For the Jewish adults from Nazi Europe who spent some of their wartime years in a 40-square-block area of Shanghai, it was a difficult time. Low wages, if they had work. Crowded apartments. Disease and hunger.
For the kids, it was easier. They went to school and played.
For all, it was better than being back home under the swastika.
“I survived,” says Jerry Lindenstraus, an 80-year-old native of Germany who in 1939-1947 lived in the Chinese port city, which, under Japanese occupation, offered refuge to an estimated 20,000 or more endangered Jews. Shanghai, an open port, did not require an entry visa or passport – it became the only place of safety for many European Jews.
To preserve the memory of Shanghai as a Jewish city, its Jewish Refugees Museum, on the site of the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue, last month dedicated a photo-and-artifacts exhibit, “Remembering the Past and Creating a New Future,” to attract tourists who visit this year’s World’s Fair there.
Lindenstraus, a retired export businessman who lives in Manhattan, was the only onetime Jewish resident of the Shanghai “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees” who was invited to the event, co-sponsored by the Israeli and German consulates and the foreign affairs office of the city’s Hongkou district.
“It was a very emotional experience,” he says.
Over six days Lindenstraus spoke at the dedication ceremony, attended official receptions, toured the rebuilt slum area and visited the shul-turned-museum where his bar mitzvah took place.
Lindenstraus’ family was one of the lucky ones. Ten members escaped Germany in July 1939, barely a month before World War II began. “We all got out.”
In the Jewish Youth Association School that served the refugees – he learned English and made lifelong friends. Local Jewish families and American Jewish charities, especially the Joint Distribution Committee, offered food, clothing and shelter.
Lindenstraus has written about his experiences in a 1999 German autobiography, and will speak about the subject twice in coming weeks: June 4 at the West End Synagogue in Manhattan, and June 14 at the 92nd Street Y.
His grandchildren, Jessica and Aaron, also know the story. “If it wouldn’t be for Shanghai,” he tells them, “I wouldn’t be here and neither would you.”
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