The story appears on

Page A6

May 24, 2012

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Opinion » Chinese Views

Human stories of Jews help demystify China

EDITOR'S note:

A lot has been written about the help China offered Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany and taking refuge in Shanghai. But so far there has been far less literature on Jews' personal memories of their China sojourn.

Even less known is that some Jews stayed on in China after 1949 and supported the Communist Party as advisers and "foreign experts."

Dr Matthias Messmer, a Swiss author and journalist, recently published a book titled "Jewish Wayfarers in Modern China: Tragedy and Splendor" that deals with the memories and biographies of Jewish personalities. Shanghai Daily reporter Ni Tao interviewed him about the book.

Q: Why did you write a who's who of Jewish individuals?

A: I've long been interested in the culture of the Jewish people. I did my PhD on Jews in the former Soviet Union, and then my research focus moved to China.

I was looking for a topic that would be of personal interest and then became interested in first-person stories and biographies.

When I came across the history of Jews in China - such as those in Shanghai, Kaifeng (Henan Province) and Harbin (Heilongjiang Province) - I figured out it was difficult to get access to archives about Jews in Harbin while Kaifeng was too long ago and I wanted to focus on 20th century.

Then I spent a year in the US, in different archives and libraries. There were so many interesting biographies of different people, so I tried to make a kaleidoscope of people who came to China, instead of focusing just on one.

Q: What does "tragedy" in your book's subtitle refer to?

A: Some of my book's characters were refugees from Nazi Germany. It was not easy to leave their homeland and adapt to a totally new place.

Of course, tragedy is a strong word. I talked about different titles with the editor and we finally came up with "Splendor and Tragedy."

There is a whole range of people and destinies, some were very fortunate, some didn't fit in very well.

It doesn't mean being in China is a tragedy, but it was for them to leave their homes in Europe.

It's a kind of balance, trying to find a bridge to hold those different biographies together.

Q: How do Jewish images of China differ from those of gentile Westerners?

A: Most Westerners who lived in China before 1949 came here either as representatives of their governments, diplomats, missionaries, businessmen and journalists. In other words, they had given assignments.

For most of the Jewish personalities documented in my book, they are different. They saw themselves as a minority.

Even Sir Victor Sassoon, who was British to the core, resented the anti-Semitism of many of his countrymen here in Shanghai.

Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany lived here in the Hongkou ghetto, so for sure they saw things and Chinese differently than people who lived near the Avenue Joffre (Today's Huaihai Road), went to horse races, clubs and had their Shanghai "amas" (nannies) and "ayis." There was also intermarriage between Jews and Chinese.

And if you take a look at the work of artist David Ludwig Bloch, you'll see that he tried to catch in his wooden paintings the miseries of Chinese refugees during the Japanese occupation.

These images are different from what people normally hear in Western accounts.

Q: What did you find about Jewish people's memories of their Shanghai sojourn?

A: When I was lucky to find something, like written records and diaries, I was often surprised to feel the strong connection these people had to Shanghai as their second home.

But in fact it was even first home for many refugees, who due to the war lost their homes in Europe.

Most of the accounts contained nostalgic feelings. Even the people I interviewed years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area in the US always expressed a deep sense of gratitude toward Shanghai for letting them stay.

The life in Shanghai was different compared to what they had in Germany or Austria. But they never felt any form of anti-Semitism (from the Chinese) here. I never read about any negative feelings about Jews from the Chinese side.

Q: How does your book complement histories of modern China?

A: For historians, it is a treasure box when you go into an archive. I remember when I visited the Shanghai Archive and saw something for the first time, like personal accounts connected to a person's biography, of course I was thrilled.

However, you will have to see the circumstances under which they were written. If somebody writes a diary, and you find it 50 years later, of course that's great.

But when you find a person's biography written 50 year after he was here, the thinking is very different.

I feel, in general, these biographies didn't show something new, but added a human touch to specific historical events of which you would normally take note of only the facts and figures.

For example, when you read about the pros and cons of settling Jews in Yunnan Province, a plan set up by a German Jewish businessman called Jakob Berglas in 1939, these are moments when you feel that history is more than just a science of collecting information about the past.

Q: You argue that Jewish accounts represent the antidote to the myths spread by Sinophobic literary works, such as Sax Rohmer's Dr Fu Manchu series. How do Jews assist in demystifying China?

A: Some of these Jewish personalities portrayed in my book had a closer relationship with China than most old China hands.

They were used to reading "yellow peril" literature, common in England and the US in the 1910s, 1930s or even later. Those Jews who were themselves looked down upon as minorities had a different image of China.

Let's take for instance the "Spanish doctors."

There were many Jewish doctors who fought in the Spanish civil war against Franco.

And they came to China to provide services to the Chinese. Some came through Shanghai and Hong Kong with the help of Soong Ching-ling (the wife of Sun Yat-sen.)

At that time she was responsible for aid organizations. Through her help the Jews were sent to areas where doctors were needed, where they met hungry farmers and poorly equipped soldiers.

Westerners were used to seeing high-ranking officials or businessmen. So these "Spanish doctors" helped convey a much more diverse image of Chinese people.

Or take the example of journalist Emily Hahn.

She wrote a lot of stories based on her stay in China. Sometimes they contained exotic pictures of the Chinese, but still Westerners could understand much better about what was going on in Chinese thinking. Many things about China were demystified.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend