Shanghai ghetto refugees revisit past at S.F. screening

It's a typical Saturday night at Max's Opera Cafe in San Francisco. Laughter. Music. The clank of forks on plates piled high with food.

At one table sits a group of elderly men and women, dressed well. Their quick smiles and sparkling eyes seem to say life has been good.

Clearly, they know each other well. Vague traces of Yiddish accents suggest they might be friends from a local synagogue.

In fact, they are all survivors of the Shanghai Ghetto, the wartime refuge for a group of European Jews fleeing Nazi oppression.

Back in the mid-1930s, about 20,000 mostly German and Austrian Jews booked passage to Japanese-occupied China, to the only port city in the world where visas and other immigration documents were not required.

There they rode out the war, living for nearly a decade amid the stink and squalor of old Shanghai.

They were the lucky ones.

Filmmakers Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann have put the story into a new documentary, "Shanghai Ghetto." The film recently had its Bay Area premiere at San Francisco's Opera Plaza Cinema, with more than a dozen survivors of the Shanghai Ghetto — better known as Shanghailanders — in attendance.

Afterward, the crowd headed straight to Max's to snack and kibitz about the film, which through archival footage and a series of striking interviews depicts the extraordinary world of their childhood.

"It brought back all the old memories," says Helga Ross, an elegant and high-spirited septuagenarian. "This is our story."

Adds her brother Manny Hirschel of Foster City: "It was an emotional experience to see this film. It brought back the strangeness of Shanghai when we got there, wondering what was going to happen to us and how we would survive."

Survive they did.

Despite unsanitary tenement life and the frequent scarcity of food, the Shanghai Ghetto Jews developed a real community, complete with their own nightclubs, newspapers and businesses. The agony of the Holocaust seemed not to penetrate as far as Shanghai, even when Allied bombers accidentally destroyed sections of the ghetto.

At the table next to the Shanghailanders sit Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, the husband-and-wife team that made "Shanghai Ghetto." It's been a great night for them. The film drew cheers at the San Francisco premiere, much as it did in Los Angeles (where the couple lives), New York and other cities around the country. An Oscar buzz is already humming.

It's a gratifying reward for the couple, who completely self-financed the making of "Shanghai Ghetto," doing the filming and editing with their own digital video camera and home Macintosh computer. Says Amir, "You're looking at the crew."

The couple is glad the arduous five-year filmmaking process is over, and that audiences, especially Shanghailanders, have responded so positively to the film.

"This is a small story about a few thousand people and the colonial powers of the world," notes the Israeli-born Mann. "It's just a speck in the history of China and of the Jewish people, but it illuminates so many different things."

Pregnant with twins, Janklowicz-Mann reflects on the early success of the film and the meaning of its story. "Anti-Semitism didn't exist in Shanghai," she says. "The Jews were just white people there. Everyone got along."

Dana's father, Harold Janklowicz, is one of the Shanghailanders interviewed in the film, and one of the most eloquent. "The interview with my dad was the first thing we shot," Dana Janklowicz recalls. "Every time he would cry, I would cry. So it was hard to even ask the questions."

Harold Janklowicz's best friend in the ghetto was Hirschel, the dapper man sitting at the next table at Max's.

"If you think about it," Hershel says, "it was a small period of our lives, yet the most significant. We're different because of it. We formed a union that lasted over 50 years."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.