Fifty years after the first Jews fled Nazi Europe for Shanghai, some of the former refugees from around the world gathered to recall life in the steamy port that was their haven.
“It’s been an electrifying experience. I’ve met so many people I haven’t seen in all these years,” said Norman Shelton, 61, who left Berlin for Shanghai in April, 1939, and now lives in Orlando, Fla.
Shelton was among about 18,000 Jewish refugees who fled Germany, Austria and Poland for Shanghai in 1938 and 1939. The Chinese port was then the only place in the world where escaping Jews could settle without visas.
About 150 of the group, who call themselves the “Shanghai-landers,” gathered last week for a four-day reunion in Israel. Some of their more famous comrades, including artist Peter Max and ex-Treasury Secretary Michael J. Blumenthal, did not attend.
The two-year exodus to Shanghai began after the “Crystal Night” or the “Night of Glass” on Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazi-led rioters attacked Jewish homes and businesses in Germany and Austria and set dozens of synagogues ablaze.
Shelton’s father was among the 30,000 Jews arrested and sent to concentration camps after that night. “We soon discovered the only way to get my dad out was to go to the Nazis with a one-way ticket out of Germany,” Shelton said. “My mother was frantic. She ran into the street, and people told her about Shanghai. We got the money together, and we were gone in three weeks.”
The refugees carried Nazi-issued passports stamped with a “J” for Jew and the words “For Exit Only.”
When war broke out in the Pacific, the Shanghai Jews were confined by the Japanese to a 3-square-mile ghetto.
Like many others, Curt Pollack--whose family fled Berlin in 1939--has returned to the city several times. “I had the desire to go back and see the old neighborhood again,” he said. “Some people go back to Brooklyn to see if the old deli is still there. For me, Shanghai is the closest thing.”