There was no safety for us anywhere.
—Jewish refugee Sigmund Tobias, Shanghai Ghetto
The devastation of the Holocaust is still keenly felt, as are the stories of valor and selflessness that emerged from the tragedies. One astonishing example is offered in Shanghai Ghetto, which recalls how several thousand European Jews escaped to the other side of the world.
As the Nazi Party ascended to power, many world leaders began closing their borders, despite claims that Jewish émigrés would be welcomed with open arms. One unlikely door remained ajar: the thriving city of Shanghai, China, which in 1939 was controlled by Japan and was, diplomatically speaking, “open,” meaning anyone could debark from a ship without a passport or visa. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan’s grip on China tightened considerably, but by then, Shanghai was already a potent political and cultural stew, thickened significantly by a late ‘30s influx (nearly 20,000) of Jewish—or as the Japanese eventually referred to them, “stateless refugees.”
Rampant disease, culture shock, poverty, and overcrowding all made the transition difficult. Still, as interview subject Sigmund Tobias explains, none of these hardships compared to the horrors suffered by relatives who remained in Europe. Viewed in that context, the city seemed something of a “paradise.” As the film shows, most refugees believed their situation was temporary, a few months in the Far East. When it became apparent that going home would not be an option, they set about attempting to integrate themselves, however haltingly, into the mystifyingly foreign culture around them, establishing tentative friendships, despite language barriers with their neighbors. Eventually, they reinstituted a sense of community, in part thanks to the work of American social worker Laura Margolis and support from American Jewish charities, including small businesses, newspapers, and cultural experiences that matched the vibrancy of those they left behind—or as survivor Henry Meisel observes in one of the supplemental, extended interviews: “It’s amazing how people can improvise.”
The story of regaining that modicum of normalcy is made poignant by co-directors Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann’s decision to open the film by recounting life in Europe before the Nazi Party, intercutting survivors’ childhood memories and family photos. As they remember innocent trips to the ice cream parlor, the film shows archival footage of Nazis marching. Janklowicz-Mann’s father, Harold Janklowicz, spent part of his childhood in Shanghai, as did several of the interviewees. With footage of today’s unchanged “Shanghai ghetto” as well as archival footage and photos, Shanghai Ghetto reveals history that’s far from antiquated.
Mann says on the commentary track that he and his wife were cognizant of the fact that the World War II generation was fast disappearing—lending a further sense of urgency to this already engaging story—spurring them to tackle and complete this ambitious project. For the European refugees, reestablishing the familiar (read: a life that was cosmopolitan and comfy) was a protracted process; aside from language and cultural barriers, they faced poverty and disease amid primitive living conditions. Efforts to communicate with their Chinese neighbors were complicated by the fact that the German Jews were not the first to arrive in Shanghai; Russian and Iraqi Jews settled there years before and resented the newcomers.
Many of the survivors interviewed in the film recall their confusion. Even the term “ghetto,” applied by the Jews, was never formally used by the Japanese; the government referred to the section of Shanghai occupied by the Jews as a “segregated area.” Semantics aside, the Shanghai natives weren’t exactly living large, despite thriving trade and shipping industries. Embroiled in the Sino-Japanese War, wracked by various diseases sprung from squalid living conditions, and infested with corrupt government officials, Chinese citizens confronted their own hardships.
The many different stories prove tricky for the filmmakers, who allude in the commentary to their quirky, compelling aspects, as well as the need to consider dense political machinations of the time. The film provides helpful context through interviews with professors familiar with the period. Shanghai Ghetto re-emphasizes the ideal that, in the face of overwhelming evil, a sense of good might triumph, allowing some semblance of life to continue.