Around the Jewish World ‘rickshaw Reunion’: Jews Gather in Shanghai to Look at Their Old Home

Leah Jacob Garrick took a leisurely stroll through China’s largest metropolis in April, exploring the sights, smells and flavors of Shanghai’s bustling Hongkou district. But Garrick, 77, was no ordinary tourist.

The San Francisco resident — returning to the city of her youth — is a direct descendant of wealthy Sephardi Jews who came to Shanghai in the late 19th century from Baghdad, by way of Bombay.

“We used to live on Joffre Avenue. We had the top floor, and the servants lived on the roof,” she told JTA. “I just went back this afternoon. It was so emotional. My nursemaid had died recently, as had our cook. But his children and grandchildren are still living there. I did a lot of crying.”

So did most of the other 108 Jewish Americans, Australians, Israelis and Europeans who recently gathered in Shanghai to relive their distant past.

Unlike Garrick, a fourth-generation Shanghai resident, nearly all the rest were former Ashkenazi refugees who settled here as a last resort, fleeing Nazi aggression and the horrors of World War II. An “open city” under mixed Chinese and colonial rule, Shanghai was one of the few places European Jews could escape to without a visa.

As such, Shanghai received nearly 30,000 Jews between 1937 and 1941, though the Jews — like most other foreigners — were forced to leave in 1949 when the Communists took over China.

“Many of these people had not been back to Shanghai since they left in 1949,” said Rene Willdorff, 78, of Palo Alto, Calif.

Willdorff, who organized the mid-April “Rickshaw Reunion,” said his group has held nine previous reunions, including one in San Francisco in April 2002 and Toronto in October 2004. But this is only the second time former Jewish refugees have gathered in Shanghai itself.

“The first time was in 1993, with only a small group of people who did it entirely on their own, without the involvement of the Shanghai municipal government,” he said. “This time was different. There’s now an appeal to UNESCO to declare” the old Jewish ghetto a World Heritage Site.

That means a lot to Willdorff, who landed in Shanghai in 1939 from Berlin, accompanied by his parents.

“We were quite poor, so we had to live in the Hongkou District,” he recalled. “When our money ran out completely, we had to move into the ghetto. My father died of an illness in 1942, so my mother and I lived in near-starvation conditions.”

Even so, said Willdorff, “the Chinese are very nice and gentle people, and they never bothered us. They didn’t care that we were Westerners or Jewish. They left us alone. To a large extent, so did the Japanese, who occupied Shanghai and also had respect for the Jews when we were living in their midst.”

Chaja Hass, a Polish-born Jew who lives in Brooklyn, spent seven years here, leaving in January 1949.

“This is the first time we’ve been back,” she said. “I think Shanghai is a jumping city. It’s very interesting. The people are well-dressed, they look good and nobody’s starving the way I remember it.”

Home to more than 16 million people, Shanghai today boasts one of the world’s most modern skylines and fastest-growing economies. BMWs and Buicks share the city’s congested streets with bicycles, while gleaming shopping malls, construction cranes and Starbucks outlets seem to be popping up everywhere.

Yet pockets of poverty persist, including the shanties of Tilanqiao, where open sewers still foul the streets and apartments crammed with five families each are common.

Tilanqiao is also the center of Shanghai’s Jewish heritage — and it’s here where tourists stop to photograph a black granite monument in Chinese, English and Hebrew commemorating the “designated area for stateless refugees,” defined by the city’s Japanese occupiers in 1937 as a small tract of land bounded by Gongping, Tongbei, Huiming and Zhoujiazui roads.

Tilanqiao is also the home of Ohel Moishe Synagogue, built in 1927 by the Ashkenazi community and recently restored by the Shanghai municipal government. The 109 “Rickshaw Reunion” participants toured all these sites, as well as Ohel Rachel, the former Sephardi synagogue which is generally closed to the public.

Showing them around was Israeli photojournalist Dvir Bar-Gal, who lives in Shanghai and currently heads a project to rescue Shanghai’s many Hebrew tombstones from destruction.

“By the end of the war, the Japanese couldn’t even supply food for their own troops, so much of the time the Jews went without food,” said Bar-Gal, a part-time tour guide. “In July 1945, the Americans came to bomb the Japanese forces in Shanghai. One of the bombs missed and killed several hundred Chinese as well as some Jewish refugees — ironically only two weeks before Hiroshima and the end of the war.”

Vera Sasson, who came to Shanghai as a baby from Vienna, lived here from 1939 to 1949. She attended the first reunion 27 years ago, in San Francisco.

“This particular reunion has more second- and third-generation people attending, which is very refreshing for me,” she said. “Prior to this, they weren’t interested.”

Keeping those memories alive seemed to be a major focus of the Shanghai event, as evidenced by the large number of Jews who donated passports, documents and old family photographs to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, which is leading the campaign to make the old 69-acre Jewish quarter a heritage site.

Bruno Keith, 95, is one of the oldest of the group that is still alive. A Hawaii resident for the last 40 years, he traveled to China himself in April because, he said, “everybody else is dead.”

Keith taught Hebrew in the Shanghai Ghetto because he was one of the few Jews who could speak it. He also lectured on Chinese history and geography. But in the late 1940s, he sensed it was time to leave.

“I already knew that the Communists were going to march in. I could feel it,” he said. “Since then, I never went back to Shanghai. It was too bitter an experience. I buried too many people. I’d been all over China since that time, but always avoided Shanghai.”

Asked why he decided to return now — after 59 years — Keith responded simply, “because I’m not going to live that long.”

NEXT STORY