Countless stories of death and destruction are the legacy of World War II. The unfathomable persecution of the Jews has been painfully and necessarily engraved into the public consciousness. But many other stories of escape and survival have quietly evaded the public eye. Where did the Jews go, when they were lucky enough to flee Nazi-occupied Europe? And what was their fate…?
“…there is one place on earth where you can go without any paper, no permit, no affidavit, no special entry-permit, no visa. You just get there, that’ s Shanghai.”
– Fred Fields, refugee
Shanghai was a booming city in the 1920s profiting from the trade and had changed since the 19th century into an exotic colonial outpost, mainly of Britain and France. The city’s International Settlement and French Concession provided foreign enclaves the right to operate under their own laws, and the city became a thriving international territory with no restrictions on immigration. The towering harbor-front skyline, known as the Bund, rivaled New York as did the glamorous nightlife. But this could not hide that Shanghai was at the same time a city of contrasts, of foreign tycoons and rickshaw coolies, a center of business and crime. Though many Chinese also benefitted from the boom, public parks in the foreign concessions for example were known to have signs to prohibit dogs and Chinese.
Japan, who also gained an own concession, started to launch military attacks against China from their grounds during 1927 and 1932 and finally installed a puppet government in 1937. At that time when most of the Jewish Refugees flooded into Shanghai, the city was already in decline after thousands of destitute Chinese refugees from the Sino-Japanese war flocked to the city, spreading poverty and disease. As the Jewish refugees struggled to build a tenacious community, Shanghai was under siege by the Japanese, who would ultimately control the fate of the Jews and finally gained control over the city’s foreign enclaves after the war broke out in 1941 also in the Pacific. The Jewish refugees were forced into a ghetto where they spent the rest of the war with great deprivation and uncertainty.
Interviews with survivors and letters from refugees, Annie Witting from Berlin and A.J. Storfer from Vienna, give a lively picture of the living conditions in “Little Vienna”, a refugee community in the district of Hongkew with shops, cafes, nightclubs, and newspapers of their own. The ghetto was administered by the Japanese and disease and hunger spread. In the middle of 1943, the Red Cross reported that thousands of Jewish refugees were on the brink of starvation. In July 1945 American bombs fell on the ghetto. Seeking Japanese communications and munitions posts, the bombs killed dozens of refugees and Chinese. After the liberation, most of the Jewish emigrants decided to leave Shanghai, setting out for America, Australia and Israel.
“Shanghai was a fake, a phony, neither occidental nor oriental. And yet – God forgive me – she was the most exciting and unique city in the world. She was poison, and the old-time Shanghailanders were addicts who never could free themselves of being in love with her.” – Max Berges, refugee
“May 1947. All my dear friends, Is this all a dream or indeed reality? It has been four days since we have been underway and indeed on the high sea, withdrawing more and more from China for our new home, Australia. Around us the endless sea. We see flying fish and sometimes even sharks. The sea is steel blue, the top of the waves shines brilliantly. One comes to feel again like a human being, and no longer a refugee.”
Yours – Annie Witting
THE PORT OF LAST RESORT is an impressive documentary who brings after years of research and discovery this remarkable emigration to life, with music by John Zorn.