16 September 2017

Escape from Berlin; Thank you Shanghai!

Once Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany’s 572,000 Jews faced catastrophe as was made perfectly clear in Peter Nash's book Es­cape From Berlin (Impact Press, 2017). So how did some European Jews receive visas to the Far East? Just as the German industrialist Oskar Schindler saved the lives of 1200 Jews in Poland, three less-known diplomats helped Jews to get to Shanghai.

In 1940 Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese consul general in Lithuania. He issued visas to 6000 Jews, against his Tokyo sup­eriors’ instructions, allowing Jews to transit through Japan. When he ran out of authentic visas, Sugihara threw signed sheets of paper stamped with his consular seal to the Jews as the train left Lithuania to take him back to Japan.

Ho Feng-Shan was Chinese consul general in Vienna. After the Ansch­luss in 1938, the only way for the 200,000 Austrian Jews to escape was to get an entry visa from a foreign nation. Against the orders of his superior in Berlin, Ho issued thousands of visas for refugees going to Shanghai. Until he was ordered to return to China in 1940.

Tadeusz Romer was the Polish ambassador to Japan. When many of Sug­ihara's Jews reached Japan, they could still have been sent back to Nazi-occupied Poland. So Romer intervened, granting them new pass­ports and visas to neutral countries. When the Polish embassy was shut down in 1941, “his” Jews were sent to safety in Shanghai.

Nachemstein/Nash family
Born in Berlin in 1936, three-year-old Peter Nachemstein and his parents were forced to escape Nazi Germany by fleeing to Shang­hai. The SS Scharnhorst was a German liner that they boarded in Genoa in April 1939. They almost missed the boat. When the Nachem­steins were served with an eviction notice straight after the inf­amous Kristallnacht destruction in Nov 1938 Herbert and Ingeborg wanted tickets to Argentina. When that failed, Ingeborg's father saved them.

The voyage took Peter (aged 3) and his family through the Suez Canal with stops at Colombo, Manila and Hong Kong before the ship finally docked at Shanghai. Despite their fine surroundings on the Scharnhorst, the Nach­emsteins were in fact "boat people". They were persecuted refugees who had fled their homeland with little more than their clothes. And they were disem­barking, without visas, funds or language, at a Chinese port that had been invaded by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1937. Fortunately in those final few months before Hitler invaded Poland in Sept 1939, Shanghai was an open treaty port, a haven that accepted refugees without an entry visa.

Peter's friends, the Witting family, fled Berlin and arrived in Sh­ang­hai in May 1939 on the SS Conte Verde. The Wit­tings were met by Jew­ish repres­ent­atives and taken to the Heime/-former refugee camps military barracks. Although 30 people packed into double bunk beds, the Wittings were fortunate. Relatives in South Africa sent money, allowing them to rent a single room in Hongkew, for eight years.

Today this massive Chinese city is glamorous for tour­ists. In WW2, less so. Shanghai was divided into four distinct zones along the north­ern banks of the Yel­low River: a] Old Chinese City, b] Fren­ch Concession, c] International Settlement and d] Chinese Districts which had most of the city's 4 million population.

New arrivals were issued with a blanket, sheets, tin dish, cup and spoon, and access to a soup kitchen. There were var­ious Shanghai Relief Aid Commit­tees which received funds from over­seas donors, especially the American Joint.

The trickle of European refugees that began in the mid 1930s had become a flood by late 1939. Meanwhile thousands of impoverished Chinese were pouring into Shang­hai, seeking work. Beggars were everywhere. Death was every­where; coolies pushed carts around, picking up Chinese bodies.

The Jewish Designated Area, 

A Jewish coffee shop, White Horse Cafe
Hongkew 19139-49

The small room had 2 beds, sink, stove, table and cupboard. The Nachmensteins shared an unsewered toilet and a bathtub with two oth­er families. Every morning Chinese workers arrived and cleaned out the toilets. The tap water had to be boiled.

Fortunately the women could collect food each day from the Heime kitchens. Survival in Shanghai was risked by poor diet, bad sanitation and low resistance to tropical diseases, but it was much better than any alternative. Comp­ared to Eur­ope’s death camps, Shanghai was a haven of safety.

Any Jewish refugee who could raise enough money would leave the Heime. Most hoped to settle in Hongkew in the Internat­ional Settlement, which had been partially destroyed by 1937 bombs. As streets were cleared and houses rebuilt, Hongkew offered the Nachem­st­eins one single, subsidised room in a terraced house in Hongkew.

By Nov 1940, the Shanghai authorities were trying to stem the tide of refugees by issuing entry visas. Just in time, Inge­borg's sister and brother in law took the only escape route - they caught the train from Berlin to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian Express to Vladivostok and a boat to Shanghai. Then Hitler declared war on Soviet Union and escapes ended.

The Shanghai Jews did not have to face anti-Semitism. Neither the Chinese nor the Japanese, Con­fucianist or Bud­dhist, treated Jews any differently to other foreigners. Life was stable until Dec 1941 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. Suddenly Shanghai was swamped with Japanese military and civilian per­sonnel searching for housing. A very polite Japanese family moved into the Nash’s terrace house, occupying the entire first floor. The Jap­anese only target­ed American and British nationals. Some Sephardic Jews from the Mid­dle East or India had British passports and were treated brutally, but only because they were British!

The real change didn't come until Mar 1943. Under pressure from senior Nazis, the Japanese agreed to move all the state­less refugees into a Designated Area i.e Shang­hai Ghetto in Hongkew, patrolled at night. The one villain was the brutal Japanese commander of the Designated Area, Kanoh Ghoya.

At its peak, Shanghai had a Jewish community of c35,000 people with a school, synagogue, hospital, refugee hostels and bakeries. Both Nash and Witting attended the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, established by the famous Kadoori family, Middle Eastern Jews who’d had a commercial base in Shanghai.

Shanghai was liberated by US troops in Aug 1945. Peace freed 3.5 million Chinese residents in this city, 6,000+ foreign cit­izens interned in the Civil Assembly Centre and 23,000 Jewish refugees in the Shanghai Ghetto. Most of the Shanghai Ghetto residents re-applied to the countries where they had orig­inally wanted to go, back in 1939.

Shanghai had been the Nash family’s sanctuary, albeit a chaotic one. They left Shanghai for Australia in Feb 1949, as soon as their application for entry was finally accepted. For 60 years, the Shanghai survivors in Australia shared regular Hongkew newsletters and reunions.

In 2015 the People’s Republic of China and the World Jewish Congress commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Shanghai Ghetto and the end of WW2. The photo credits belong to WJC. Jewish Refugees in Shanghai was displayed at Sabes Jewish Community Centre in Minnesota in 2015. The Prague Jewish Museum opened an exhibit on the Jewish Refugees living in Shanghai ghetto in 2016. The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is always worth visiting.

Peter Nash, now 82, retired after a successful career in the textile industry. He launched his book Es­cape From Berlin at the 2017 Sydney Jewish Writers Fest­ival. Thanks Australian Financial Review for some of the details in this post.

The Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne had a fine exhibition in the 1990s called The Story of a Haven: The Jews in Shanghai. To read of the earlier waves of émigrés, see a] Jews fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia who arrived just before WW1, settling in Shanghai's French Concession and b] German speakers who arrived after the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933.


Andrew said...

I was very surprised when I first heard about large numbers of Jewish refugees in Shanghai. Since my initial enquiries about how they ended up there, I read more and more over the years and this post adds a little more to my knowledge.

LSK said...

I hope you went to the book launch because everyone was amazed with Peter Nash. I hope my memories are as wonderful at 82.

Hels said...


The topic of safe haven for asylum seekers and refugees is so hot now, we tend to forget that the issue has been with us for a very long time. I am thinking, for example, of the half million Protestant Huguenots who were hounded out of Catholic France in 1685-1700. Protestants around the world got down on their knees to thank Britain, Netherlands, Germany and Denmark for providing safe havens to people with no money, no food and no language other than French.

Hels said...


Thank goodness Peter Nash's parents kept all their written records, relics and photos, from Berlin and Shanghai.

Sam Moshinsky published Goodbye Shanghai: A Memoir (in 2009). His book shows how they were sustained in their beloved Shanghai haven by their Russian Jewish culture and community. He too was very grateful to his parents for their completely documented treasures.

bazza said...

Is it known what happened to those officials who helped so many people? I wonder if their fate was similar to that of Raoul Wallenberg.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s Arcadian Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

bazza said...

I forgot to add that tomorrow morning (Sunday) I will be leading my walking group to Fairlop Waters a mile from here. That was where, in 1944 when it was an aerodrome, Supermarine Spitfires were scrambled to seek out the Scharnhorst (and the Gneisenau). It seems that fog and mist in the Thames estuary prevented them being sighted.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It's kind of sad that what stands out is the relatively few places that did accept Jewish refugees, although for those that did and those who enabled the flow it is much to their credit.

On a matter of less moment, you mentioned that the refugees had to boil their water. Even today, almost everyone in Taiwan, including me, still boils the drinking water. (I also triple-filter all water that will be consumed.)

Hels said...


good question.
Sugihara was sent back to Japan, dishonoured and discharged from his position. Since Japan was Germany's ally, Sugihara probably expected it.
Ho Feng-Shan's career continued; his punishment didn't come until he retired from the Foreign Service and was denied a pension.
Tadeusz Romer was the most successful; he became Foreign Minister of the Polish Government in Exile in 1944-5. However even Romer had to leave Poland straight after the war.

Hels said...


it is a very small world indeed. I had never heard of the Scharnhorst until Peter Nash's book came out.

Hels said...


the boiled drinking water, I believe, was highly symbolic. Berliners were the most pedantic, clean and orderly people on the planet; apparently Berlin women used to iron even their undies! So finding unclean drinking water and unsewered, shared toilets shocked the German refugees to the core. And made Shanghai's generosity stand out even more.

Unknown said...

I hope my memories are as wonderful at 82.


Hels said...

koi seo

Agreed. I am finding my long term memory is still fine, but my short term memories are falling out of the grey matter. So the answer is: write everything down! Sad but true.

Joseph said...

You mentioned -Goodbye Shanghai- by Sam Moshinsky before, a fascinating book. The publishers wrote During his seventeen years in Shanghai, Sam experienced wars, changing regimes, different currencies and a variety of schools that reflected the evolving political landscape. In a world obsessed with conflicting nationalism, his family survived as stateless residents. Through Sam's memories of early life and his love of history, we learn of Shanghai's uniqueness as a home and haven to thousands of Jews over many centuries.

Hels said...


quite right..many thanks.

The reference was in "Jewish Shanghai 1850-1950: safe haven"

WoofWoof said...

Very interesting post. It makes me think of the film, The White Countess. That film really opened to what a cosmopolitan place Shanghai was. Although, the main family were Russian refugees, their neighbour was a Jewish man. It also brings out how awful it must have been when the Japanese invaded (and then later on when the communists took over). Interesting that one of the comments above is from someone living in Taiwan which is of course the continuation of the nationalist government of China which fought as one of the great powers in the second world war. Also, an interesting link with your later piece on Edward and Mrs Simpson. She was living in Shanghai in the 1930s, and mixed with fascist sympathisers there.

Hels said...


Shanghai must have been an amazing city for years before the first German and Austrian refugees escaped from Europe in 1935.

Have a look at "Wallis: Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor" (1988) by Charles Higham. In 1916 Wallis met an married Winfield Spencer, a naval aviator. He was a sadistic alcoholic and in 1921 she left him but later agreed to join him in China. The American state files produced clear evidence that Wallis Spencer was hired as an agent for Naval Intelligence. The purpose of her visit to China, where she accompanied her husband who also worked for Intelligence, was to carry secret papers between the American Government and the warlords they supported against the Communists. In Peking her consort for a time was Alberto de Zara, Naval Attaché at the Italian Embassy, a Mussolini enthusiast. Wallis’ enthusiasm for the Italian dictatorship was shared with her husband, Winfield Spencer.

While living in Shanghai in 1924-25, Wallis Simpson had an affair with the handsome fascist Count Galeazzo Ciano, who was later to become the son-in-law of Benito Mussolini. The affair resulted in a pregnancy, and a carelessly carried out abortion had left Wallis unable to have children. Wallis and Winfield Spencer returned to the USA in late 1925 but divorced in 1927.