Shanghai Ghetto (film discussion)

Saratoga Jewish Community Arts, in partnership with Temple Sinai and with a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Northeastern NY, presents a discussion of the documentary Shanghai Ghetto on March 14 at 7 PM through Zoom.

In the late 1930s, Jews seeking to escape the growing terrors of Nazi Germany found most of the world’s ports closed to them.  In a 1938 transnational conference called to address the refugee situation, the U.S. joined Britain, Australia, Canada, and 27 other European and South American countries in refusing to alter immigration policies to permit more Jews to enter. Thousands of Jewish refugees escaped by an unlikely rescuer on the other side of the war-torn world: Hiroshito’s Empire of Japan. 

This amazing, largely unknown story is told in Shanghai Ghetto, a 2002 documentary, co-directed by Dana Janklowicz and Amir Mann, with narration by Martin Landau. Strangely enough, the one place in the world that did not require entrance visas was the “international” city of Shanghai, then controlled by Japan.  Though quite brutal overall, the Japanese occupation of China was rather light-handed in Shanghai until U.S. entry into the war after Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was a curious loophole that had opened in Shanghai, a city already colonized by Western interests and was long a home to large numbers of Jews of Russian and British citizenship. With the city divided into various international zones and the Japanese Imperial Army poised to invade, passport control had become nonexistent.

Seeing no other alternative, thousands of Jews, against the advice of ill-fated relatives who told them to “wait it out,” sold everything they had had to scrape together steamship passage to China.  Arriving penniless in an exotic urban cauldron they were totally unprepared for, and that was totally unprepared for them. They found a society whose most profound difference from their own was not its alien language, culture, or squalid living conditions, but its unaccountable, life-giving willingness to take them in. These dispossessed people were notably better off than their Chinese neighbors, to say nothing of their European brethren. 

The Baghdadis, and later the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, were able to provide some assistance with housing and food problems until Pearl Harbor, when any outside assistance ceased. The war in the Far East worsened the refugees’ lot, but not, it is heartening to learn, their cultural tenacity. Small businesses, Jewish newspapers, schools, and arts organizations somehow managed to sprout from the city’s barren, narrow alleys, in an area of approximately one square mile in the district of Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

 Interviews with survivors and historians, Shanghai Ghetto charts the tale from the very beginning, from the decision to leave Germany to the gradual assimilation into Chinese culture.  Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this documentary is the sometimes-difficult relationship between the Jews and the Chinese and how they learned, after a period of adjustment, to help each other out.  “The irony of the story is that as bad as things were in Shanghai, the refugees were still considerably better off than the desperately poor Chinese population that surrounded them, and light years better than what their families were suffering back in Europe,” says Phyllis Wang, Coordinator of the SJCA series. Many who escaped Europe through Shanghai included, or were later to become, rabbis, college professors, statesmen, musicians, and so many other folks like you and me, some of whom were interviewed in this work.

The documentary can be seen on platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, You-Tube, and others.  Registration required for Zoom discussion at sjca.sjcf@gmail.com.

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