Another in the steady stream of documentary and
biographical features dealing with World War II persecution, it is
obvious from the title that filmmakers Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir
Mann area headed east, Far East, in retelling a historically significant,
and personal, episode detailing how one international city welcomed
tens of thousands of German Jewish refugees while the world's democracies
Not overly elucidated on during the course of Shanghai
Ghetto, the Evian Conference, held in the summer of 1938, was a significant
gathering of officials from thirty-two countries, including the United
States (represented only by a businessman-friend of President Roosevelt)
and Great Britain. At the conclusion of this nine-day meeting, sympathy
for the war's refugees was expressed, yet action was nil in allowing
immigration quotas to be relaxed for the German and Austrian Jews,
and other political outcasts, to escape the deadly German judenrein,
the Nazi cleansing that would eventually take millions of lives. Hitler
considered the Evian "non" decision an opportunity to suggest
the world didn't want the Jews. A few months later Josef Goebbels,
Hitler's propaganda minister, unleashed Kristallnacht, "the night
of broken glass," setting thousands of synagogues aflame, destroying
Jewish businesses, and kidnapping tens of thousands of male Jews.
Nearly as quickly, fleeing Germany became a priority. Amid the escalating
fear ("There's no safety for us anywhere"), escape was difficult.
Hence, it was with great reservation that tens
of thousands of Jews fled Nazi Germany via loophole and the Suez Canal
(and in later years through Siberia) to this Chinese outpost, colonized
by Western interests yet then under the control of the Japanese. A
handful of these temporary residents, including the father (-in-law)
of the filmmakers, have come forward to reveal their survival stories.
Their talking heads are amplified by archival photographs, family
snapshots, stock film, digital footage of two survivors (Betty Grebenschikoff
and Harold Janklowicz) returning in 2000 to visit their old homes),
and a dabbling of chronological magnifications by several historians
who have extensively researched the topic.
While the civilized world demanded visa and passports
for legitimate entry into their countries, the port of Shanghai was
the only place that would allow entry without either. Visas were only
required to book tickets on the ships departing from the European
war arena. The trip, often with first class accommodations, was unlike
the horrifying immigration stories of bodies stuffed in steerage.
The three or four week journey provided luxurious cabins, plenty of
food, even some entertainment. While some passengers attempted to
make unscheduled departures in Egypt, hoping to smuggle themselves
into Palestine, most of the seafaring crowd relaxing as the war's
horror faded, but never forgotten, with each sunset.
When the refugees arrived in the Japanese-ruled
enclave, they found freedom. They also found little employment, no
potable water, and bare toilet facilities (i.e., a bucket) Although
adrift in an alien culture, they also found two other Jewish communities
already settled in the city: The wealthy Baghdadi Jews -- including
the Kadoorie and Sassoon families, and the Russian Jews who fled their
country following the 1917 revolution.
The new, massive immigration into the impoverished
Hongkew quarter along the
Wangpoo River found authorities unprepared for the onslaught. Housing
and food problems were dealt with on some levels by the Baghdadis,
and later the Joint
Distribution Committee, a U.S. philanthropic effort. Despite arriving
penniless, the Germans flourished with their own schools, sports clubs,
newspapers, and theatre (German and Yiddish). They were tolerated
and certainly better off than the oppressed Chinese.
Until Japan entered the war.
The Baghdadis, considered British subjects, were
imprisoned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On February 18, 1943,
the Japanese ordered the segregation of the Jews in Hongkew. Yet this
"ghetto" was one without walls. Any non-Oriental face belonged
either in the British jail or the cramped ghetto area, where families
often slept ten to a room.
Laura Margolis, unceremoniously dumped by the JDC
in the dirty, hot, humid, crowded, and foul-smelling city, recounts
her attempt to stabilize the situation, including a daring accomplishment
-- getting permission from the Japanese rulers to continuer her fundraising
endeavors, now turning to the Russian Jews for assistance.
Martin Landau's dispassionate narration is complemented
by a sedate score composed by Sujin Nam and performed by Karen Han
(Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) on the erhu (a two-stringed violin).
This fascinating story is all the more touching under the capable
hands of the husband-wife filmmakers, who are self-distributing their
project. Shanghai Ghetto is an absorbing, anguished story, perhaps
too composed to strike more than a passing emotional note. It is an
enlightening window to one world that closed its doors to humanity,
and another that swung them open.