Jewish refugees arrive in San Francisco from Shanghai, 1949. Second from left: fashion designer Ilie Wacs, who later cowrote a book about the Shanghai Jews. (Photo/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ilie Wacs)
Jewish refugees arrive in San Francisco from Shanghai, 1949. Second from left: fashion designer Ilie Wacs, who later cowrote a book about the Shanghai Jews. (Photo/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ilie Wacs)

The last of the Shanghailanders, S.F.’s unique Holocaust refugee community

Sixteen years ago, there were enough of them still living to hold a reunion 100 strong in San Francisco. But nowadays, there are fewer and fewer people around who were Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II.

One of them is San Francisco resident Irma Wasserman.

“You lose your friends, they pass away, what can you do?” said Wasserman, who estimates her age at 88. “But I have family and my son.”

The existence of a Jewish community in pre-communist China is one of the lesser-known legacies of the Holocaust. In 2002, roughly 100 “Shanghailanders” called the Bay Area home, quite a few belonging to Congregation B’nai Emunah in San Francisco. Since then, many have passed away.

“I guess we’re a handful left at the congregation,” said Helga Silberberg, 85, of San Francisco. “There’s not too many left of us.”

Silberberg, born in Germany, was only 6 years old in 1939 when her family fled to Shanghai, where between 15,000 and 20,000 Jewish refugees eventually lived in the then Japanese-controlled city.

Shanghai had been a cosmopolitan city divided between British, American and French concessions, and had an existing Jewish community of well-off Baghdadi merchants and less well-off Russians. After a Japanese invasion in 1937, it remained one of the few cities in the world that would take Jews without a visa.

in the painting, a row of five founders hover above a scene of fog and the golden gate bridge. behind them is a world map with lines in different colors traced on it.
This painting, which hangs in the social hall of Congregation B’nai Emunah, shows five of the synagogue’s founding generation and traces their routes from Germany to Shanghai to San Francisco. Painting by Anne Ruth Isaacson (c) 2016

But difficult wartime conditions were made worse in 1943 when the Japanese confined the Jews into a square-mile ghetto (also inhabited by local Chinese). The ghetto had a synagogue, and children such as Silberberg attended a school where they were taught by British teachers — until the teachers were interned by the Japanese, who didn’t, however, bow to pressure from their Nazi allies to exterminate the Jews.

Although the families were glad to have escaped Europe, disease was rife and food was limited for Jews in Shanghai.

“We couldn’t leave the district because we were controlled by the Japanese,” said Wasserman. “It was a bad time.”

Making matters worse, they were well aware of what was happening to family members who were left behind in Europe. Wasserman said her grandparents stayed in Germany and were murdered Hitler’s gas chambers.

“My grandparents said, ‘Oh, they won’t do anything to the old people. What do they want with us?’” Wasserman said.

Silberberg, Wasserman and the other refugees in Shanghai had to run once more when, in 1949, the Chinese communists advanced on the city. Wasserman, by then a teenager, came to the United States, but Silberberg took a more circuitous route. Unable to get permission to come to the U.S., her family went to Bolivia, where she lived for 23 years before coming to the Bay Area.

Once here, she discovered that many other Shanghailanders were residing in the area, as San Francisco was the ship’s first U.S. port of call.

That was the scenario for Ellen Stern of San Mateo and her late husband, Kurt. They met and married in Shanghai, and upon leaving were supposed to go to Philadelphia, where they had family.

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“We arrived in San Francisco one of our glorious May mornings,” the 93-year-old Stern said. “And we said, ‘Stay here!’”

Longtime Congregation B'nai Emunah leader Rabbi Alexander passed away in 2016. (Photo/Adam Traum)
Longtime Congregation B’nai Emunah leader Rabbi Alexander passed away in 2016. (Photo/Adam Traum)

Like many other Shanghailanders in the Bay Area, the couple joined a nascent community of those who had made the trip from Europe to China and through the Golden Gate.

“I really didn’t have any common ground with people who were born here,” Stern aid. “Because they had no idea what we had to go through.”

But there was no lack of people to connect with.

“I met more people in San Francisco who were in Shanghai than I met in Shanghai,” Silberberg quipped.

Another couple that stayed in San Francisco once they made it to the U.S. was Gertrude and the late Rabbi Ted Alexander, who also met and married in China.

“San Francisco looked wonderful,” recalled Gertrude Alexander, 94. “We thought we’d try to stay and make a living.”

Her husband did just that — as the longtime rabbi of B’nai Emunah, a temple in the Sunset District where a large part of the Shanghailander community cohered.

“They came to B’nai Emunah because Ted was there and they knew the rabbi,” Gertrude said.

But the community is shrinking.

Rene Willdorff, who organized the San Francisco “Rickshaw Reunion” for Shanghailanders in 2002, passed away three months ago at age 90. Rabbi Gunther Gates, spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Alameda for 34 years starting in 1947, died in 1981 at 68, and Ted Alexander died in 2016 at 95. San Francisco hotelier Werner S. Lewin (who learned the hospitality industry when he worked with his brothers in hotels, restaurants and casinos in Shanghai’s red-light district) died in 2016 at 95. Noted fashion designer Ilie Wacs, who co-wrote a book with his sister (philanthropist Deborah Strobin) about their Shanghai childhood, passed away in 2014 at 86.

Jewish refugees arrive in San Francisco from Shanghai on the USS General M.C. Meigs, 1949. (Photo/Courtesy U.C. Berkeley Bancroft Library)
Jewish refugees arrive in San Francisco from Shanghai on the USS General M.C. Meigs, 1949. (Photo/Courtesy U.C. Berkeley Bancroft Library)

“That’s true of Holocaust survivors in general,” Fred Rosenbaum, founder of Lehrhaus Judaica, said about dwindling populations.

But even as Shanghailanders become fewer, efforts are being made to preserve their stories.

These include an upcoming documentary, oral histories recorded by the USC Shoah Foundation, books such as memoirs by Cantor Hans Cohn of Redwood City (“Risen from the Ashes”) and Ernest Glaser of Walnut Creek (“A Life Well Lived”), walking tours in Shanghai that tell the story of the Jewish ghetto and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, located in a former synagogue in China.

Additionally, singer Heather Klein debuted a one-woman show last year at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco that told the story of her grandmother Rosa Ginsberg’s tumultuous journey from Shanghai to Angel Island. And Rosenbaum is himself leading an educational trip to China next June that will include Shanghai (for details, visit

“It can’t fully take the place of eyewitnesses, for sure,” Rosenbaum said of efforts to document the Holocaust and educate new generations. But the historian and Shoah scholar (who has helped co-write several Holocaust memoirs) thinks that these timely efforts to record the testimonials of survivors and document their wartime experiences are ensuring that these stories are not forgotten.

“We are losing them, the survivors,” Rosenbaum said. “But we have so many other ways that story can be told.”

Any way it’s done, Silberberg thinks passing on the story of the refugees and their Shanghai experiences is important, even after the last of the Shanghailanders is gone. For her, it’s a crucial part of the cautionary tale of what happened to the Jews of Europe.

“Anywhere in this wonderful world it can happen again, believe me,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.