In December 1938, just weeks after Kristallnacht in Germany, Dr. Ernst Michaelis left his home in Silesia for a meeting of the government health council in Berlin. Like other Jews in Germany, he wanted to get his family out of the country, and sought to immigrate to a country where his medical services were needed.
"We wanted to flee to the United States but that wasn't an option. The immigration quota had already been filled," Michaelis' daughter, Marianna Barli, said this week. "The British didn't permit immigration to Israel, even though we had family there. They said Harbin, in Manchuria, was looking for a doctor, and Father signed a contract with the local hospital immediately."
Barli said the family boarded a luxury Italian liner in March 1939 for Shanghai, but when they arrived they discovered the Manchurian authorities had closed their borders. The Michaelis family was instead brought to Tianjin, China, where physicians were in short supply.
China Radio International wants to broadcast stories such as the Michaelis family's story. To that end, station officials recently invited former residents of China who now live in Israel to enter "My Chinese Experience," a story competition.
CRI broadcasts to more than 40 nations around the world; its Israeli news website is the first official Chinese media outlet in Hebrew. The station has already received several stories from Israelis describing their Holocaust-era experiences in China. The winner, who will be announced this summer, will receive a "heritage" tour to China with his or her family, courtesy of CRI. Officials at the radio station say the main purpose of the project is to strengthen the ties between the Chinese and Israeli peoples, as well as to document and preserve the remnants of the largest immigrant group in China during the wartime period.
Barli, 81, the only child of Dr. Michaelis and his wife Gertrude, was just eight when she arrived in China, but she still clearly remembers the colorful sights, the fragrant smells of spices and the unimaginable change to her life.
"I had a happy childhood," Barli related. "I went to a Jewish school in the city's English quarter, where I made friends, some of whom I am still in touch with. We swam in the summer and ice-skated in the winter," she said.
"We had lots of rice, chicken and eggrolls at home, because our manservant was Chinese." As she remembers it, "The Chinese were generally very poor, any many of them died of infection and disease. Despite the fact that we were wealthier, they never took advantage of us and were always good to us. They were grateful to us for giving them work, they worked in the restaurants and cafes of the Jews and they worked in Jewish homes," said Barli, who lives in Tel Aviv with her husband. They have two children and six grandchildren.
The Jews of Tianjin attended synagogue on the Shabbat and holidays, held traditional Friday night dinners, ate improvised matzot on Passover and organized costume balls on Purim. During the war their numbers were reinforced by groups of Jewish refugees from France, Germany, England, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands.
The refugees turned to the task of reconstructing in Tianjin the community life they led before the war. "We lived in a bubble, without newspapers or news from outside. We didn't know what was happening abroad," Barli said, adding, "We knew there was a war and that people were being sent to concentration camps, but no one imagined that the Germans, the cultured intellectuals we had known, could be so cruel. It was only after the war that we realized the extent of the killing and of the Holocaust, and we were in shock, in deep mourning. My father received a letter from the Red Cross that said his parents were taken from Germany to Auschwitz, and there it was, the entire family was obliterated."
Around 28,000 European Jews found refuge in China during World War II. After Japan's invasion of China in 1937 and occupation of large parts of the country, the local government was replaced by a puppet regime that left the marine and land access routes undefended.
"When [World War II] broke out the last of the refugees began to reach China. Thousands of Jewish refugees came by boat, most of them via Shanghai, which already had two established Jewish communities: The Baghdadi community, which had 1,000 members, and a Russian-Jewish community that was 7,000 strong," explained Irene Eber, professor emeritus of East Asian studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "The British, who ruled Shanghai, told the communities that were there, 'We don't have money to take care of the Jews, you'll have to take care of the ones who came,' and that's what most of the Baghdadis did, since they were richer than the Russians," she said.
The Wertans family fled Warsaw for Vilnius in September 1939, when war broke out. In June 1940, when the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania, it was rumored that a compassionate Japanese consul in Kounas, Chiune Sempo Sugihara, was issuing transit visas to Japan to Jews, with the aim of getting them to China. The Wertans left all their wordly goods behind. They traveled by train first to Moscow and then to Vladivostok, on the Trans-Siberian Railway, before sailing to southern Japan.
"The family was happy during its stay in Japan, Nina Admoni nee Wertans, the only child of Yaacov and Yehudit Wertans, relates. Admoni's husband Nahum Admoni was head of Israel's Mossad in the 1980s. The Wertans stayed in Kobe, Japan for around six months, before they were apprehended and forced to leave. They went to China.
Oral histories and documents, including personal diaries from the period, reflect the rich cultural life of Shanghai's Jewish community. "Between 1939 and 1941 the refugees created a cultural life," Eber said. "People came without any property and, despite the difficulties, published 10 newspapers in German and four in Yiddish. In addition, there was theater in Yiddish and in German, in which Polish Jews who came from Japan were particularly active."
The situation worsened after the United States entered the war, in the wake of Japan's December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, after which the Japanese secured its hold on large parts of China. The Japanese imposed restrictions on the Jews; in Shanghai they separated the established Jewish communities from the war refugees and made members of the Baghdadi and Russian communities the liaisons between the Japanese occupation government and the refugees.
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