- Voices from Shanghai: Jewish Exiles in Wartime China
Since the demise of Harvard University professor Benjamin I. Schwartz over a decade ago, Irene Eber, the Louis Frieberg Professor Emerita of East Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has emerged as the preeminent Sino-Judaic scholar educating us about both ancient and modern Chinese-Jewish communities. Eber is of Galician Jewish stock, was educated in sinology at the Claremont Graduate School, and has both the linguistic and analytical tools to describe this complex historical interaction in a nuanced and scholarly way. She is fluent in Yiddish (her mother tongue), as well as biblical and modern Hebrew, classical and modern Chinese, English, German, Polish, and other languages. She delivered papers about Harbin, Kaifeng, Shanghai, and Tianjin Jewry at Harvard University's 1992 Jewish Diasporas in China conference, at which Professor Schwartz was the senior scholar. She contributed to both published volumes of essays that emerged from that symposium. She also wrote the introduction to the exhibition catalog of rare Sino-Judaica, which Harvard showcased at that conference.1 A major commemorative volume of the works of other sinologists was published in Eber's honor on her eightieth birthday, December 29, 2009.2
Eber remains vigorously productive. One expression of that vitality is her 2008 anthology Voices from Shanghai: Jewish Exiles in Wartime China. A scholar of lesser abilities might have shied away from as daunting a task as translating, editing, and commenting on German, Polish, and Yiddish writers in China before, during, and after World War II. Hopefully, the next edition of this sourcebook will include the originals of these valuable but arcane documents.
For this volume, Eber has selected twenty-five vignettes. They include published and unpublished poems, letters, extracts from diaries, and short stories [End Page 226] written between 1935 and 1947. Her selections fall into four categories, each with a slightly different perspective on Jewish cultural self-perception and perception of the other.
The first category of memoir is the refugee perspective on his or her flight from Hitler. German emigrant Michael W. Blumenthal has noted elsewhere that Shanghai was "the very last choice to escape Nazi terror . . . never the first choice."3 A journey to this port of last resort involved an arduous overland trip or a somewhat easier passage by sea, both of which became almost impossible after Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Nevertheless, by a variety of means, thousands of Central and Eastern European Jews managed to reach Shanghai. The city admitted these refugees not because of a self-conscious policy of Holocaust rescue but rather because of bureaucratic inertia. Although technically Chinese, much of Shanghai was in a precarious state of governance or non-governance-under various administrations, which included a committee of foreign consuls. Until the Japanese seizure of Shanghai, visas were not required for entering this place. Breslau refugee Ernest Heppner, also not represented in this volume, marveled as he passed through a deserted Shanghai embarkation hall that "no one asked for our papers . . . here Jews could just walk ashore." Most of the world at this time barred Jewish immigration.4
The first category of memoir included in Eber's volume explains personal flight from adversity and fear of perpetual exile with minimal reference to China itself, or even, in most cases, to Judaism. Polish rabbi Simha Elberg (1915-1955) sees Shanghai simply as another port in a storm, after Poland, Lithuania, and Japan had successively "spat"5 him out. An anonymous and presumably non-Jewish poet bemoans the generic plight of the Polish refugee without ever mentioning Shanghai. Journalist Kurt Lewin (1908-1950) writes a generalized paean to anti-Fascism and another to the postwar refugee experience. Neither piece refers to China or Judaism. From the safety of her bedroom, Lotte Margot observes a Chinese beggar child on the street at four o'clock in the morning. Margot's reality, however, is more grounded...