Shanghai Diary

Shanghai Diary

4.5 8
by Ursula Bacon

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By the late 1930s, Europe sat on the brink of a world war. As the holocaust approached, many Jewish families in Germany fled to one of the only open port available to them: Shanghai. Once called "the armpit of the world," Shanghai ultimately served as the last resort for tens of thousands of Jews desperate to escape Hitler's "Final Solution." Against this

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By the late 1930s, Europe sat on the brink of a world war. As the holocaust approached, many Jewish families in Germany fled to one of the only open port available to them: Shanghai. Once called "the armpit of the world," Shanghai ultimately served as the last resort for tens of thousands of Jews desperate to escape Hitler's "Final Solution." Against this backdrop, 11-year-old Ursula Bacon and her family made the difficult 8,000-mile voyage to Shanghai, with its promise of safety. But instead of a storybook China, they found overcrowded streets teeming with peddlers, beggars, opium dens, and prostitutes. Amid these abysmal conditions, Ursula learned of her own resourcefulness and found within herself the fierce determination to survive.

Editorial Reviews
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
With the abundance of Holocaust literature in print, it's difficult to weigh one Holocaust memoir against another. While each life history has merit, the memoirs we select for the Discover program are those which bring something fresh to the genre. Ursula Bacon's memoir is a welcome addition, her story a much-needed side of a little known world -- the Shanghai ghetto.

By the late 1930s, Hitler had begun to roll over the European Jews he sought to extinguish, and many began to flee. Sadly, their choices for refuge were limited. North and South America refused to take them in, as did Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and many European nations. Bacon was one of nearly 20,000 Jewish refugees who left for Shanghai. Her riveting tale begins the night the Gestapo comes for her father, and follows her small family on their voyage to China.

Greeted at the Shanghai waterfront with Hitler's flag, Bacon's family has good reason to doubt that the city will provide a truly safe harbor for them. And while Bacon's early impressions of Shanghai are revolting -- beggars covered in sores, children eliminating waste in the street -- over time she is charmed by the exotic city that will be her home for seven years, until the bombs of the Japanese come crashing down.

Bacon unravels her tale with skill, recreating dialogue and scenes with a filmic precision, and includes photos from her time in exile. (Holiday 2004 Selection)

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Dark Horse Comics
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chapter 2

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 truck suggested.

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 their business.

“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 shopkeepers.

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,” he shuddered.

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 Stettin, Germany.

“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.

“Guten Abend,” 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, controlled voice.

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.

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4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book! Be sure to start with the first one, Eternal Strangers, so that you get the whole story.I had no idea that those persecuted in WW2 escapes to Shanghai. I personally know Ursula Bacon & her family.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This memoir on the under reported subject of WWll Holocaust survivors who fled to Shanghai to escape. It is especially accessible to teen readers who can gain insight to this coming of age description of life in Shanghair during the Japanese occupation. Written in straight forward, descriptive and honest language. The book illustrates how individual survival stories are unique and compelling.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want to really live the escape from Germany, and life in Shanghai, this book is a must read. It ranks with the Dairy of Ann Frank and Shindler's List in its ability to draw you into the life of the times.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Many people, including myself, were unaware of the fact that Jews fled from Hitler's Germany to Shanghai. This is an honest and inspirational book which reveals that the author and her family suffered much, yet managed to relect upon their lives with love and gratitude. Ms. Bacon is an inspiration for all of us. She also clarifies the importance of the study of the humanities and etiquette, as it was these two subjects that helped maintain her family's sense of humanity.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an outstanding book. I don't often read memoirs, and I'm still not sure why I picked this book up. I'm glad I did. Shanghai Diary is simply excellent, and should be a must read for everyone. It is filled with the pain of loss and the timeless wisdom that only such loss can bring. Please, read this book - you won't be disappointed.