Guest blog: Rachel Meller on Uncovering the story of Shanghai’s Second World War Jewish refugees

In this post, author Rachel Meller introduces her newly published book, and discusses some of the documents and photographs that prompted it. These formed a small collection but, like many that HPC has seen, a complex story was waiting to be  discovered within. Rachel grew up near London, the middle of three daughters of Austrian refugees. After studying Neurobiology at the University of Sussex, followed by research into hormones and behaviour at Cambridge University, she became a writer in a communication consultancy. The Box with the Sunflower Clasp is her first book.

My aunt Lisbeth, who lived in San Francisco for the whole time I knew her, owned an attractive oriental-style cabinet. She knew I’d always admired this piece of furniture (made in the ’50s, she’d told me, no valuable antique), and, on her death in 1996, I discovered that she had bequeathed it to me. What I had not expected was what lay inside it, pushed to the back of one of its shelves.  Wrapped in yellowing newspaper was a heavy wooden box, mysterious-looking people in Chinese-looking robes and hair-dos, and exotic plants, carved into its sides and lid. The box had a metal clasp shaped like a sunflower. It was full of documents, photographs, postcards and other memorabilia that my aunt must have treasured for decades. Most of the items dated from the 1930s through to the mid-1950s, but one sepia postcard showed a man in World War I uniform. I would later find out his significance.

Aunt Lisbeth’s box

I knew very little of my aunt’s or my mother’s history. Lisbeth was always an uncommunicative, and outwardly emotionless, woman, while my mother Ilse died a few months after my birth. The sisters had been born in Vienna, in 1922 and 1918 respectively, to secular Jewish parents. The Epsteins, despite being patriots and barely practising Jews, were forced to flee Nazi-run Austria after the Anschluss in March 1938. My mother came to England via Paris, while my aunt and grandparents found refuge in Shanghai. An unlikely destination, you might think. But in June 1938, when most countries’ doors were being slammed in their faces, the Reich’s Jews heard of a loophole that could let them slip into the Chinese city. Following the bloody Battle of Shanghai in 1937, much of the municipality was in the hands of the Japanese. The ensuing lawlessness and chaos meant that no one checked the papers or visas of those landing at the port. By August 1939, almost 20,000 Europeans had used this escape route from Nazism, greatly helped by Vienna’s compassionate Chinese consul, Ho Feng-Shan.

Lisbeth told me nothing of this intriguing chapter of her life, or of her and my mother’s Viennese youth. (Although I did grow up hearing rumours of a serious accident she had suffered as a teenager, and of a tragedy during her time in China.) So I was amazed to discover that my silent aunt had told much of her story to an American Holocaust historian, Steve Hochstadt, who had interviewed her (along with a dozen other Shanghai refugees) for his book, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of escape from the Third Reich (2012).

I was given Steve’s book in 2012. This drew me back to the contents of the box, which I’d only glanced at occasionally over the years. I decided that at some point I should try to piece together Lisbeth’s story – using the historian’s interview material and the documents and photographs she had left me. The romantic part of me almost wondered if Lisbeth had wanted me to unearth her story using what she had left me, a story she had been unable to talk of while alive.

I began my research in January 2016. The result is The Box with the Sunflower Clasp, published by Icon Books on May 18 2023. While a number of personal memoirs have been written by refugees describing their childhoods and youth in wartime Shanghai, I know of no other researched by one of these refugee’s descendants. And I soon learned that remarkably few Jews outside the US, Canada or Australia (where many of Shanghai’s refugees settled after the war) know of this aspect of the Jewish diaspora.

The Box with the Sunflower Clasp tells the story of a middle-class European community displaced to an alien environment halfway across the world. Men and women forced to abandon their (pre-Nazi) home comforts for whatever lodgings they could rent in the city in which they now found themselves. Shanghai – although a sanctuary – was riddled with risks of its own. It was a city of contrasts: abject beggars lying in the doorways of grand buildings owned by wealthy entrepreneurs and taipans; bone-chilling winters and insufferably hot humid summers; and metropolitan streets regularly flooded with knee-high dirty Huangpu river water. Many refugees had to get used to Shanghai’s infamous ‘honey buckets’ instead of Western plumbing’s flushing toilets. These doubtless helped spread the city’s prevalent infectious diseases, like cholera and typhoid, previously unknown to the Europeans.

City of contrasts: Shanghai street scene, photographed by Malcolm Rosholt, Rosholt Collection, Ro-n0297 © 2012 Mei-Fei Elrick and Tess Johnston

Despite all these challenges, the enterprising German- and Yiddish-speaking immigrants generally  settled in well. I was amazed to learn how quickly they created their own ‘Little Vienna’ in the poorest, most overcrowded part of the city. Hongkew, north of Soochow Creek, had been heavily damaged by Japanese bombs; it became home to many who had fled Europe empty-handed. The refugees rebuilt Hongkew’s rubble-strewn streets, setting up German-style cafés, bars and restaurants. Using makeshift ingredients, they offered strudels, sausage, and ‘rye’ bread, along with other dishes from home; actors, writers and singers amongst them put on plays and operas to keep spirits up. A group of Polish yeshiva students – still wearing traditional beards, dark hats and sidelocks – recreated their shul to continue their religious studies. And a Jew from Berlin opened the first lending library, offering reading matter in both German and English: he plays a key role in my book, and was the mystery man in uniform.

Amongst the 20,000 refugees who found work in Shanghai was my grandfather, Arnold Epstein. In Vienna he had been a wholesaler and retailer of soaps, perfumes, and pharmacy goods; in Shanghai he worked as a history teacher in the city’s Jewish Youth Association School. A photograph in Lisbeth’s box with the sunflower clasp shows him surrounded by his class of German-speaking pupils. The SJYA School was later called the Kadoorie School, after Horace Kadoorie. This philanthropic Shanghailander (the name Western residents gave themselves) came from a wealthy Sephardi family long-established in the city. His money and drive provided the school for Shanghai’s refugee children.

My grandfather, Arnold Epstein, surrounded by his pupils at the SJYA School in Kinchow Road, Hongkew

The Jewish immigrants lived harmoniously alongside their Chinese neighbours. Friendships – even marriages – occurred between them, and their lives felt relatively free. Until December 1941, when everything changed. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, entering World War II on the side of the Nazis. Shanghai’s European refugees were threatened again, as the Japanese now controlled the whole city. The Jews’ lives were in the hands of Hitler’s allies.

Japanese parade in Shanghai to celebrate the fall of Singapore, February 1942

It was soon rumoured that Europe’s Nazis wanted Shanghai’s Japanese rulers to rid the city of its Jewish population. Instead, in February 1943, the Japanese authorities issued a Proclamation confining all the ‘stateless refugees’ into a ‘designated area’ in Hongkew. Although neither the word ‘Jew’ nor the word ‘ghetto’ was used, everyone soon called the bleak square mile into which the Jews were forced ‘the ghetto’. It was possible to leave the area for reasons of work or medical need, but only if the capriciously violent Japanese official, Kanoh Ghoya, stamped a refugee’s pass. Such a pass is shown below, above a photo of Ghoya.

Jewish refugees confined to the Honkew ghetto queue up to receive special passes to leave the restricted zone from Ghoya, a Japanese official from the Bureau for Stateless Refugees. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ernest G. Heppner

I was fascinated to learn of how the Jewish refugees survived in the ghetto alongside 100,000 of the city’s poorest Chinese. My research has taken me far, both emotionally and geographically. I’ve been moved by exhibits in the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, and seen the transformation of the city’s streets since my aunt’s time there. I’ve visited a nonagenarian German-born Jew living in Australia, hearing first-hand of his years as a teenager in Shanghai. And I’ve gained more empathy with my aunt’s silent nature. Her life in wartime China, and before, was threaded with tragedy, but ultimately her resilience shines through. Her story, and the wider one of refugee survival, is set out in The Box with the Sunflower Clasp.

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