SHANGHAI REUNION 2006

By Audrey Friedman Marcus

Although I am not a Shanghailander, I made the decision many months ago to attend the 2006 Shanghai Reunion in Shanghai. As the widow of Fred Marcus, a former refugee who spent ten years in Shanghai, I felt drawn both to the site and to the participants. Moreover. I hoped to learn more about my husband’s experiences and perhaps meet several persons who had known him. Nevertheless, I went with some degree of trepidation about being somewhat of an outsider. This turned out not to be the case, as I was welcomed in a very warm and friendly manner. Many participants were of the second and third generations of former European refugees in Shanghai, who were eager to learn more about their family history. Two 15-year-old girls were the youngest in attendance, and Dr. Bruno Keith, at 95, was the oldest by quite a few years.

The First Day

I arrived late in the day on April 25, 2006, and was taken with other members of our group to the lovely Regent International East Asia Hotel in the former French Concession. Reunion activities began the next morning. We first visited the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai where we were graciously welcomed by Professor Pan Guang, Dean of CJSS. It was a revelation to learn of the Center’s remarkable work and of the rapid changes occurring in Shanghai.

CJSS is one of the oldest and best known Jewish centers in China. Its activities include research, Hebrew classes for both adults and children, publication of books that have been translated into many languages, scholarly lectures by such luminaries as Adin Steinsalz, international seminars on Jews in Shanghai and Jews in Asia, hosting delegations from groups such as the ADL and distinguished visitors such as Lord Lawrence Kadoorie, exhibits on topics including the Holocaust and Israel’s social, economic, and political life. There are ambitious future plans for the production of a movie, as well as the teaching of Yiddish.

Dr. Zhang Zhongli, Honorary Dean of CJSS and former president of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, also welcomed us, and spoke in fascinating detail about modern Shanghai. In refugee days, Shanghai was a city of eight million; today there are 17 million residents.Throughout the reunion, we were urged to return to Shanghai in 2010 for the World Exposition.

The next welcome was from Rene Wildorff, president of the Rickshaw group and one of the organizers of the 2006 reunion. Whenever Shanghai refugees get together, he stated, “we remember our bond with the Chinese people and how we were made to feel safe. We also recall our Chinese friends and neighbors,” he continued, “who were ill- treated by the Japanese. And now that the older generation has passed on, it is up to us to pass on the information about our wartime experiences.” Since the first reunion in 1980, attended by 1,000 people, there have been eight other reunions. Thanks to Rene, there is also an excellent website, www.rickshaw.org.

Professor Pan presented a certificate to Rene to honor him for his contribution to the CJSS. He then told us of the effort to preserve a part of Hongkew (now Hong Kou) as a historical area. The Shanghai and Beijing governments support this effort, and an attempt is being made to involve UNESCO in the process.

After the session, we had an opportunity to speak with students and to look at some of the publications of the Center, including new editions of the very informative books Jews in China and Jews in Shanghai.

During the long bus ride to the Vegeatery, a vegetarian Buddhist restaurant, we were able to see firsthand some of the remarkable changes in Shanghai. The architecture is spectacular, each building unique, and most feature an unusual or whimsical embellishment at the top. As always, the city is crowded and lively, but now in addition to cars and bicycles, there are also thousands of mini-bikes. Modern pedestrian overpasses with escalators aid the traffic flow. The Bund, with its elegant colonial edifices, remains impressive, despite being dwarfed by the new tall buildings. The former Avenue Joffre in the French Concession is still lined with its lovely sycamore trees, and there one can find just about every American and European designer shop. Attractive young women are ubiquitous in their designer jeans, studded T-shirts, and spike heels. We passed the unusual opera house and the municipal building and the People’s Square, all on the site of the old Race Course.

At the banquet that evening, Professor Pan Guang and two other Chinese speakers gave welcoming addresses in Chinese, which were translated into English. The first was Mr. Liu Lunxian, Chairman of Shanghai City Congress and Representative of the Mayor of Shanghai. He was followed by Ambassador Liang Yufan, former Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations, who grew up in Shanghai( and), graduated from St. Johns University, and represented the old friends of Jewish residents in Shanghai.

Several Shanghailanders also spoke, including Stephen Lange, who gave a moving testament to the Shanghai experience that saved his father, and Gary Matzdorff, who showed one of the actual signs, familiar to former refugees, that read, “Stateless Refugees Are Prohibited to Pass Here Without Permission.” (In a later conversation, I discovered that Gary Matzdorff had known my husband in Shanghai. Unfortunately, he was the only one in attendance who did.)

Faith Goldman, widow of Shanghailander Robert Goldman, who remained in Shanghai with his father until 1958, gave a picture frame with mementos of Robert to Professor Pan.

The Old Jewish Neighborhood

The next day, Thursday, was the highlight of the trip for everyone. We set off by bus at 8:45 a.m. The first stop was the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, established in 1920 by the Baghdadi community, and endowed by Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon in memory of his wife Rachel. Renovated by the government in 1998, it is an imposing structure with a lovely sanctuary and an Ark that once held 30 Torah scrolls. Today the building houses the Shanghai Education Bureau and a comprehensive exhibit on Jews in Shanghai. Before leaving, we walked to the nearby former Shanghai Jewish School (formerly also known as the Seymour Road School), now an office building. Many of those in the group had attended school there. On our way to lunch, we stopped a few minutes at the former Hardoon Gardens, where a massive 1955 structure built with help from the Soviet Union rises like a huge wedding cake. It is currently used for exhibitions. Next up: A Millionaire’s Fair!

After a Chinese lunch, we drove through Pudong. In 1996 when I was last in Shanghai, there were enormous building sites and cranes, but few completed buildings. Now, buildings, the tallest of which is the Grand Hyatt Hotel, measuring 88 stories.

Upon arriving in Hong Kou, the excitement on the bus was palpable. The guide was besieged with questions: Is this Wayside Road? Is that the hospital? Isn’t that where the Seward Road Heim used to be? We were driven directly to the Ocean Hotel, where a welcome sign greeted our group. Upstairs was an even bigger welcome sign and a large room set up conference style with rows of tables and chairs. The theme from “Schindler’s List” was playing as dozens of reporters and photographers swarmed around. A number of former Chinese neighbors of Jewish refugees were present. Upon the arrival of 87-year-old Mr. Wang Faliang, who lived among the refugees and who has for many years greeted visitors at Ohel Moishe Synagogue, there was pandemonium. Former refugees rushed to hug him, cameras flashed in their faces, and the noise level escalated to a roar.

We were greeted by four dignitaries who spoke in Chinese with a translator: Ms. Song Yan, representative of the Mayor of Hong Kou; Mr. Ci Hong, Vice Mayor of Hong Kou government; Professor Pan Guang; and the aforementioned Mr. Wang Faliang, representing the old Chinese neighbors during wartime. The speakers addressed the history of the Jews in Shanghai, their courage in adapting, their accomplishments, and their good relations with their Chinese neighbors.

From the hotel, we walked to the Huo Shan Park (formerly Wayside Park) where the “Schindler’s List” theme was again heard once again. There we saw a plaque in English, Chinese, and Hebrew describing the presence of the wartime Jewish community, and also a huge poster with a replica of a petition to UNESCO urging them to preserve a part of Hong Kou as a historical area within the planned urban renewal. Rene Wildorff made a plea for the realization of this hope, and requested us all to sign the large petition laid out on a nearby table. There wasn’t a dry eye in the group as we each wrote our names with the felt markers provided. I signed my husband Fred’s name in addition to my own.

It was a short walk from the park to the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, built by the Shanghai Russian Jewish community. We visited the small museum on the third floor dedicated to the Jewish experience in Shanghai, which was much improved since my last visit. On the second floor there was an interesting display of Jewish tombstones discovered and saved by an Israeli journalist and tour guide, Dvir Bar-Gal. Dvir told us of finding 85 tombstones since he began his search five years ago. He mentioned the help he received for his project from the Sino-Judaic Institute, and showed a video of crews removing stones from outlying villages where they had been used as paving or parts of walls. The first floor contained an art exhibit. Participants were impatient to rediscover familiar sights and set off on their personal, emotional searches.

Dinner was on our own, and several of us enjoyed Shanghai cuisine at a delightful restaurant near our hotel.

Exploring on My Own

On Friday, most of the group went by bus to Souzhou to see the beautiful gardens there and to visit a silk factory. I chose instead to spend the day on my own. After a visit to the Shanghai Museum, I took a taxi to the Lungwha pagoda and temple, which Fred had visited a number of times and wrote about in his diaries. (In the 1940s, Lungwha was also the site of one of a Japanese internment camp and a military airfield.) A huge fair was taking place featuring a large number of booths selling everything imaginable, including Chinese herbs and Tibetan jewelry and even kitchen goods, and much inviting food for sale that I forced myself to resist. I was the only Caucasian among thousands of Chinese, but felt completely comfortable the entire time.

That evening, a number of us from our group went to the Shanghai Jewish Center, which is under the auspices of Chabad, for services and dinner. We were welcomed warmly by Rabbi Shalom Greenberg and were surprised to learn that today there are over 1,000 Jews living in Shanghai. After the service and Kiddush, we were served a hearty Shabbat meal and joined in the lively singing of zemirot (Shabbat songs).

The Conclusion of the Reunion

On Saturday morning, instead of going shopping, I decided to speak to people about what the reunion meant to them.

Helen Scannell told me how important a discovery the trip had been for her husband Peter, who was in Shanghai until age seven and had seldom mentioned all those years. He was deeply moved to find that the place where he had lived 60 years ago remained exactly as he remembered it. The reunion gave him a new perspective on the refugee experience.

Ellen Kracko, who was born in Shanghai in 1947, was the youngest of the 13 babies born there who were present at the reunion. She accompanied her mother, Ruth Chaim, who also found the reunion very interesting and moving. Ellen stated, “This is history – I wouldn’t miss it. We need to pass this on to people. It’s important.” For Ellen, the high point was the ceremony in the park.

Norman Shelton spoke of the bond between Shanghailanders. “Even if we don’t see each other for decades,” he said, “when we do, the relationship is promptly reestablished. What Professor Pan Guang and other Chinese academics and government officials are doing to commemorate the history of the refugees in Shanghai is truly mind-boggling.”

The best part of the reunion for Vera Sasson was “seeing where we came from, surrounded by Shanghailanders who had shared the experience.” Evelyn Pike Rubin, author and lecturer, was with her two daughters and her son. She enjoyed the service and dinner at Chabad so much that she went back the next day. The visit to Hong Kou was another significant moment. For her daughter Sheryl Lerner, in Shanghai for the first time, the reunion “tied everything together, just like the making of silk at the silk factory.”

Peter and Lesley Witting of Australia had attended most other reunions. However, this reunion was of particular significance as two of their three daughters, Helen Witting and Naomi Lemmon, as well as Peter’s sister, Marion Segal, were able to be with them. Together they took a sentimental walk of about 20-25 minutes in Hong Kou from the Ward Road Heim where Peter and his family had picked up their daily meal from the soup kitchen to where they had lived on Tongshan Road, corner Dalny Road.

Emily Lange, one of the two youngest attendees, came with her father, Stephen, who wanted her to see the place where his father, Bob, Emily’s grandfather (who was unable to attend) had found refuge. The best part for her was the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, because that’s where her grandpa became a Bar Mitzvah. Coincidentally, Emily’s own Bat Mitzvah is to take place soon after her return home to Pennsylvania.

I was fortunate to be invited to lunch that day by friends Yeng-Fong and Jim Chiang, who live part-time in Shanghai and part-time in Northern California. They hosted me at a delightful restaurant called The Old Shanghai Station. Located in a 1921 French monastery, both the atmosphere and food were outstanding. We ate in one of two railroad cars, a 1919 Russian carriage used by Mme. Sun Yat-sen.  Afterward, I had an opportunity to see their lovely new apartment before returning by cab to the hotel.

In the afternoon, I was privileged to go with Faith Goldman, her son Sgt. Samuel Goldman, and Fredy Seidel on a tour of Hong Kou with Dvir Bar-Gal. We visited the apartment where Robert Goldman had lived for ten years, and were warmly welcomed by the Chinese family now lodged there. The elderly mama hugged us and patted us and served us bananas, tea, and cupcakes. Her son remembered playing with Robert as a child. How fortunate to be able to find this place, scheduled for demolition very soon.

We think we found the Ward Road Heim, where my husband Fred and his father Semmy stayed upon their arrival in Shanghai, and the location of the Ward Road Hospital where Semmy died in 1944. The next stop was 818 Chusan Road, where Fredy Seidel and numerous other refugees lived. We were able to see on many doors the outline of the mezuzot affixed there in refugee times. The lanes were much as they had been in the 1940s – small, crowded, and not too clean. Fredy walked right to his old apartment. We had some friendly exchanges with residents, and school children tried out their English on us. When we asked, “How are you?” we were surprised at their prompt reply, “Fine, thank you.”

Dvir took me to a lovely park, which was the site of the Columbia Road Cemetery where Fred’s father was buried. Fred and I had spent many hours looking for it unsuccessfully on a previous trip. I followed Dvir’s suggestion that I take a stone with me from the site, since I could not place a stone on the grave.

The final event was the Farewell Banquet, marked by great camaraderie and a western-style dinner. Brief speeches were given by Rene Wildorff and Leah Garrick, who was a part of the Sephardic community, and Evelyn Pike Rubin. Gary Matzdorff presented Rene with a commemorative book signed by all the participants. Fredy Seidel’s suggestion that a scholarship fund be established for Hong Kou youths to enable them to attend university was met with much enthusiasm. The large Australian contingent took a photo together and regaled us with a spirited version of their national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair.” The evening – and the reunion – concluded with fond farewells and much picture taking.

The next morning, many made their way to the glitzy new airport in Pudong for the return trip home. Others joined one of the four extensions offered by Lotus Tours: to Hangchow, to Beijing and Xian, to Guilin and Hong Kong, or to Chungqing and a two-day cruise on the Yangtze River. I chose the latter, and enjoyed a restful trip through the beautiful Three Gorges and an up-close view of the monumental and controversial Three Gorges Dam.

Whatever their destination, all left the Reunion with memories to last a lifetime and enormous affection for fellow Shanghailanders and for Shanghai and the city of refuge for them or their spouses or forebears.

For more articles about the 2006 Shanghai Reunion and many photos, go to www.rickshaw.org.

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This article appeared in the June edition of Points East, the newsletter of the Sino-Judaic Institute and is reprinted with permission.