attended a fascinating conference titled ‘Strongroom to Seminar’ hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and The National Archives. The aim of the conference was to share strategies and ideas as to how to best engage students in the archival method.

The keynote speaker was Professor Jo Fox of Durham University, whose presentation was so good I thought I’d blog about it here!

Jo spoke about the shifting identity of the archive in the 21st Century and the importance, as well as the challenges, of introducing archives to students as part of a holistic pedagogic method in History Departments across universities. It’s a topic I feel strongly about and one we’ve taken seriously at The Hong Kong Heritage Project, where we’ve rolled out a number of innovative oral history and archive programmes for high school and university students.

Everyday Disappointments

One of the most thought-provoking aspects of Jo’s presentation was to touch on the uncertainty and instability of archival research. We’ve all experienced the gradual dissipation of hope and excitement as documents don’t quite yield the answers we expect – but how can be this be taught as part of a history module?

Jo argues that the process of archival study should shape the questions we ask of our sources, and that as historians we need to constantly re-frame our research questions in the face of everyday disappointments. It’s vital to teach students the value of historical problem solving and the difference between finding documents and finding useful documents. Each research journey is personal, and deeply affecting. Research invokes a spectrum of emotion – from boredom, excitement and frustration – feelings that can’t easily be taught as part of a course module. Jo offers practical solutions to this dilemma by turning to public history. A number of universities have recently offered hands-on modules in which students can critically engage – and indeed literally interrogate – their sources. For example, the 2011 Queen Mary University ‘Blair Government’ course introduced students to key players in the Blair cabinet, including Tony himself!

Digital Solutions?

Finally, Jo addressed another more recent challenge facing historians and the archival method – that of digitization. Digital copies of records are often touted as a cure-all to the dual problems of access and preservation. I know I’ve certainly been grateful for online collections that have saved the cost of a train ticket across the country or flights and accommodation abroad. But besides the problems faced by archives – the huge costs involved in digitisation programmes and the relentless pace of technological change – Jo argues that digitization comes at a cost for the end-user too. The sense of a collection’s materiality is being lost by a new ‘smash-and-grab’ culture in which students enter an archive, launch an eight-hour assault with a digital camera and return home to assess their booty. Something valuable is lost in this process. No longer do we spend days contemplating our sources and intellectually meandering through collections. The archive is now considered as a place to raid rather than to think. Similarly, when collections are accessed online, we not only lose the tactile enjoyment of the record but the sense of a collection’s provenance and accessioning history.  Jo asks whether digitization will prompt a change in the way in which we practice history in the twenty-first century, and I agree that it certainly calls into question the hallowed value placed on digitization in the profession today.



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.’




Post-War Exodus: Records of the American Jewish Archives

I’m in the United States for a month to study the World Jewish Congress records held at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio, a swing state in the upcoming U.S. elections (Hilary has a 34% chance of winning Ohio according to today’s FiveThirtyEight forecast).

The World Jewish Congress (WJC) dates back to 1936 and was founded in Geneva, Switzerland to represent Jews around the world and advocate on their behalf to government and non-government organisations. The World Jewish Council was active in China through its Relief branch and China Section, established in 1945. It attempted to lobby the U.S. government to amend the 1948 DP Act which discriminated against those stranded in Shanghai from so-called ‘small quota’ countries, and approached government officials and Jewish communities in Australia and Canada with regards to refugee resettlement. The collection provides an insight into the incredibly complex plight of Jewish refugees in the immediate post-war and post-Holocaust world, a world which kept its pre-war immigration controls and quotas firmly in place (see for example Suzanne Rutland on the ‘subtle exclusions’ of the IRO and Australia).

The collection also raises wider questions surrounding resettlement and repatriation, refugee emigration decisions informed by age and profession, the question of Palestine – whose immigration policy was still controlled by the British until the establishment of the State of Israel (May 1948) – and Allied responses to refugees, the intense pressure on individuals still caught in Shanghai as the civil war raged on in China and the Communists approached the city, and finally, Chinese attitudes towards Jewish refugees and Europeans generally in post-colonial China.

The collection also chronicles the rise of a professionalised cadre of humanitarian refugee organisations, their relief efforts and the competition between agencies, which in Shanghai proper included the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).