Shanghai refugees recall a ‘haven’

Liliane Willens of D.C. spent her early years in Shanghai, fleeing there with her family following the Russian Revolution.
Liliane Willens of D.C. spent her early years in Shanghai, fleeing there with her family following the Russian Revolution.

When Jerry Lindenstraus was growing up in Shanghai, he “had little food, no butter, no chocolate. There was malaria, jaundice” and no medication. At a Capitol Hill reception last week, the 85-year-old explained how, despite these hardships, Shanghai’s welcoming policy enabled about 20,000 European Jews to escape the horrors of World War II.

“I am one of the lucky ones who survived,” said Lindenstraus, whose family fled Germany. Shanghai was “the only place you could go on Earth without a visa,” he said.

Shanghai’s Jews lived in a “ghetto without walls,” said Lindenstraus, now a New York resident. “We called it a district. Jobs were few,” and many Jews sold their belongings on the street to make money.

While most of the world turned its back on the Jews as the Nazis rose to power, Shanghai stood out as a haven for its open-arms policy.

The June 23 reception, held to raise awareness about this chapter of history and underline current American and Israeli relations with China, featured several members of Congress and other dignitaries as speakers. Sponsored by AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute, the reception opened a weeklong exhibit about Jewish refugees in Shanghai from 1933 to 1941 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C. The exhibit was created by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and has been traveling around the world for the past three years.

Attendee and Washington, D.C., resident Liliane Willens also grew up in Shanghai, but her childhood differed from the poverty-stricken life of Jews like Lindenstraus. Her parents fled there after the Russian revolution of 1917, among 5,000 Jews to do so, she said.

Willens and her sisters lived what she described as a privileged life in the French concession. At the time, Shanghai was administered by France, Britain and the United States, their separately run territories known as “concessions.”

There was no visible anti-Semitism among the Chinese of Shanghai, Willens said. “They saw the Jews as white people.”

Good relations between China and the Jewish people continue today. Today, China is Israel’s third-largest trading partner and bilateral trade has grown from $50 million when relations were established in 1992 to more than $10 billion in 2013, according to Nissim Reuben, assistant director of Asia Pacific Institute of AJC.

China is second only to the United States in joint high-tech projects with Israel’s Chief Scientist Office, Reuben said, adding that last month, China’s Bright Food Co. purchased a majority 56 percent controlling stake in Israel’s largest dairy food products firm, Tnuva from Apax, an Israeli private equity house.

“When the Jewish people suffered from the Holocaust, Shanghai opened its arms and provided shelter,” noted Reuven Azar, deputy head of mission to the Chinese for the Embassy of Israel.

Evelyn Pike Rubin was born in Germany in 1930. She and three of her relatives fled to Shanghai where she began attending the Shanghai Jewish School. Life there “wasn’t good. It was survival, but when compared to what happened in Europe, it was heaven,” she said, adding that rather than referring to herself as a survivor of the Holocaust, she instead says she is “a lucky survivor.”

Her family later moved to the United States in 1947, and she spent most of her life in New York.
According to the exhibition, Jews in Shanghai were able to find work, but doctors and lawyers found themselves earning a living as tailors and apprentice carpenters. They had to stand in line for hours to get necessary work passes. Living conditions were poor, with families squeezed together in barracks or small apartments.

Yet, Jews joined the Shanghai Municipal Council Orchestra, played on a Shanghai Jewish football team, acted in a Yiddish drama troupe and created newspapers in their native languages. Several famous Americans started out as Jewish refugees in Shanghai, including W. Michael Blumenthal, the U.S. secretary of the treasury under former President Jimmy Carter, and artist Peter Max.

[email protected]

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here