They were reluctant adventurers whose painful decision to leave their homes in Europe and travel thousands of miles over land and sea was driven by fear of Nazi persecution rather than wanderlust.
Nonetheless, the experience of thousands of Jews who took refuge in China during World War II was one they would never forget.
Now, on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and Israel and 67 years after the war ended, China Radio International is inviting former Jewish refugees who lived in the country during that period to submit accounts detailing their life story for a contest.
“In recent years ties between Israel and China are strengthening and there has been a noticeable improvement in economic, political and cultural ties,” said Ma Weigong, deputy editor of China Radio International.
“This project called ‘My China Experience’ will bolster ties between refugees and their descendants with China.’” The winner, who will be announced in July, will win a free trip to China with his or her family.
Entrants include Michael Nutman, a German-born Jew whose family hastily left the country in 1938 after his father was briefly held by the Gestapo. During the war his family lived a spartan existence in and around Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, narrowly avoiding Japanese air raids and learning the local culture.
In his teens, Nutman would sometimes work barefoot in the rice fields with the local peasants.
“I learned to participate in all phases of the rice-growing cycle, from the seeding of the small plots, to the watering of the germinating buds, to the collecting of the green shoots, to the replanting of the individual shoots in flooded fields, to the cutting of the grown and ripened stalks, to the threshing and winnowing of the rice grains and the stacking of the straw and the preparing of the dried-out fields for the next round of seeding,” he wrote.
Nutman also became acquainted with the Flying Tigers, the famed squadron based in Kunming that fought the Japanese. He and his parents eventually managed to board a transport from Calcutta to San Francisco in 1943.
Another participant in the contest is Marianne Barly, whose family left Germany in 1937. Though they aimed to emigrate to Harbin, her family ended up in Tientsin instead.
There, the family survived the Japanese occupation until they were liberated by the Americans.
They made aliya in 1949, but Barly always remembered her time in the Far East.
“My parents and grandmother passed away many years ago but I will forever be grateful to the kind Chinese people for saving our lives from the atrocities of the Holocaust,” she wrote.