Shanghai Ghetto (2002) is a documentary by Dana Jancklowitz-Mann and Amir Mann chronicling the stories of German Jews who were able to escape Nazi Germany in the 1930’s by taking advantage of a loophole in passport operations in Japanese-occupied China. At that time, the Jews of Germany were offered a choice with a very short time span: either find somewhere to immigrate immediately or go to “resettlement” camps. Even those who realized the seriousness of the situation were stymied: no country in the world was accepting Jewish immigrants. Jewish immigration to British-ruled Palestine was blocked. The United States and other Western nations were closed to Jewish immigration. There was nowhere to go.
Nowhere, except for a place where the chaos of war had already made enough havoc for a loophole: The port of Shanghai was the only city in the world in which neither a visa nor a passport was required for entry. Imperial Japan occupied Shanghai, and for various reasons chose neither to enforce Japanese nor Chinese passport operations there. As a result, it was an open port: a safe haven for the Jews who were able to scrape together the bribes to leave Germany and the steamship passage to get to China.
Once in China, they faced a new life, living in the slums of Shanghai among the Chinese residents. They were helped by the Jews of China (another interesting story, one not sufficiently told in this documentary) and by the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish organization that served Jewish refugees all over the world (and continues to exist today, operating out of Israel.) As the war wore on, their lives became more and more difficult, but they survived, unlike countless relatives and friends left behind in Germany.
This documentary tells their story, through vintage film, through the memories and voices of the refugees themselves, and through poignant film footage of the now elderly refugees visiting modern-day Shanghai. It is a simple, rather artless documentary, but the human story it tells is profound.
Today it is difficult to comprehend how completely the Jewish People were abandoned by the rest of the world during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Perhaps the greatest single contribution of this documentary is its testimony to what the world looked like without a homeland for the Jews.
The story told here is about the German Jews. The film alludes to but says much less about the other Jewish communities in Shanghai. The Baghdadi Jewish community had originated in Iraq (hence its name) resettling in India during the British Raj, and the few families in Shanghai were there doing business for British concerns. There were also a Russian Jewish community which had moved to Shanghai after the pogroms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The German Jews arrived in Shanghai just before the beginning of war in Europe. After it began, other groups began to trickle into the Shanghai Ghetto. A few Austrian and Czech Jewish families followed. Then a small group of Polish Jews arrived, some of them the faculty from the Mir Yeshiva, the only one of the yeshivot of Europe to survive the war intact. In 1943, all the Jews of Shanghai, Baghdadi, Russian, German, Polish, and so on were crowded into a ghetto less than a mile square and kept there by order of the Japanese army. There they remained until the end of the war.
In Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, Hillel is quoted: “In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.” I was struck, watching this film, how the Jews in this miserable situation managed to construct a society that worked despite the losses, the deprivations, the uncertainties, and starvation. Our communities today, living in relative safety and prosperity, could stand to learn a thing or two from them.