Read an Excerpt
MAY 1939 • THE YEAR OF THE HARE
SHANGHAI’S WATERFRONT OFFERED an imposing view of a
wide street lined with massive stone buildings that ranged from
square and squat to tall and towering. Colorful flags whipped gaily in
the wind from several rooftops. Mutti gasped, and pointed to a large,
gray stone building. From its balcony flew the offensive red, white,
and black flag of Hitler’s German Reich -- the huge, hateful swastika
fluttered mockingly in the breeze under a clear china-blue sky.
My father took one look at the arrogant display of Nazi presence
on foreign soil and turned to Mutti. “We shouldn’t be surprised, after
all. Don’t you remember the Fuehrer’s threatening promise? He said
that his ‘arm was long and would reach around the world.’ We have
come more than halfway across the globe,” he sighed, “only to see that
the madman kept his word.”
“This must be the German Consulate, Martin.” Mutti had
recovered her voice and she sounded calm and soothing. “And judging
from all these flags, this must be Consulate Row. Let’s just hope Herr
Hitler will have to eat his words. Let’s not cross bridges that haven’t
been built yet; let’s not create new phantoms.”
My mother! Always finding words that smoothed over the ugliest
moments and lessened the sting of the insult. With a combination of
Jewish resignation and boundless courage, she held together the
fragile threads of our souls.
No more time to ponder or to worry. We each grabbed our
suitcase and, without a look back, walked down the gangplank. We had
no idea what was to happen next. We had been informed on board ship
that a representative of the new Jewish community would meet us and
take us to a shelter. We had no idea what that meant.
Beginning to perspire profusely in the moist heat, we put our
suitcases down and, as though looking for strength and encouragement
from each other, held hands and began to take in the scenery
around us. It was quite a sight!
Why, it was nothing like the pretty pictures of fragrant gardens,
petite silk-clad ladies, butterflies, and flowers. The air was thick and
moist, filled with the strangest pungent odors. Not at all pleasant.
Mother insisted it was heavy with the smell of human excrement and
urine. It turned out she was right.
Coolies in dark cotton pants and sweat-stained tunics, each
with a wide, peaked straw hat tied under his chin, with flimsy straw
sandals on bare feet, carried heavy loads suspended from a bamboo
pole on his shoulders. The muscles on the calves of their legs bulged
like knotted ropes. Their loud singsong, which sounded something
like “Yeho-Heho,” mingled with the cries of street vendors offering
their goods. Thick throngs of pedestrians snaked their way through
the streets. Hordes of people on bicycles, their bells clanging shrilly,
competed with carts and automobiles for the slightest hint of a break
in the traffic. An armada of rickshaws pulled by sweat-dripping coolies
darted in dangerous maneuvers in and out of the teeming mass of
urgent humans. A few wildly honking and swerving automobiles added
to the confusion of the city’s traffic.
In this symphony of sounds and smells, filthy beggars -- men,
women, and children -- their bodies barely covered by pitiful rags,
exposing nasty sores -- littered the dockside and packed every available
nook and doorway of the handsome, broad riverfront street. In high
singsong voices, they cried out for alms. Food peddlers cooked and
fried their offerings over portable charcoal fires, and peddlers offered
their wares from baskets suspended from a bamboo pole. Turbanclad,
bearded Sikhs in wilted khaki uniforms -- complete with swagger
sticks -- directed traffic and appeared ornamental rather than effective
in the midst of the surging crowds.
And above all this clamoring hubbub, there hovered over the city
a mass of dirty, cloying air as thick and as moist as a hot-water-soaked
sponge that threatened to drown us. Breathing was like sucking on
warm, wet cotton balls. How could we get used to that, I wondered.
Like many of our fellow refugees, Mutti pressed a snowy handkerchief
against her nose to ward off the offensive smells. Dressed in
our thick European travel clothes, we soon were hot and sticky. Finally,
several men appeared on the scene and made their way to where we
were waiting. They introduced themselves as representatives of the new
Jewish community. One man stepped on a wooden box and over the
din of the city tried to make himself heard.
His name was Werner Silberman, formerly of Berlin. He informed
us that we would be transported to a place called Hongkew, an area
adjacent to the International Settlement. Hongkew had been “won”
from the Chinese in 1937 by the Japanese war machine and was still
occupied by the victors, who invited Jews to settle there.
He went on to explain that Shanghai was divided into several
areas: the International Settlement, leased by the British for ninety-nine
years, was the heart of the city, beginning at the riverfront. Then
there was the Concession Française, a pleasant residential area, tucked
in where the International Settlement ended. The huge Chinese
Quarter was off-limits to foreigners, he warned, unless of course a
person wanted to vanish from the face of the earth.
“One step inside those gates,” he warned, pointing vaguely to
his right, “and you’re gone, disappeared, never to be found again.” I
wondered what the Chinese did to foreigners there, and why. I had a
lot to learn.
I listened carefully as he continued his description. I learned that
Hongkew, our destination, sat on the other side of Soochow Creek, just
a few blocks away from where the Gneisenau had docked. That part of
the city had been occupied by the Japanese since the Chinese-Japanese
war, and bore the scars of destruction from air raids and shellings. It
certainly wasn’t the high-rent district, Mr. Silberman said, shaking his
head in a funny way, but it was a beginning. Five buildings in that area
had been set aside for Heime (temporary shelters) for arriving refugees,
providing a free-of-charge roof over their heads until they were able to
make their own arrangements for living quarters. The sooner people
moved on, the quicker room and aid became available for new arrivals.
Shanghai’s Jewish community of old-timers was a bit overwhelmed by
the thousands of refugees seeking shelter. Few of the new arrivals had
any money to speak of and depended on the Heime for a place to sleep
and some food in their stomachs -- at least it offered a “home.”
Two large trucks rumbled toward our hot and weary group of
travelers, which had thinned out a bit. Some of the refugees had been
picked up by family members or friends who had preceded them to
the Orient. How nice it must have been for them to be met by familiar
faces -- relatives who already knew their way around.
We crowded into the open truck bed, sat on our luggage, and
held on to each other as the driver slowly weaved his way through
the heavy traffic. When a big bridge came into view, we were told it
was the Garden Bridge that crossed Soochow Creek and that it had
two owners. The first half of the bridge belonged to the International
Settlement, and the second half was claimed by the Japanese. Soochow
Creek divided the city into two territories: the English “occupied”
International Settlement and the Japanese-occupied Hongkew. The
first half of the bridge was patrolled by British and the second half by
Japanese soldiers. But just the same, people were free to come and go
as they pleased. Sometimes the Japanese soldiers played the role of the
big conqueror and pestered the Chinese citizens crossing the bridge by
searching their meager bundles. More often than not, they confiscated
a few handfuls of rice, food items, a trinket, or whatever caught their
eyes. These two nations had hated each other for centuries. Chinese
people called their enemy “apes.”
After we crossed Soochow Creek, the neighborhood changed
drastically. Grubby row houses with open storefronts lined one side of
the waterfront street. The sidewalks were littered. Chinese women sat
on low stools in front of houses, smoking cigarettes and shrieking at
toddlers and noisy children. Some women were nursing their babies,
swatting at the flies that rose in hordes from the spills of dirt-clogged gutters only to land on the nearest heap of foul trash. Here and there
a brazen rat scurried around in broad daylight between the shabby row
houses that sat next to the gaping holes of bombed-out buildings. On
the river side of the street, the docks hosted rusty and tired merchant
ships of all sizes that screamed of neglect and old age. Perhaps this was
the graveyard for rust buckets no longer seaworthy, someone on our
From their resting places in the stinking gutters, mangy dogs with
whip-like tails, eyes inflamed and dripping pus, chased unwelcome flies.
Children played on the street, oblivious to the small rivers of urine that
trickled into the gutters, and skipped nonchalantly around the small
heaps of human feces. Here and there, men and boys, with their backs
turned to the street, faced the wall of a row house and urinated. Kids
squatted in the middle of the sidewalk, right where they played, doing
“Spitfire.” Mr. Silberman explained that little Chinese children
wore pants that were split open on the bottom for convenience. He held
his nose in a mock gesture of shutting out bad odors.
I hadn’t seen a garden with petite ladies yet. However, the whole
scene of load-toting coolies, singsong vendors, food purveyors, pennyseeking
beggars covered in sores and with grotesquely swollen legs,
rickety rickshaws and bicycles, and throngs of people on the move, had
not changed. Mutti looked from Mr. Silberman to me and said, “Well,
this is Shanghai, after all. It’s not Paris, London, Rome, or home.”
Right there, young and as green as I was, I made up my mind
that I would have as little as possible to do with China. I would keep it
at arm’s length. Shanghai would serve as a waiting place. A place to go
from to a place of “home.” I would think of myself as a girl Robinson
Crusoe -- shipwrecked on an island, waiting for a ship to rescue me and
bring me back home.
The kaleidoscope of new impressions was too much for one day.
Mutti closed her eyes, shutting out the chatter and clatter that never
ceased. Vati looked around with a closed face, constantly wiping thick
beads of perspiration from his face with his soggy handkerchief. If it was
this hot in the month of May, I said to myself, what would August be
like? I was dripping, too, and -- like my father -- had taken off my jacket,
but it was not much help.
Barely avoiding a collision with a wildly weaving, rattly old
automobile, our driver suddenly turned away from the harbor side
and entered the web of crowded, narrow, intersecting streets of inner
Hongkew. Finally, we came to stop at a large, run-down building that
squatted in an equally run-down courtyard, where a handful of refugees
had gathered to greet the new arrivals.
A dark-haired lady in a simple cotton dress stepped forward
when the truck squealed to a stop, and with a friendly smile welcomed
us in a heavy, unmistakable Viennese dialect. We climbed down from
the truck, grabbed our suitcases, and on unsteady sea legs, followed
her into the building. A blending of fried onions, stewed cabbage, and
a hint of 4711 Cologne greeted us when we entered a large hall-like
room. Several rows of rough wooden tables and benches for eating and
meeting occupied the center of the hall. The rest of the area was divided
into cubicles equipped with two to four cots, which were separated from
each other by flimsy sheets or thin blankets hung on clotheslines in an
attempt to provide a semblance of privacy.
The Austrian lady, who introduced herself as Frau Wilna, directed
us to choose an unoccupied cubicle and to lock our luggage when we
left it. She warned haltingly, clearly embarrassed to suggest thievery
among “our” people.
She recovered her poise and explained that Wayside Home was
one of several refugee shelters where people stayed until they were able
to be on their own. “Some refugees have lived at the shelters for over
a year, and they may never leave,” she said. She told us that a “soup
kitchen” served simple Eintopf (one-pot) meals, and warned us about
buying food at the open markets -- especially fresh fruit.
We were instructed to wash all our fresh fruits and vegetables
in potassium permanganate to kill bacteria on the skins. Watermelons
were off-limits because Chinese farmers cultivated their crops with
human fertilizer and, to add weight to the fruit, injected them with
dirty, unboiled water. Typhoid and cholera still existed in Shanghai, and
diarrhea was as common as a cold in the nose.
“Never,” she cautioned us, “eat or use anything that has touched
the floor. If you drop your handkerchief, wash it.” Her litany of
dangers lurking to pounce included beggars, gangsters, pickpockets,
thieves, purse snatchers, treacherous rickshaw coolies, and crooked
Her final stern advice was to not change U.S. dollars into Chinese
yen with street moneychangers, who would cheat us and rob and kill
us. Use the American Express office for currency exchange. Don’t buy
anything from a vendor without haggling.
“Always ask the rickshaw coolie the amount of the fare to your
destination in advance, then offer him half as much and stand fast.
And, for God’s sake,” she added emphatically, “do not ever rescue a
Chinese human being. Not a baby, child, man, or woman. If you do, you
will be responsible for the life you saved. You will have interfered with
Buddha’s will and will have to pay for it.”
Next, preceded by a gush of apology, Mrs. Wilna finally drew us a
picture of the bathroom facilities. “Hygiene,” she called it, “is bad here.
It’s very bad. We have only two cement bathtubs, and no hot water.
Someone rigged a cold water shower. It, too, is primitive. Worst of all
are the toilets.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “We do not
have water closets, just honey pots,” she confessed, and described the
shameful wooden, barrel-like receptacles for human waste.
“Please,” she urged, “help us keep that area as clean as possible.
What with hordes of flies and other insects, it’s a cesspool of disease
just waiting to get you. A coolie comes every morning to empty the
pots and cleans them after a fashion, but there are so many of us, that
we often, uh, overflow … ” She looked embarrassed and flustered at
having had to mention the subject at all. Some people, she said, unable
to cope with the honey pots, actually walked all the way to town every
day to one of the hotels on the Bund, where they bribed servants with a
few “coppers” (pennies) to use a bathroom. I thought of Guenther, our
steward, and his description of a slum city. He knew what he was talking
about, I just hadn’t really believed him.
Stunned by the process of living in a festering slum with dangers
at every turn, we dragged our luggage to the next empty space that
held three cots and ate our first meal in Shanghai, a spicy Hungarian
stew. Later, Vati, standing helplessly in the “doorway” of our quarters,
vowed, “We won’t stay here but one night. I promise. This is unbearable,”
Again, Mutti’s calm took over. “Let’s take one thing at a time,”
she said. “We have found a cheap hotel, and that’s better than no place.
Tomorrow,” she quipped, “we’ll move into the Ritz.”
Vati just looked at her, shaking his head.
Exhausted and depressed from trying to absorb and digest all
the strange and new impressions of the day, Mutti pulled the sheet
that served as our “door” closed and dropped onto her cot. Vati and
I followed suit. Nobody said a word for a long while, listening instead
to the conversational hum from around us. There was a sudden
movement in the cubicle next to my cot when a hand dented the sheet,
and a man’s voice shouted a friendly “willkommen.”
The owner of the voice announced that he was Joseph Podowski, and that he came from
“We’re from Breslau,” Vati replied. “My name is Martin Blomberg.
Forgive me for not getting up to meet you, but we’re pretty tired. It has
been a long day, and we need some time to ourselves. Like everybody
else, I guess, we are overwhelmed and haven’t had time to sort out the
reality of it all.”
Mr. Podowski cheerfully wished us good night, adding his
promise to meet the following day. How could we not meet? We were
living in each other’s pocket.
Mutti retrieved our nightwear from one of the suitcases, and
before turning in we had to find the well-described bathroom. We
followed the posted cardboard sign and ended up on the roof of the
building. The location of the honey pots was easily identified by the
overpowering odor of human excrement and urine that assaulted us.
Mutti took one look at the obscene row of “honey pots” that
squatted on the open rooftop, partly sheltered by a makeshift tin shedlike
roof, pinched her nose shut, and closed the ineffective, flimsy curtain
behind her. Within minutes she reappeared, motioning me to do what I
had to do, her thumb and forefinger never leaving her nostrils.
I don’t want to talk about that place -- except that going to the
bathroom on the roof of a building, under a tin umbrella and in plain
view of anyone on the neighboring rooftops, was a bit unnerving. Both
Mutti and I were close to tears, but I was too tired to let go. Crying was
just one more effort I didn’t want to make.
I joined my mother in the so-called “bathroom,” with its two
cement tubs and several chipped and stained sinks with rusted faucets.
A thin stream of cold, yellowish water trickled stingily from clogged
openings. I reached for the soap; there wasn’t any. A young woman with
thick, wavy long hair, who was doing her toilette at the sink next to me,
handed me a bar of fragrant lavender soap.
she smiled. “You must be new here, otherwise you she smiled. “You must be new here, otherwise you would know to bring your own soap and towel. Ask Frau Wilna to give
you some towels; soap you have to buy yourself.”
I shared the soap and one end of our benefactor’s towel with
Mutti, who thanked the young woman profusely, embarrassed that she
had not given a thought to the possible absence of some of the mundane
objects of daily grooming.
Back in our cubicle, Mother pulled the sheet across the opening
to our space and warned me to keep my underwear on. “There are so
many people around us, we don’t know what to expect,” she muttered
in a low voice. A few minutes later, when Vati returned from his trip to
the men’s quarters, his face was even grimmer than before -- his eyes
flat, his breath shallow.
“Good God in Heaven,” he whispered hoarsely, “what kind of
a hellhole is this place? This is horrible! This country invented gun
powder and porcelain before anyone else on the globe. The Chinese
weave the most intricate patterns of fine silks, they carve ivory and jade
pieces that defy European craftsmanship and artistry, but they can’t
build a damn water closet, a bathtub, have clean water? This is the
twentieth century. What have I done to us? What?”
He sat on his cot and buried his face in his hands. His body shook,
and harsh sounds of sobbing emerged from behind his slender fingers.
I was stunned. My father -- that strong, tall, erect man -- was crying. I
had never seen him like that. My whole insides quivered.
Mother stepped over to the huddled figure of despair, wrapped
her arms around his shoulders, brought him close to her, and shushed
him, speaking softly. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but Vati
soon recovered from his outburst and said good night in a quiet,
I stretched out on my cot and looked around me. Mutti had
hung our traveling clothes from one of the rods that held the sheets
dividing the cubicles. The main bare-bulb ceiling lights that illuminated
the big hall were still on, and the place two hundred people or more
called “home” for the night was buzzing with conversation. There was
laugher, chattering, and visiting, without a thought for those boneweary,
worn-out souls who yearned for silence and sleep.
Adding another layer of discomfort was the oppressive, humid,
and fetid air. It was so hot and stuffy in our tight quarters that I doubted
I’d ever go to sleep. Then I realized with a jolt that I had never ever
slept in the same room with my parents. I had never seen them undress.
I became even more uncomfortable at this forced intimacy, which I had
never experienced before. I closed my eyes against the light. I tried to
shut out the busy noises around me and forced my mind to create the
same dream world I had been able to conjure up ever since I was a
little girl, lonely for someone to tell me a story.
I returned to my big room at Marienhall, with its lovely furnishings,
silken down covers, and rich side drapes. I always loved the
tall French windows that stood open and looked out to the gardens,
with the sheer white curtains that billowed in the jasmine-and-rosescented
air. The mysterious rustling of the wind in the trees outside
talked to me, and a full moon made dancing shadows on the lofty
ceiling of my room.
I must have been asleep for a while when I woke up to the heartbreaking
sounds of Mutti’s soft sobbing. As I shook myself awake, I
heard harsh panting noises and the persistent sounds of rhythmic
motions coming from one of our neighbor’s quarters. I heard people
talking in foreign languages, their voices hushed. Outside of our circle,
people were coming and going in the night. Occasionally a child cried
or a baby complained, and all around me were the unpleasant, clinging
odors of crowded humanity.
Some of the lights had been turned off, but the big room was
far from dark. I wanted to go to my mother’s side and say something
nice to her, but I didn’t know the words. I was sad, forlorn, empty,
and hollow. Purposefully, I forced my mind to reach back and create
once again the soul-soothing images of the same dream, spun from
yesterday’s beauty and safety.