Toughened Shanghailanders reunite to celebrate life

Rene Willdorff remembers his formative years well. How could he forget?

He remembers the emaciated, lifeless bodies in the streets. He remembers the days when drinking tap water was certain death, and everyone suffered through intestinal diseases while crowded 10 to a room. Disease was passed into the vegetables, which were grown in fields fertilized with human feces, completing a vicious cycle.

Willdorff recalls washing everything he ate in violet potassium permanganate solution — "it killed the germs, but, you know, it was poison itself."

He remembers wearing rags in the boiling heat and bitter cold, and never, ever bathing.

"So what I'm saying," summed up Willdorff, who fled his native Berlin one step ahead of the Nazis and sailed to Shanghai along with roughly 20,000 other European Jews, "is that we didn't have a good time."

The sprouting — and even flourishing — of a Jewish community in the heart of pre-communist China is one of the lesser-known legacies of the Holocaust. Yet roughly 100 "Shanghailanders" still call the Bay Area home, and nearly 350 will head into San Francisco this weekend for the 2002 "Rickshaw Reunion."

"People ask us where we come from, and when we mention Shanghai, people's eyes glaze over. Only people who were there understand," said the 74-year-old Willdorff, chairman of the 2002 reunion committee. "There's a consciousness between all of our members that we have a special history and special affinity to one another that few others have. We are sort of like a clan, an extended family."

Previous reunions have been held across the United States, Israel and even Shanghai.

Willdorff and his fellow Shanghai Jews were all teenagers or younger when their parents fled Germany, Austria or Poland for the Chinese port, one of the few cities that would accept indigent Jews without a visa.

"We as young people considered this a schooling," remembered Harry Fink, who arrived in Shanghai as a 15-year-old in 1939.

"It was a hard life. There was no being spoiled as they talk about teenagers here in America. But I'm sure they would react to it in the same way. Young people are resourceful. It was much harder for the older. My father was 52, and had left an established business with 13 employees — 12 seamstresses, a presser and a beautiful residence. Imagine quitting all that to go into a country that had a completely different climate than we were used to."

Like many of the refugees, Fink started his Shanghai odyssey in a refugee camp, specifically the Ward Road Heim, a large, former school in which dozens of Jews were housed side-by-side, stacked atop one another in bunk beds.

"There was no privacy. There was no way of hanging your coat. Everyone had hangers and they were hanging off the beds," recalled Fink, who now lives in San Francisco. "It was very difficult. But people adjusted."

While never wholly pleasant, the refugees' situation became genuinely dire in 1943, when Shanghai's Japanese rulers forced Jewish refugees into a ghetto, the extremely poor Hongkew section of town.

The district was inhabited by some of Shanghai's most destitute residents. Willdorff remembers bombed-out buildings, piles of rubble and bullet-riddled walls, remnants of heavy fighting in 1937 between Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese.

As war raged around them, the Jews and their Chinese neighbors suffered. Severe food shortages led to starvation, and weakened resistance to tropical diseases.

"We were kept in the ghetto, deprived of food. It was starving conditions, pestilence," said Willdorff, who lives in Palo Alto. "People starved to death, people died of tropical diseases. They were terrible conditions. My father died. My mother was terribly sick. I don't know how she pulled through."

Willdorff, who also suffered from tropical diseases, said the only way he made it through alive was "by dint of perseverance. We had no choice. You had to tough it through. It's like sitting in the dentist's chair. If he's getting out a bigger drill, there's nothing you can do but leave the chair or tough it out."

According to "Japanese, Nazis and Jews," a 1976 study of the Shanghai refugee community by David Kranzler, records from the time indicate 1,581 refugees died between 1939 and 1945.

And while Jewish ghetto dwellers in Japan generally were spared such widespread abuses as happened elsewhere during the war, that's not to say murders did not occur. Shanghailanders knew to keep quiet and stay on their overlords' good side.

"Sure, they were ruthless," said Fritz Gelb, 77, of San Carlos. "One of my friends at that time was riding on a bicycle and a Japanese truck hit him. He complained to the Japanese and they put him and that bicycle on the truck and that's the last we ever heard of him."

Some Shanghai Jews remembered Ghoya, the Japanese military official who oversaw the Jewish ghetto, with more humor than disdain.

"He was a small man, about five-foot-five. He had a little Hitler mustache and strutted around like a peacock," said Willdorff. "People tried to cooperate with him for the simple reason of keeping order, and to not have the wrath of the Japanese descend on us."

Fink laughed and shook his head when he recalled Ghoya's antics.

"He was quite crazy. He used to call himself 'The King of the Jews,'" said Fink. "He had a complex. He was a short fellow. Very, very short. He used to step on a chair to slap somebody's face. But all in all, it was not the worst. The worst was what people suffered in Europe."

Willdorff echoed Fink's sentiments, pointing out Ghoya was "not a torturer," and "not like an SS man." In fact, the Japanese were pressured by their Nazi allies to liquidate Shanghai's Jews, but never did so. And while Shanghai Jews had no idea of what was going on in Europe, they knew they were better off than those they left behind.

"In the depths of our misery, we were forced to make friends, and many of those ties endure to this day," said Willdorff.

"If you were to ask what brings us together, it is that we felt vulnerable, with no hope. And I think that particular crucible — disease, Japanese rule, uncertainty of our future — forced dependence. We were all so bare-ass naked as it were. Now we're here, and quite successful in most cases. That's what we're celebrating. That's what keeps us together."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.