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Shanghai refugees

Statue outside Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum [Allison Griner/Al Jazeera]

I first encountered Shanghai refugees in my grandparents’ homes on a hospital grounds in small-town New Jersey. Shanghai was not a conversational topic in their home or mine, although evidences of Shanghai were everywhere. Prominently displayed in their house were a view of Shanghai on the living room wall and countless figurines of wood, ceramic, and jade. In my own home, I particularly liked a laughing, seated wooden Buddha in our dining room.

I knew only the outlines of Josef and Amalia Hochstädt’s stories, told in their Viennese accents as a short series of facts about their previous lives, or gleaned from photographs proudly displayed.

Interviews and this exhibit can recover a great deal about the Jewish experience of surviving the Holocaust. But some people were lost completely and their stories will never be told.

Josef served as a young medical officer in the Kaiser’s army. Later his gynecological practice in Vienna supported a luxurious and cultured life. Amalia played piano, her brother Egon Peretz played violin, and some members of the Vienna Philharmonic came over to join them. When the Nazis took over and latent Viennese antisemitism exploded, they were unusually successful in rescuing their family. My father, Ernst Hochstädt, who had become Ernest Hochstadt by the time I arrived much later, left before Kristallnacht through Italy to Portugal, and sailed to the US. Amalia and Josef managed to get their 13-year-old daughter on the Kindertransport to England, and then they sailed to Shanghai on one of Lloyd Triestino’s ships, which was run by the family of Amalia’s good friend.

I only heard scraps of stories about their life in Shanghai, but I was surrounded by clues, especially at their house. Not only my grandmother’s recipes, but also the furniture, the dishes, the sculptures, and the silver had come around the world from Vienna, along with fine Chinese art objects. As a Jewish child, I knew that my family’s escape from the Holocaust had been remarkably smooth. I sensed early that their modest life in New Jersey, where my 60-year-old grandfather had managed to find a position as a gynecologist at a tuberculosis and mental health clinic, represented severe social decline. I thought the small colony of Viennese doctors there was a remarkable coincidence.

Under normal circumstances, I would have learned a lot about my grandparents and the whole Hochstädt-Peretz family in my own home. But there are no normal circumstances in refugees’ families. In my case, the sad circumstance was my father’s relationship with his parents. It was always clear to me that he was gleeful at age 18 to land in America, far from his own family. A few days after he arrived in 1938 with virtually nothing, he visited the very distant relative Amalia who had supplied the financial sponsorship for my father’s visa. There he thanked the man and encountered his 16-year-old tomboy niece, who played with her cousin there all the time. My mother Lenore. By the time my father could visit his parents in Shanghai in 1946, they had been married for 4 years. Despite that, my grandparents expressed to my father their concern that his marriage to a girl of the lower middle class was preventing him from pursuing further education, so he could be a doctor. My aunt, who had been brought to Shanghai from England after my grandparents settled in, was decidedly snooty to my mother, a characteristic demeanor that she maintained her whole life.

Those slights to my mother were fateful, but they fit into an amusing refugee story. At some point, my mother’s parents, both employed in New York’s clothing industry, said something like, “What? You’re going to marry that penniless refugee?” The social derogation suffered by nearly all refugees leads inevitably to difficult social situations. The amusing part is that they didn’t really care at all and heartily accepted my father into their family.

So my father did not regale me with Hochstädt family history. He was a dutiful son, taking our family to see his parents in New Jersey regularly from Long Island where we lived, later flying the whole family out to Santa Monica in southern California after they moved there, and eventually moving with my mother to within miles of their apartment.

My father represents to me one typical refugee reaction to uprooting: he became American. Unlike virtually every other German-speaking refugee I have met, he spoke English with no accent. He learned to love baseball and he spoke to his parents in English.

My serious study of the Shanghai refugees began informally with Amalia after Josef had died, not yet an historical project, but a family history project, in the early 1980s. She talked happily in front of my tape recorder and told stories which amazed me. I interviewed her again in 1987.

As I learned how much fun it was to talk with people about Shanghai and their whole lives of survival, I found out by chance that a group of former Shanghai Jews, some refugees, some not, were going to have a Seder reunion in Shanghai in 1989. That spring was a fateful year for China and for me, as I decided to make the Shanghai refugees a personal project. I saw the early stages of the protests that led eventually to the Tiananmen Square massacre and met people who changed the direction of my historical career.

Over the next ten years, I interviewed 100 former Shanghai Jews, nearly all German-speaking refugees, who lived in Vienna, Berlin, Israel, and the US. I wrote two books based on those interviews, one German, one English, and many smaller pieces. I met the other scholars across the world who shared my passion. But I never wrote about my grandparents.

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My initial impression that becoming a refugee in China was easier on my grandparents than on others became the realization that Amalia and Josef did not share any of the characteristic experiences of other refugees: being made penniless by Nazi bureaucracy; giving up their last possessions in order to leave; scrounging for survival in Shanghai; being forced into the Designated Area in 1943; desperately trying to find a way out of China after 1945. Instead they brought my grandfather’s office and their dining room furniture with them to Shanghai, lived in an 8-room apartment in the International Settlement, had a cook who learned to prepare Viennese dishes, and were inscribed on a list of mostly doctors who got Japanese permission to avoid the Designated Area. In my efforts to establish a rapport with the former refugees with whom I talked, I did not discuss the very different and relatively privileged life of my grandparents.

Amalia and Josef employed resources well beyond what most Jews could expend. They got their children and themselves onto the best lists. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum says, “By 1938, you could expect to wait for at least two years for a visa,” yet they managed to procure one for my father. The Kindertransport was designed to rescue especially impoverished children or those with a parent in a camp, but they found a place for their daughter. Only about 1% of refugees were officially allowed by the Japanese to remain outside of the Designated Area.

Their resources included determination. While they were allowed to remain in central Shanghai, they had to give up their apartment to a Korean man working with the Japanese. An Indian gentleman, who must have been a patient of my grandfather, allowed them to move into his compound, which included an office so my grandfather could continue his practice. When the War was over, Amalia went to see the Korean and told him they wanted their apartment back. He initially refused, but Amalia said that her son, my father, in the US Army was coming soon and would deal with him forcefully. He left and they moved back into their comfortable lives. They stayed until 1949, in no hurry to get out of decolonizing Shanghai until the Red Army approached.

That’s what my grandmother told me. My aunt told me that the story was not true, that her mother didn’t have the bravery for such a negotiation. Again the difficult internal dynamics of my family got in the way of fully understanding their refugee experiences.

I was nearly 40 years old when I interviewed Amalia. Reading the transcript is embarrassing now. I knew much too little about the Shanghai refugees to ask good questions. I had not yet learned to jot down names and places that might be confusing later. I interrupted too much. My grandparents seemed to have led a charmed life at every stage.

When I first became aware of my grandparents’ personalities, my grandfather was already 70, was not very talkative, and expressed opinions as facts. I was not prepared for story after story of how people with important connections made things happen for my grandparents in Vienna and Shanghai, including the Japanese man who got them on the short list to remain in central Shanghai.

Not everything, however, turned out as they wanted. While Jews in Vienna after the Anschluss desperately sought escape routes, Amalia arranged for a very distant relation in New York to vouch for my father and for a job for Ernst in Washington with a well-connected lawyer. Instead of following his fortune, my father followed his heart, married my mother, got a job in the clothing industry, and earned a scathing letter from Josef. Amalia and Josef were remarkably successful refugees, but not such good parents.

They represent a second type of refugee, like many who became refugees as adults. They retained many of the attitudes they had developed in Vienna. Wherever they lived, they sought out other Viennese Jews. They saved as much as they could from their former lives. But much was lost forever. There was a piano in my grandparents’ homes, but I never saw my grandmother play it.

As this exhibit at the Jewish Museum shows, it is still possible to hear new stories from Shanghai refugees. I believe there is no more important Shanghai document than an interview transcript. Taken together, interviews with former refugees will write the history of their unique experiences. There are limitations, however. The great majority of the first-hand narratives in memoirs and interviews have been given by people whose childhoods in Europe ended suddenly with their trip to Shanghai. Even the few older interview partners tend to begin their stories with their departure from a life in Europe which appears rosy in comparison with what came after.

My own family’s story suffers from that disruption. My grandfather’s sister, Rosa Hochstädt, a dentist in Graz, did not go to Shanghai. She was arrested and sent to Theresienstadt in 1942 and to Auschwitz in 1944, where she was murdered. My grandparents never talked about her. Why? Why didn’t she go to Shanghai, too? Did she also suffer from the discordant Hochstädt family dynamics? Was there guilt about her death?

Most survivors keep the most difficult parts of their Holocaust stories to themselves. Former Shanghai refugees are no exception. In my interviews, they talked easily about hygienic deficiencies of Shanghai, the prevalence of disease, the abuses of the Japanese, and the insufficiency of food. Although few of them had ever been formally interviewed, those stories had been rehearsed before. The immense family tragedies that form the foundation of every refugee’s life and may have never been told, might erupt unexpectedly with bursts of emotion, revealing hidden personal truths. More likely, they don’t surface in interviews at all. My grandmother may have explained why Rosa was never mentioned, when she said, “But you forget about, you, you don't want to remember this kind of things.”

Now everyone who can answer those questions is dead. Interviews and this exhibit can recover a great deal about the Jewish experience of surviving the Holocaust. But some people were lost completely and their stories will never be told.

steve hochstadt

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives