They are Chinese. They never went to university. They barely speak Hebrew or even English. But nobody can challenge their knowledge of Jewish history – at least not on the subject of Jews in Shanghai during the 1940s – as they lived among some 20,000 Jewish refugees for years.
From late 1941 to 1945, the Jewish refugees who fled from war-torn Europe to Japanese-occupied Shanghai, the only place in the world that did not require a visa to enter, were restricted to live in an area of about 2.5 square kilometers in the poor Hongkou District, together with the local Chinese.
The Chinese seldom speak this part of history to the public, neither do they share it with their families. However, that does not mean those silent Chinese do not remember it. As interviews with several of them demonstrate, many still keep a vivid picture of their Jewish neighbors in their mind.
Here are three people’s memories:
Zhuang Xiumei: Jewish always say ‘Hello’ to me
Sixty-three years ago, Zhuang Xiumei moved into a three-floor house at 71 Zhoushan Road, where two 30-year-old Jews lived.
At that time, Zhuang worked in a shoe factory from early morning and seldom socialized with her upstairs Jewish neighbors. Sometimes, they happened to meet on the stairs and always had the same conversation.
“Hello,” the tall Jewish man nodded to Zhuang with a smile.
“Hello,” Zhuang repeated, although she had no idea what this word meant.
That is where the conversion would end.
As a Chinese woman in her 20s, she was too shy to keep the conversion going, explained Zhuang. But she watched them curiously.
The Jewish woman lived on the second floor and the Jewish man on the third, Zhuang said. The woman usually wore a coat or a long dress, while the man wore suits – probably on their way to meet clients, she said. Both of them ate Western food, such as bread, and went out for business during the day, she added.
Like most Jews there, Zhuang says the two neighbors from upstairs left Shanghai in 1950.
But she and her husband, 88, still keep a white wooden table that the Jews left to them, and live in the same room of the unchanged black-brick building.
“Sometimes, I look through the window, watching the people in the street come and go. I thought I could find my two Jewish neighbors again. But I did not,” sighs Zhuang. “Even if we can meet, they may not recognize me, because I was a young girl when they lived here. But now, my hair is white and my teeth are gone.”
Although her Jewish neighbors never came back, Zhuang says she did see young Jewish visitors walking around her house and going upstairs. “They must be the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of my Jewish neighbors,” Zhuang figured. “They also said hello to me.”
Cao Xingfu: Jewish life was bittersweet
Sitting in the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, Cao Xingfu sings a song that he learned from the Jews in the early 1940s.
Cao had a hardware store in front of the synagogue. As he helped the Jews fix their pipes and taught them Chinese, many good friendships were formed. Even these days he still receives gifts – rice, noodles and towels – from some unknown Jewish visitors.
Asked his impression about Jewish refugees, the answer is short – smart, poor and happy.
Cao still remembers the many Jewish shops in his neighborhood, selling clothes, cigarettes and offering all kinds of services. A Jewish friend of his, who invented a type of cleaning equipment, attracted lots of clients – even the locals, he says.
Life for other Jews was much harder. “Once I saw a Chinese turning grindstones, which is considered a demanding job for donkeys. Two days later, the Chinese left, and a Jew was doing the job. Can you imagine it? That Jew must have been in a very bad economic situation.”
However, it seems that the Jews, rich or not, enjoyed their life. They went for coffee in the evening, they chatted in the street, and sometimes they danced and sang in the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, recalls Cao.
More than six decades later, on a cloudy winter afternoon, the 83-year-old man was again singing the Jewish song in the empty synagogue. “Actually I do not understand this song very well, but I remember they were very happy when they sang it together.”
Xu Zhaodi: Jewish were our good neighbors
Growing up among the Jews gave Xu Zhaodi a “Jewish brother.”
“While in Shanghai, do as the Chinese do.” Perhaps this was the slogan that led Xu’s middle-aged Jewish neighbor to call the elders “yeye” (grandfather) and “nainai” (grandmother), which is the traditional way to address elderly Chinese and show respect. He also called Xu “meimei” (sister) as if they were family. “Sometimes, he saw me on the street and asked, ‘Meimei, are you on your way to school?’” says Xu.
According to Xu, her family has a very good impression of their Jewish neighbors.
“Actually, neither my family nor other Chinese living here had problems with the Jews. Everybody says the Jews are very polite,” she points out.
Along with being respectful, the Jews also brought Xu a sweet childhood.
The Jews took care of the kids, she says. “I felt regret when they left. They used to give me candies that I never got from my Chinese neighbors.”
Xu is 76 years old now. She lost connection with the Jewish refugees since they left, and says that had she been given a chance to talk with her “Jewish brother” again, she would like to know how he is.
“Chinese were quite poor at that time, but now things are much better – we have pension and insurance,” she continues. “The Jews had a hard time as well. I hope their current life is also good, hope it’s even better than ours.”
Photo courtesy of Flickr