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Reviewed by:
  • Strange Haven: A Jewish Childhood in Wartime Shanghai
  • Ernest G. Heppner
Strange Haven: A Jewish Childhood in Wartime Shanghai, by Sigmund Tobias, introduction by Michael Berenbaum. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999. 162 pp. $23.95.

Strange Haven, by Sigmund Tobias, joins a number of recently published personal recollections about life in Shanghai, China, the temporary haven where about 18,000 European Jews found refuge from the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Tobias was born in Berlin, Germany, of Polish parents. After the pogrom of November 10, 1938, his father unsuccessfully tried to escape to Belgium and was taken to Dachau concentration camp. Since at that time Jews were still able to be released upon presentation of proof that they would leave Germany, his mother secured passage for the family on an ocean liner to Shanghai, China. Shanghai, at that time, was partially occupied by Japan and comprised an “International Settlement” and a “French Concession” under the jurisdiction of the Shanghai Municipal Council.

The author writes that the book was stimulated by his return to China as a visiting professor in 1988, and he compares Shanghai with the city of his memories 40 years before. He states that to ensure the accuracy of these recollections, he circulated the manuscript among twelve of his Shanghai friends. However, these were youngsters then, too, and probably relied on reports and impressions of their parents as well. Unfortunately, this did not prevent a number of historical as well as factual inaccuracies. Some examples:

  • • Approximately 2,200 Jews and not 1,700 arrived in Kobe, Japan after they were saved in Lithuania by the Dutch Consul Jan Zwartendijk and the Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara. Sugihara followed orders by his Foreign Ministry and did not face any punishment for issuing transit visas based on the bogus final destination visas issued by the Dutch consul.

  • • There was neither a “British” International Settlement, nor was there a “British section” in Shanghai. There were no laws that prohibited refugees from [End Page 160] disembarking in any part of Shanghai’s International Settlement or the French Concession.

  • • The refugee community was not ghettoized until May 1943, not shortly after Pearl Harbor.

  • • The American Navy ship was not attacked and sunk by the Japanese, since it had surrendered previously.

  • • During the war British and American citizens were put into internment camps, not concentration camps.

  • • British police officers had no authority to prohibit refugees from entering Shanghai when ships from Europe had tied up at “their” section of the city, nor had the British forbidden arriving refugees to settle in “their” International Settlement.

  • • Kano Ghoya was not in charge of the Jews; his sole responsibility was to issue the passes which were issued only in two colors, blue and pink—not blue, green, and yellow. It was Tsutomo Kubora who succeeded Captain Koreshige Inuzuka as director of the Bureau of Jewish Affairs.

Tobias’s account of everyday life in Hongkew, the district of Shanghai’s International Settlement where the great majority of refugees settled and in which in 1943 the Ghetto was located, is arguably the most detailed of the accounts published to date. But although he often uses the plural “we” to presumably include his parents’ impressions, he tells his story from the viewpoint of a child. A six-year-old could not possibly have the maturity to depict the city and people as he has done. This said, his amazing memory for minute details and fluid style of writing make the book most interesting and informative.

The real and historically important value of the book, however, is that he presents an aspect of these years, including the ghetto years 1943–45, which has not been addressed in a memoir before. Tobias and his parents were orthodox Jews. He attended a Yeshivah in preference to the refugee school supported by Horace Kadoorie and modeled after the British educational system. His youth was spent among the students of the Mirrer Yeshivah, and he presents much insight into their life of study and prayer. But most important, he is the first chronicler to address the deep chasm between the Polish and the Central European (German/Austrian/Czech) refugees. He tells of...

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