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(photo credit: Courtesy)
A slow boat to China was one of few options available to European Jews fleeing the Nazis in the late l930s. With country after country slamming their doors shut on Jewish refugees, the then-international city of Shanghai - where no entry visas were required - was a beacon of hope in the darkest of times. However, the sanctuary was over 8,000 miles away.
Guided tours of Shanghai's former Jewish quarter, Hongkou, have been offered in recent years by the local Chinese authorities, proud of their part in helping save some 30,000 Jews who succeeded in reaching their country. Holocaust survivors and descendants of those who found a safe haven in Shanghai have been returning to visit the country.
Three years ago, the film Shanghai Ghetto made by Amir and Dana Janklowicz-Mann - the latter a daughter of a Shanghai survivor - documented such a journey back to the Chinese past of former residents of the northern Shanghai district of Hongkou. The film sparked new interest in the harsh experiences of Jews far away from the European arena of horrors, where most of their extended families perished. The documentary deals with the relationship between the Jewish refugees and the local Chinese, the harsh circumstances under which all were forced to live after occupation by the Japanese army, and how the Jews organized themselves under those extremely cruel occupiers.
One of the families who pulled into the Shanghai harbor during one of the stormiest and cruelest periods of history was that of Austrian-born Ehud (Ernst) Gewing, who eventually made aliya to Israel in the early l950s. Gewing, his parents and two brothers left the town of Leoben - where there were few Jewish families - and headed for the northern Italian port of Trieste where they boarded the Shanghai-bound Conte Verde.
During the voyage, the ship passed through the Suez Canal, where the then-young schoolboy almost rubbed shoulders with Palestine. Little did he know at the time that this is where he would eventually end his long journey to freedom, beginning in Austria and on to Shanghai, eventually to America and then, after a few years, to the Promised Land that he sailed past more than a decade previously.
Gewing is one of the survivors who in recent years made the journey back to his Hongkou past before viewing the Janklowicz-Mann documentary. "The Shanghai experience was extremely well captured in the film," Gewing commented after watching Shanghai Ghetto.
The father of filmmaker Dana Janklowicz-Mann, Yechiel (Harold) Janklowicz, is a close friend of Gewing's from their Shanghai days. Gewing's Polish-born paternal grandfather settled in the Austrian town of Leoben prior to the First World War. "He was originally a peddler and then became a shop owner," explained Gewing, whose own father ran a household goods shop. On his mother's side the family tree went back several generations in Austria. "My maternal grandfather and great-grandfather served in the Austrian army," he says with understandably mixed feelings.
Gewing's wife Rachel is also a Holocaust survivor and author of the book My Father's Request, relating her horrific Holocaust experiences before being brought - still only a young child - to the newly-founded State of Israel.
He has positive memories of the journey to Shanghai, that took a couple of weeks and called in at Bombay en-route. "Shanghai was divided into different areas, part under the control of the British, part French and another part under the Americans with the law of each individual country taking hold in each area," recalled Gewing.
"In Shanghai there were basically two Jewish communities: the Iraqis and the White Russians, the latter group being both Jews and non-Jews who had fled the Bolsheviks. Our group was the first to arrive in Shanghai as refugees, and the Jewish community helped us settle down in the French Quarter and father opened a clothing shop. I remember we always lived frugally and really don't know how much help came from the Jewish community, but obviously some," he recalled.
Ehud and his brothers attended the English language school in the British section known as the Shanghai Jewish School. "The teachers were all English speaking but not necessarily British, as I remember some were Russian. We never thought about the teachers' nationality until they disappeared in December l941. After Pearl Harbor they were rounded up by the Japanese and put in internment camps," he explained.
"We lived peacefully until 1943 when the Japanese moved us to a very poor neighborhood which became a ghetto in the area of Shanghai known as Hongkou. Father, of course, had to sell the shop and he opened another in Hongkou with an Austrian Jewish partner. Not all the Jews and Russians were interned - only those who came as refugees after l938 - but we were around 18,000 in the ghetto. There were no walls around the ghetto, but we had to carry passes and a civilian police force made up of Jewish refugees checked you whenever you moved around."
"A school was established by the refugees and my education continued in the English language," continued Gewing, the father of four daughters and a member of Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek in the Jezreel Valley. "My father's parents managed to join us in Shanghai in l941, having traveled by train via Siberia to Japan, and from there to China. We all lived together in extremely cramped conditions, the whole extended family in two small rooms," Gewing recalled, adding that his grandfather died of natural causes while they were living in Shanghai.
When Gewing returned to Shanghai in 2004, he paid a visit to those rooms. "I still can't understand how we managed to live that way for the time we did," he exclaimed. He was accompanied to Shanghai by a Chinese professor of English, an acquaintance of his brother in the US, and therefore had no problem communicating with the local Chinese residents who showed a great deal of respect to their visitor on an emotional journey back to his childhood in their part of the city.
The Hongkou synagogue has been turned into a museum and many of the other buildings occupied by Jews during the war are still standing. Shanghai has been undergoing a tremendous construction boom in recent years - just this week a massive 101-floor building was completed - and there was talk of demolishing the area that had been the ghetto. However the Shanghai municipality decided that about 50 historical structures were to be preserved in the former Jewish neighborhood.
The Gewing family eventually made it to the US. "We had an aunt in New York and she sent affidavits for the whole family, but Fritzi - my mother - contracted TB in Shanghai and the Americans wouldn't allow her entry. My parents decided that my father would take my twin brother, myself and older brother to America before our visas ran out and that she would eventually follow."
Gewing went to school in San Francisco, became a member of the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatza'ir and made aliya in December, l951. "When Shanghai was evacuated before the communist takeover in l949, all the Jews went to Italy as did my mother, but she died in hospital there and was buried in Rome," he recounted sadly.
A few years ago, Ehud and his twin brother Heinz visited their mother's grave and had the gravestone, which had fallen into a state of disrepair, replaced. "To this day I don't understand how we left her behind, sick and alone," he said, gazing at a black-and-white photograph of the whole family together in Shanghai and lost in a swirl of deep emotions.