Shanghai Ghetto
review by Elias Savada, 3 January 2003

Another in the steady stream of documentary and biographical features dealing with World War II persecution, it's obvious from the title that filmmakers Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann area headed east, Far East, in retelling a historically significant, and personal, episode detailing how one international city welcomed tens of thousands of German Jewish refugees while the world's democracies refused them.

Not overly elucidated on during the course of Shanghai Ghetto, the Evian Conference, held in the summer of 1938, was a significant gathering of officials from thirty-two countries, including the United States (represented only by a businessman-friend of President Roosevelt) and Great Britain. At the conclusion of this nine-day meeting, sympathy for the war's refugees was expressed, yet action was nil in allowing immigration quotas to be relaxed for the German and Austrian Jews, and other political outcasts, to escape the deadly German judenrein, the Nazi cleansing that would eventually take millions of lives. Hitler considered the Evian "non" decision an opportunity to suggest the world didn't want the Jews. A few months later Josef Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, unleashed Kristallnacht, "the night of broken glass," setting thousands of synagogues aflame, destroying Jewish businesses, and kidnapping tens of thousands of male Jews. Nearly as quickly, fleeing Germany became a priority. Amid the escalating fear ("There's no safety for us anywhere"), escape was difficult.

Hence, it was with great reservation that tens of thousands of Jews fled Nazi Germany via loophole and the Suez Canal (and in later years through Siberia) to this Chinese outpost, colonized by Western interests yet then under the control of the Japanese. A handful of these temporary residents, including the father(-in-law) of the filmmakers, come forward and reveal their survival stories. Their talking heads are amplified by archival photographs, family snapshots, stock film, digital footage of two survivors (Betty Grebenschikoff and Harold Janklowicz) returning in 2000 to visit their old homes), and a dabbling of chronological magnifications by several historians who have extensively researched the topic.

While the civilized world demanded visa and passports for legitimate entry into their countries, the port of Shanghai was the only place that would allow entry without either. Shortly after Japan's victory over China ceded control of the city, passport control laxed. Visas were only required to book tickets on the ships departing from the European war arena. The trip, often with first class accommodations, was unlike the horrifying immigration stories of bodies stuffed in steerage. The three or four week journey provided luxurious cabins, plenty of food, even some entertainment. While some passengers attempted to make unscheduled departures in Egypt, hoping to smuggle themselves into Palestine, most of the seafaring crowd relaxing as the war's horror faded, but never forgotten, with each sunset.

When the refugees arrived in the Japanese-ruled enclave, they found freedom. They also found little employment, no potable water, and bare toilet facilities (i.e., a bucket) Although adrift in an alien culture, they also found two other Jewish communities already settled in the city: The wealthy Baghdadi Jews -- including the Kadoorie and Sassoon families, and the Russian Jews who fled their country following the 1917 revolution.

The new, massive immigration into the impoverished Hongkew quarter along the Wangpoo River found authorities unprepared for the onslaught. Housing and food problems were dealt with on some levels by the Baghdadis, and later the Joint Distribution Committee, a U.S. philanthropic effort. Despite arriving penniless, the Germans flourished with their own schools, sports clubs, newspapers, and theatre (German and Yiddish). They were tolerated and certainly better off than the oppressed Chinese.

Until Japan entered the war.

The Baghdadis, considered British subjects, were imprisoned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On February 18, 1943, the Japanese ordered the segregation of the Jews in Hongkew. Yet this "ghetto" was one without walls. Any non-Oriental face belonged either in the British jail or the cramped ghetto area, where families often slept ten to a room.

Laura Margolis, unceremoniously dumped by the JDC in the dirty, hot, humid, crowded, and foul-smelling city, recounts her attempt to stabilize the situation, including a daring accomplishment -- getting permission from the Japanese rulers to continuer her fundraising endeavors, now turning to the Russian Jews for assistance.

Martin Landau's dispassionate narration is complemented by a sedate score composed by Sujin Nam and performed by Karen Han (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) on the erhu (a two-stringed violin). This fascinating story is all the more touching under the capable hands of the husband-wife filmmakers, who are self-distributing their project. Shanghai Ghetto is an absorbing, anguished story, perhaps too composed to strike a more than passing emotional note. It is an enlightening window to one world that closed its doors to humanity, and another that swung them open.

Directed by:
Dana Janklowicz-Mann
Amir Mann

Starring:
Harold Janklowicz
Alfred Kohn
Betty Grebenschikoff
Sigmund Tobias
Evelyn Pike Rubin
Laura Margolis
Martin Landau (narrator)

Rated:
NR - Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated.

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