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SHANGHAI GHETTO (director/producer/editor: Amir Mann/Dana Janklowicz-Mann; cinematographer: Amir Mann; cast: Martin Landau (Narrator); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; Menemsha Films/Rebel Child Productions; 2002)
“A worthy educational reminder of how many strange stories grew out of the Holocaust experience.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Shanghai Ghetto is produced, directed and edited by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann. It grew out of Dana wanting to tell about her father Harold’s experiences as a refugee in Shanghai. It’s narrated by Martin Landau. This moving documentary provides again another twist to the Holocaust experience and another eyewitness personal view to record history before all the aging survivors of that tragedy die off, as it tells how in the late 1930s the international Chinese city of Shanghai became the only place Jews could seek sanctuary without papers. The world community by 1938 had left the Jewish refugees with no other country to enter, and Germany started their “final solution” feeling that the so-called enlightened world’s rejection of them meant the Germans had a green light to carry out their atrocities. If you didn’t get out by May of 1939 it would be too late, as all exits closed. The film chronicles the stories of a number of Jewish refugees who as children escaped with their families in the nick of time and they recount their early experiences in Germany and their boat ride to Shanghai and how different their life was living in a place completely opposite from their homeland that is some 8,000 miles away. But all things are relative. The refugees realize upon reflection that as uncomfortable as their life was in Shanghai, what a hell it would have been if they remained in Germany. The filmmaker depicts their Shanghai story by interviews with survivors and historians, personal letters, stock footage, still photos and footage of modern Shanghai where the Jewish Ghetto remains the same today. Shanghai Ghetto was the winner of the Audience Choice Award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

I found it interesting how the survivors talked about the German reaction to their anti-Semitic persecution, as their lifetime friends and neighbors refused to help either out of fear or because they were glad to get rid of them. Instead of the Jews welcomed for their contributions to German culture and medicine, they were viewed by most of the population as taking control of those fields from the Germans. The fortunate 20,000 Jewish refugees arriving from all over Europe to the east coast Chinese city of Shanghai found the city occupied by the Japanese and an unsanitary and a backward place, as fear and cultural shock immediately set in amidst all the poverty. To make matters worse, they lived in the poorest section of town called Hongkew. And since they came without money (Germany froze their assets) and had no means of support, they were helped at first by Jewish families who lived there previously under British rule and prospered–families from Baghdad and Russians who came in 1917 to escape the Communist Revolution.

But when the number of refugees swelled, the charity task was taken over by the JDC–an international relief organization. Under the competent and caring leadership of an American social worker, Laura Margolies, soup kitchens and aid was continued on a bigger scale. The refugees survived by finding odd work and eating on the cheap. One family worked repairing typewriters and bought food that was stolen by local youths who cut holes in the sacks of grain from the passing carts and gathered the food up from the gutter. The families would have to separate the glass and the debris from the noodles. As for culture, they formed their own theater groups–including one in Yiddish.

The refugees were accepted by the Chinese and never were under attack for being Jews, as the Chinese were oppressed by the Japanese and were thereby sympathetic to the Jews almost similar plight. The Japanese had a stereotyped view of Jews as rich power brokers, and treated them fairly because after the war they thought they could help their government. But things changed in 1941 after Pearl Harbor, as the Japanese now placed their enemy Americans and Brits in prison camps and forced all the Jewish refugees to live in the ghetto so they can keep an eye on them. To leave the ghetto, a pass had to be granted by the Japanese authorities. Another change was that Ms. Margolies had been cut off from direct aid from America and had to get special permission from the Japanese occupiers to raise money for the refugees through loans from the Chinese business section–who were paid back after the war. In 1945, the American planes raided Shanghai to get a strategic radio tower and in the process bombed many of the refugee houses and killed some. After the war ended in 1945, the Japanese suddenly disappeared and eventually the survivors left Shanghai to spread out all over the world. This unique group of survivors have regular reunions sharing their experiences; their last was in 1999 in Philadelphia.

One refugee commented that if there was an Israel back then, there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust. Another survivor, Alfred Cohen, comments that “anti-Semitism never bothered me as much as assimilation.

As a footnote to history, this documentary is a worthy educational reminder of how many strange stories grew out of the Holocaust experience. Though it’s plodding and lacks creativity in telling its story, the film benefits from the sharp memories of the refugees. One survivor in vivid detail tells of Kristallnacht and the shattered windows in the Jewish homes and businesses, the horror of seeing the temple burned to the ground and the sacred Torah sticking out through the ashes, and the terror of a doorbell ringing at some ungodly hour.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”