Refugee Stories from Shanghai Ghetto Live On

In a sepia photo, a young white man is sitting in a rickshaw operated by an older Chinese man wading in water and wearing a wide-brimmed hat.
Paul Hoffmann on a rickshaw in the Hongkew ghetto in Shanghai | Courtesy of Jean Hoffmann Lewanda

To many American Jews, the extent of their connection with China takes the form of slurping lo mein on Christmas Day, an annual tradition paying homage to the proximity of the Jewish and Chinese neighborhoods on the Lower East Side of New York in the late 1800s and into the 20th century.

To others, the connection extends beyond the United States border and across the Pacific Ocean to the municipality of Shanghai, a temporary home and haven for Jewish Holocaust refugees. 

Inge Booker, a Warminster resident, spent almost nine years of her life in a ghetto in Shanghai from 1939 to 1948, where her family lived in a two-room apartment with no gas or electricity, cooking over a charcoal stove for meals and sleeping on mattresses infested with bedbugs.

“It was more or less kaput,” Booker said.

Now 99, Booker still remembers the resilient and vibrant Jewish community in the Hongkew Shanghai ghetto that survived despite the chaos and Japanese surveillance of the area during the Sino-Japanese war from 1937 to 1945.

Her family ate at a small Viennese restaurant on Friday nights, where the community held Shabbat services. She was married at 19 under a small chuppah set up in her parents’ home. A rabbi and cantor were both in attendance, but the family could only afford a maximum of a cup of coffee and two pastries for reception guests.

Booker’s story, though a shock to those unfamiliar with the Jewish Holocaust refugees who made their home in China, is similar to those of 23,000 Jewish refugees who lived in the Shanghai ghetto between 1941 and 1945, according to the Shanghai Jewish Center.

After the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht cemented Europe as an unsafe place for Jews, China became a place of refuge. After the British colonization of Shanghai in the 1800s, the municipality became home to two international settlements — places of refuge that did not require a visa for entry.

At the time, Nazis required two pieces of documentation to leave occupied countries — one of which was a passport, which Jews were forced to surrender to the Third Reich in 1938. Shanghai became one of the few options for refuge for fleeing Jews.

“Jews were desperate,” said Jean Hoffmann Lewanda, a Yardley resident whose father fled from Vienna to Shanghai in 1938. “When Jews discovered that they could go to Shanghai, they just started getting boat tickets.”

Lewanda is virtually presenting “Escape to Shanghai” at 2 p.m. on Feb. 20 at Congregation Beth El of Bucks County to detail her family’s experiences.

Lewanda’s father, Paul Hoffmann, was one of the first Jews in Vienna to find a boat ticket, and he also settled in a small, two-room apartment, where he would study and read at night at a small desk, lit only by a cup filled with peanut oil with a wick in it.

Hoffmann, who died in 2010, fared better than many in the Hongkew ghetto, according to Lewanda. In “Witness to History: From Vienna to Shanghai: A Memoir of Escape, Survival and Resilience,” a memoir written by Hoffmann and edited by Lewanda, Hoffmann recounts his time training to become a lawyer and eventually moving to the French Concession, a much prettier area of the international settlement. 

Hoffmann and his soon-to-be wife Shirley Hoffmann met in 1949, married in 1950 and had their first child in 1952. His privilege and status meant his young family enjoyed niceties others didn’t. Though many refugees left for Israel, the U.S. or Australia in the years leading to the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, the Hoffmanns stayed until 1952, arriving in New York in 1953 before moving to Philadelphia.  

In a sepia photo, Paul Hoffmann in a tuzedo and top hat, is standing beside his bride wearing an ornate white dress and holding a large bouquet in front on a large crowd.
Paul and Shirley Hoffmann at their wedding in 1950

Despite the Hoffmann family living in Shanghai for several years and through the beginnings of the Communist Revolution, the family never learned to speak Mandarin and learned English in schools, indicating little assimilation into Shanghai culture.

Booker had a strong distaste for Chinese food because of the living conditions within the ghetto, and the robust international settlement community clung to many of their western roots and cultural touchstones but remained friendly with the Shanghailanders, who showed them little malice.

“The remarkable thing about China was there was no antisemitism,” Lewanda said.  “Jews were no different from any other foreigners.”

Though the Jewish community in Hongkew was insular and tight-knit, descendants of these refugees are just now beginning to form bonds. Lewanda met Evie Shaffer, daughter of Booker, a few months ago when Shaffer received an email about a talk Lewanda was giving about her father’s memoir. Before Lewanda, Shaffer hadn’t met another Jewish person with roots in the Shanghai ghetto.

Shaffer asserts that though her meeting of Lewanda was a “weird coincidence,” the experiences of all Holocaust refugees share common threads.

“Everyone who survived the Holocaust has their own interesting story. The Shanghai story is not unique,”  Shaffer said. “There are Jews who emigrated to South America, Australia, wherever they could get a visa and get the hell out of Germany.”

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