||read the review
Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4
I had a buddy in high school, name of Herschel, who had
blond hair and blue eyes. The odd thing is that his eyes cast an
Asian look about him, though whenever we asked him about
this remarkably distinct feature he replied only, "I was born in
Shanghai." I knew from reading Jewish history that there was a
Jewish community there just as there are in many areas of the
non-Western world but not until I saw "Shanghai Ghetto" was I
able to visualize just what this Chinese-based extended family
was all about. Come to think of it, even after seeing "Shanghai
Ghetto," I'm still wondering how this fellow was born other than
through a union of German-Jewish and Chinese
parents because there is no such indication of cross-cultural
conjugation in the 95-minute documentary filmed and edited
over a period of five years by Dana Janklowicz-Mann (whose
son is one of the leading interviewees) and Amir Mann. After
all, the 20,000 Jews living in the title Shanghai Ghetto were a
pretty closed group in that the occupation forces in control of the
large city may not have enclosed them by behind walls but
required passes of those who wished to leave the area by day.
As you watch this doc, you become aware of one of the most
unusual ironies of the 20th Century, chief of which is that the
saviors of this fairly large group of escaping Jews, mostly from
Germany but some from Russia and Poland as well, are not the
Americans or even the Chinese, but rather the Japanese
occupiers who allowed them into the country.
Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann open the film with the
obligatory introduction, indicating that during the 1930s, Jews in
Berlin were as a whole prosperous and in the professions.
Ironically, their loyalty to Germany, their assimilation into the
country is resented by the Nazis who took power in 1933 and
incited the Master Race by indicting the Jews for "taking over"
the German practices of law and medicine and the like. After
Kristalnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass in which hundreds
of Jewish stores were smashed and later synagogues burned to
the ground beginning in 1938-- many Jews wanted out while
others felt that the troubles would soon end. But who would
take them? For all the love that Jews even today have for
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Roosevelt dillied and dallied and would
not issue more than a token number of visas to allow German
Jews refuge in the U.S.
Those who sailed to Shanghai, other than the restricted
territory of British Palestine willing to accept refugees, did so
because (and here's another irony) the Japanese occupation,
for political reasons, did not require visas to enter. That's not
all: many of the refugees traveled the 8,000 to this new, old
world by Japanese steamship, which departed from Genoa, Italy
and housed the lucky emigrants able to raise the money to take
the voyage. When they arrived, they settled into the poorest
area of the large city and later, after a while were restricted to a
ghetto. Lucky for them that they were not Americans, since
after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were the enemies of the U.S.
and England but did little to harm the German Jews were
resided in Shanghai.
Janklowicz and Mann combine the usual talking-heads
interviewing technique with stock footage, obviously grainy after
some sixty years, showing the utter poverty and crowded
conditions of the Chinese, and while the Jews shared the
penury, they ironically did not think of themselves as deprived
but instead lamented the awful conditions of the local
The interview subjects, all children at the time of the
disruption, include Harold Janklowicz, the father of the director,
who recalls his years under horrendous conditions, not realizing
that the Jews who remained behind in most of Europe fared
quite a bit worse. He and the other subjects I. Betty
Grebenschikoff, Sigmund Tobias and Evelyn Pike Rubin, all of
whom escaped from Germany describe how they would have
to leave the cooked rice on the windowsill for five or ten minutes
so that the bugs would crawl out before they could consume the
gruel. In some cases, noodles would spill out from trucks onto
the filthy streets, while starving children picked up the product
and sifted out the debris the broken glass as well as the dirt.
Because of the filthy bathroom conditions, the residents would
not shower but would instead sponge themselves in the one
room in which they'd reside.
One feature missing that makes this documentary less
involving than "Komediant" about Yiddish theater in the
U.S. is that the very nature of the subject precludes what we
call entertainment. Though brief mention is made of a cabaret
society that developed to entertain the refugees, this is not
developed, presumably because of the lack of footage of these
celebratory events. Another deficiency is the directors'
emphasis on the talking heads when stock footage might have
been used to a greater degree. At least one of the subjects, I.
Betty Grebenschikoff, delivers her talk in a monotone as though
emotionally dead from her experiences sixty years ago as
opposed to the far more lively Prof. Irene Eber, a Professor of
History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who did not have to
live through the misery but has done research in the area.
All in all, an instructive experience albeit one oddly lacking in
the emotion that the directors might be expected to bring to
such a terrible ordeal.
Copyright © 2002 Harvey Karten