antique photo of the couple seated together
Rosa Klein with husband, Herbert, 1945

Grandmother’s refugee tale and love story inspire musical

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Months before the Immigration Station on Angel Island closed in 1940, Heather Klein’s grandmother was detained and interrogated for three weeks by federal authorities. Fleeing from her native Austria through Shanghai, Rosa Ginsberg, 18, found herself just outside San Francisco under the intense scrutiny that the “Ellis Island of the West” was known for.

klein in a red dress and fur shawl
Heather Klein

Ginsberg’s unlikely journey from Nazi Europe to the Bay Area is the underpinning of a new production penned by Klein, called “Shanghai Angel.”

“It’s a story told through music and interrogation,” said Klein, a classically trained soprano and former Bay Area resident now living in Las Vegas. Her one-woman show will premiere Feb. 23 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco

“Shanghai Angel” is part love story — of her grandparents’ eventual marriage — and part refugee tale that Klein says is both accessible and rare, since few Jews immigrated to the United States through China.

Klein, 35, has performed opera, theater, folk music and Yiddish song over the course of her career, which included serving as cantorial soloist at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. A native of Las Vegas, she moved to San Francisco at age 18 to study at the Conservatory of Music, where she obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance.

Now a cantorial soloist at Reform Temple Sinai of Las Vegas, Klein says she feel closest to God when she prays. She describes her relationship with Judaism as largely spiritual.

She remembers her grandmother, who died when Klein was in her 20s, as a strong, tender caregiver for her grandfather. But when it came to the past, Ginsberg almost never spoke about it. “When I asked her questions about her life, she didn’t really give me much,” Klein said. Their relationship, Klein added, wasn’t all that close. “I knew that she loved me, but she never said it.”

That reserved personality and a tendency to leave the past in the past may have been why Klein’s family only learned of Ginsberg’s stop at Angel Island a few years ago — well after her death. It was Klein’s father who made the discovery. While searching the internet for clues about his mother, Jeffrey Klein came across an article written by a San Francisco attorney who volunteered for the Angel Island Immigration Project. “Up popped this wonderful story,” he told J. in 2015. “I was flabbergasted.”

I knew that she loved me, but she never said it.
— Heather Klein

For the Klein family, the article raised more questions than it answered. It was not until the family obtained the transcript of the Angel Island interrogation that Ginsberg’s story began to fully take shape. That’s when Klein realized she had enough material for a show.

“I had already been looking for a story that would inspire me to do a one-woman show, and a show that was meaningful for me,” she said. “That was it for me.”

Klein did an enormous amount of additional research, including talking with a relative of Ho Feng-Shan, the “Chinese Schindler” who as nationalist China’s consul general in Vienna from 1938 to 1940 issued visas to several thousand Jews, allowing them to flee to Shanghai. She also toured Angel Island, and interviewed non-Jewish immigrants who went on a similar path as Ginsberg.

Through a friend, Klein even managed to verify that her grandmother’s name appears on a wall at the Shanghai Refugees Museum listing those who passed through the city.

All told, it took Klein about a year and a half of research before she commenced writing last summer.

The musical is mostly in English, with little bits of Yiddish from time to time — “Yinglish,” she calls it. In addition to writing the narrative, Klein composed nine pieces of music that are interwoven throughout the production.

“We’re using different sounds to set the mood during the interrogation,” she said. “Sometimes they’re Asian sounds, and sometimes they’re more Jewish-sounding.”

It’s the first one-woman show Klein has written and performed in, though she is quick to point out that this isn’t a solo effort.

Berkeley-based composer Joshua Horowitz arranged the music for piano and percussion, and performs with those instruments; Oakland Yiddishist Harvey Varga performs the voice of the unseen interrogator. The production was directed and choreographed by Bay Area Jewish dance maven Bruce Bierman.

Each CJM performance will be followed by a short talk about the Angel Island Immigration Station.

Shanghai Angel,” 6:30 p.m. Feb. 23 and 3 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. $15-$20.

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.