The journey of a lifetime

Pessia Goldstein made aliyah from Shanghai 70 years ago via three ships and a ‘liberty train.’

The Goldstein family today in Holon; Pessia is third (standing) from the right (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Goldstein family today in Holon; Pessia is third (standing) from the right
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Pessia Goldstein was born in the French Concession area of Shanghai in 1937. Her family had left Ukraine to escape the pogroms, first settling in Harbin and then in Shanghai in 1934. “These Russian Ashkenazim,” a historian has written, “served as the middle class of the Jewish community in Shanghai.”
In 1939, a new arrival captured the city’s spirit. “The landing in Shanghai was a shock. The confused traffic of cars, rickshaws, wheelbarrows... the piercing sounds of policemen’s whistles... the smells.”
Pessia’s father, Lazar, opened a dry-goods store with his family after he married Tatiana in 1934. Three years later, as Japanese forces captured Shanghai, Pessia was born.
“The first eight years of my life,” Goldstein says in a recent interview in her home in Holon,” I experienced the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. A curfew was enforced in the city; we were home on time.”
She remembers the actions of the conquerors.
“There were many military parades by the Japanese, carrying rifles armed with bayonets, marching proudly through the Shanghai streets.”
The atomic bombs ended World War II; Shanghai excitedly welcomed the arrival of American troops.
“I cannot forget,” Goldstein smiles, “the enormous chocolate bars which the Shanghai children received from the soldiers – truly forgotten treats.”
Prof. Dalia Ofer sketches the wartime Jewish history of Shanghai. “The city was a transit station for 20- 30 thousand refugees who had reached there by 1941. From November 1938, following Kristallnacht, until August 1939, Jews from Germany and Austria escaped to Shanghai in large numbers.”
Ofer notes that “the city had no immigration restrictions; it was inhabited by approximately four million Chinese and about 100,000 foreigners – who enjoyed special privileges. Amazingly, Jewish refugees could enter without a visa or any sort of entry papers.”
Between 1945 and 1948, some 6,000 refugees went to the US; 1,000 to Canada, Latin America and Australia; and another 1,000 returned to Germany and Austria.
“In 1948,” Ofer writes, “the US Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, but those living in Shanghai before 1937 were not eligible for special immigration status under this law since it applied exclusively to displaced persons from Europe. Thus many Shanghai Jews lost all opportunity for emigration to the United States.”
Goldstein points out that, “with the war over, my father and grandfather operated their stores in the French Concession area of Shanghai; I went to the same French school as before; there was little change in my personal existence.”
The family seder in 1947 hosted two American soldiers and a sailor. Goldstein remembers the Passover seders in Shanghai very well.
“Every year in the month before the holiday, we would repaint the house completely for Pessah. The Passover dishes would appear; the festive nature of yom tov [the holiday] would be felt. My father and I took a rickshaw to the synagogue to pick up our matzot for the chag. The seder itself was very joyous; we did not recite every word but we sang the songs with gusto.”
In the summer and fall of 1948, Adolf Grassgold, the Shanghai representative of the Joint Distribution Committee, reported that there were 5,343 Jewish refugees in Shanghai. A call went out to the world to save these Jews as the Communist Chinese forces approached the city.
“In spite of the emergency,” Ofer notes, “no additional immigration permits were issued by the United States or other countries. Requests by the International Refugee Organization to Australia, Japan and the Philippines to grant the refugees temporary havens were rejected. Thankfully a Jewish state, Israel, now existed.”
At first there were 1,000 visas to Israel available; then it was decided the entire Jewish community of Shanghai must leave. Moreover, the International Refugee Organization was requested to underwrite the transportation for the refugees to Israel. The IRO was expected “to give the Israeli move its blessing fiscally.”
Moshe Yuval, the Israeli consul from New York, was sent to Shanghai in December 1948 to distribute the 7,000 visas that had been allocated. This large number would make it possible for Jews in Shanghai, Harbin and other cities to leave China for Israel.
Aside from processing for the young and old, Yuval also provided visas for the “veteran” White Russians, a group that included Goldstein’s family, which had come to Shanghai in the late 1920s and mid 1930s.
Marci Ristanio, in her work, “Port of Last Resort,” explains what happened next. “The IRO provided the necessary transportation, and in December 1948 the SS Wooster Victory left from Shanghai with 892 passengers on board for a two-month sail to Italy and then Israel.”
Ristaino pointed out that another ship, theSS Castle Bianco, left later in December 1948 with 900 passengers aboard. After that in February and March 1949, two other ships sailed east to San Francisco.
“They were the SS General Gordon and the SS General Meigs which between them transported 479 and 228 passengers in early 1949 on the first leg to Israel.”
GOLDSTEIN AND her family bought passage on the Meigs for their voyage. In February and March, when the two ships deposited their Jews on the American West coast, these Shanghai refugees boarded sealed “liberty trains” for transport through the USA.
The first to dock, on February 21 1949, was the SS General Gordon. A New York Times front page story recounted: “Israel-Bound Jews Dock on Coast; Will Cross US on Sealed ‘Liberty’ Train.”
What was this train? “The displaced persons, stateless for the most part, were without visas and were to travel under guard on the train until they boarded ship at New York.”
Henry Mogenthau Jr., Roosevelt’s secretary of treasury, was livid. “This great country of mine does not open its arms to you instead putting you in a closed train,” he said Goldstein and her family were on the second ship to arrive in California, on March 12.SS General Meigs which was built in 1942, served as a troop ship. After the war, the Maritime Commission turned it over to American President Lines.
In reflecting on the Meigs, Goldstein recalls: “the men and women had separate sleeping quarters; the food was barely edible. When they tried to heat it up, all you received was a cold serving. But we were underway – the Communist Chinese could not reach us.”
When the Meigs docked in San Francisco, Goldstein received a gift she still treasures. A representative of the community presented each traveler with a Jewish prayerbook, a Bible and a Haggada. Pessia uses her Haggada every Passover; the sentiment surrounding the volume makes it special to the touch. Upon arrival, the 228 passengers were led to the liberty train; the guards were in place. Goldstein and her family were placed in a Pullman car that contained beds to sleep on throughout the trip.
During the 5,000-kilometer train ride, Atlanta, Georgia Jewry hosted these refugees; a stop described in The Southern Israelite, the city’s Anglo-Jewish paper. The front page headline emphasized: “Second Shanghai Refugee Train Passes Through Atlanta.”
The train with its 228 refugees arrived the Terminal Station, which was loaded with Atlanta Jewish community members.
According to the Southern Israelite, “women gave up their bridge games and luncheons in order to pack the gifts for quick transmission.” Hannah Weinstein, a refugee who settled in Atlanta, came to see a relative.
The rules for the train specified: no refugee could get off; they could only stand on the steps of their car; their gifts could be handed to them. The guards made sure that all this was enforced.
Now the liberty train was off to New York. Upon arriving in the city on Thursday, March 17, the refugees were transported to Ellis Island. The next day The New York Times announced: “Ellis Island DPs See Their Son Wed: Rare Ceremony Performed at Detention Center Before Group En Route to Europe.” The notables in Goldstein’s group were two middle-aged parents from Shanghai, Martha and Jean Methner, who unexpectedly participated in the marriage of their son Harry and his fiancee, Ruth Heumann, both refugees who had reached the US a few years earlier.
Goldstein recalls the wedding as the focus of attention both for the refugees and their visitors. “Since flowers were abundant, I took some very bright ones and placed them in my father’s breast pocket,” Goldstein says. glowing as she recaptures moment.
From Ellis Island, Goldstein’s group sailed on a large ship, the USS General Ballou. Their trip to Italy from the USA was much nicer than their earlier voyage.
UPON DOCKING in Naples, the refugees were transported across Italy to the Barletta DP camp near Trani. It was a six-week wait until they could sail to Israel. The voyage on the Carpo D’Oglio from Trani was uneventful even though the ship sailed from the second day of Pessah until Pessah was over, on April 21.
Goldstein recalls that “all of a sudden Haifa came into view. We cheered as we saw the port area, in which a number of ships were flying the Magen David flag. Only a year earlier my aunt said there was a Jewish state. Now I was about to become a part of a country which no one believed could possibly be. On that day I did not realize that Israel would be my permanent home, where I would marry, give birth to two daughters and have five grandchildren. We were joining olim of all ages to build this Jewish nation.”
Disembarking, Goldstein, her mother, her fatherand her grandmother were met by officials of the ministry of absorption there to process them. They were given Israeli identity cards and then taken to a “threshold camp” called Sha’ar Ha’aliya (Gateway to Immigration).
Prof. Ernest Stock explains what had been done to facilitate the early absorption into the country.
“In March 1949 [just before Goldstein arrived],” Stock writes, “a threshold camp was opened to which all newcomers were directed immediately upon debarking for initial reception. Located in former British army barracks, just south of Haifa, the camp eventually became the first way station in their new homeland for hundreds of thousands of immigrants. By March 1950, 120,000 had passed through the camp.”
“I do recall we were given medical checkups,” Goldstein emphasizes, “and my parents and grandmother were sprayed with DDT. Ashkenazim and Sephardim both treated equally.”
The family was in the threshold camp for only a few months. Goldstein’s father had brought funds with him from Shanghai, and with sufficient key money he obtained an apartment in Kiryat Motzkin for the family.
They moved in August and, shortly thereafter, Goldstein’s brother, Eli, was born.
“The local school for my age was just across the street from our apartment in Kiryat Motzkin. The teachers were helpful to me and the other olim students because we did not know any Hebrew,” she says. “Most of the Sabras in the class were nice. It did not take long to learn Hebrew, and then I helped other olim students.”
She married Pinchas Goldstein in 1961. A Holocaust survivor from Romania, he spent 30 years in the Israel Navy. Pessia became a librarian after initially working as a public school teacher. She and Pinchas have two daughters. Sigalit and Tal, who are married and the parents of their five grandchildren.
“This is an amazing nation,” Goldstein says. “I am indeed blessed to have watched it grow in my 63 years here. Like all grandmothers, I have concerns about the future for our grandchildren. Two have already been in the IDF. What I hope for them is peace – shalom – quality of life, a good education and the opportunity to earn a living. We, who came six decades ago, have constructed a strong foundation. Hopefully, the leaders of Israel will build upon it.”