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Shanghai Express

April 16, 2009 By:
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Back in February, NPR's "Morning Edition" ran a piece about Shanghai's Jewish history, and how the 1-square-mile area where Jews had settled after fleeing Hitler in the late 1930s and early '40s was being threatened by the wrecking ball. It seems that the wish to widen a road could possibly set the ball in motion, destroying a number of buildings in what used to be called Little Vienna during the years of World War II.

Some Chinese historians and professors have stepped in, and the demolition has been halted for now. But those who wish to see reconstruction argue that the past does not hold a candle to the needs of progress. Car traffic will increase in the coming years, and when it does, it will create a commuter nightmare.

But those who found solace even in the confines of the cramped Shanghai ghetto worry about losing this tie. Rena Krasno was quoted in the NPR story, and she seemed to speak for so many of her fellow émigrés when she said: "The existing refugee coffee shops [and] restaurants were a shining light in the lives of the refugees, who did not know how long their isolation and misery would last, should they survive. In these eateries, they felt they were back in Europe, and for a short time eliminated their painful fate from their minds."

Ruan Yisan, one of the Chinese professors alerted by NPR about the possible demolition (the targeted buildings exist in a conservation zone, but are not designated as protected structures) told reporter Louisa Lim that he would start to make appeals and see what options were open. "These are important historical sites ... ," he noted. "If you knock them down, it will never recover."

But he had to admit that preserving history is difficult and not particularly popular in China.

In light of these possible developments, thank goodness for Irene Eber and the University of Chicago Press. Several months before the NPR report was aired, they brought out the book Voices From Shanghai: Jewish Exiles in Wartime China. Edited, translated and with an introduction by Eber, who is the Louis Frieberg Professor of East Asian Studies Emeritus at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Voices is a slim, lovingly produced collection of letters, poems, stories and diary entries written by a number of refugees after they'd settled in China.

As Eber makes clear, the reaction to Shanghai varied greatly, and the testimony she has gathered together -- drawn from archives, private collections and now defunct newspapers (all these accounts also make their debuts here) -- forms both "an important chapter in exile literature," but also "tell us something about cultural self-perception and perception of the other."

This is a small volume, only about 100 pages, not counting Eber's 25-page introduction, in which she paints a brief history of Shanghai; she also tells what the various waves of refugees found when they arrived in the city and the kind of infrastructure they built almost from scratch -- schools, publications, businesses. Countless emotions are conveyed in these pages: both humor and anger over the situation; joy about being alive, but frustration about being unable to rise above certain circumstances; and fear, even depression and, at times, crippling inertia.

Take Willy Tonn, who lived from 1902 until 1957. Eber says that "without question," he was "one of the most remarkable émigrés ever to come to China in this period."

"Although he was part of the refugee community and worked among them, he was not really a refugee and did not consider himself as such. He was the son of an affluent German-Jewish family and had studied Asian languages, including Chinese, in Berlin. Tonn arrived in Shanghai in April 1939, 'driven by a longing for the East,' as he put it. No one did more while in Shanghai to interpret China and Chinese ways to the refugees, both by means of his many articles in the local press and by means of his famous Asia Seminar. ... On and off, the seminar had about 30 lecturers who taught languages, including special courses in Chinese for physicians and lawyers, as well as Chinese philosophy and science. Tonn moved to Israel in 1949."

The first of his two pieces in the collection is called "A Holy Tooth":

"One day I bit into an unpeeled rice kernel and, when I removed it, out came the crown of one of my teeth. Only the shabby root remained. With a bitter heart, I went to the dentist, asking him to pull the stump. In accordance with his nature and in contrast to mine, the dentist was very cheerful, which added considerably to my bad humor. Carelessly, he almost threw my stump into the garbage. It belonged to me, after all, and I had paid five dollars for its removal. Fortunately, he did not succeed.

"Next I went to the shop of an old Shanghailander couple from Belgium in order to buy a muffler for the coming winter. After the purchase, they inquired with concern why my cheek was swollen, whereupon I told them about my mishap with the tooth.

"Perfectly seriously, and despite my resistance, the couple actually wanted to buy the stump. The negotiations took a full hour, during which I also mentioned that it was unwise to relinquish a part of one's body because it could be misused for magical purposes. It was, all considered, a holy relic like the Buddha's tooth in the famous Kandy Temple in Ceylon. To pay only five dollars for such a precious tooth [as the couple offered] was not enough. Compared to hair or fingernails a tooth cannot grow again. Nothing helped; I had to yield the stump for $10.

"I should mention that prior to emigrating from Berlin an energetic antiquities dealer bought one of my fingernails, measuring five centimeters, for 25 Reichsmark. I had placed the nail in a glass box on pink cotton and said it was a holy Buddhist relic."

As Eber says in her commentary on Tonn's items, the two vignettes offer a "slice of Shanghai life"; in the first of them, the author "laughs at his own deviousness, having once cheated a Berlin antiquarian. He is, he insinuates, as good at the game of passing off a worthless tooth as a relic, and as adept at bargaining as any Chinese."

Then there is Simkha Elberg's poem "Three Countries Spat Me Out" from 1941. Eber informs us that Elberg was a prolific scholar on rabbinic law, who wrote for Yiddish publications in Shanghai (often under the name E. Simkhoni), and met and married his wife there.

"Three countries spat me out,

as a dead body is spat out

by stormy seas.

My home, Poland,

locked in a ghetto, entombed,

I don't know who prays 'Rakhamim' in his need,

who whispers 'Sh'ma Yisrael' quietly,

praying for death.

My stepmother Lithuania lauded Mickiewicz,

when a red sun rose on the Nieman River,

not one tear did the river swallow

where the red banner fluttered.

One white day of snow,

I escaped in fright,

and because my day did not have a red spot

Lithuania spat me out,

as one who is tubercular spits

his last bit of blood.

In Japan I made ink from the sea,

from heaven a white sheet of paper,

even the wind did groan

when I wrote: send me a visa!

On a humid day,

when the Japanese tie up their nose

and step with wooden feet,

Japan spat me out

into Shanghai."

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