BY ESTHER LOW / AJT //
As World War II was ripping across Europe and Jews were being rounded up and sent off to ghettos and death camps in Eastern Europe, my husband and his family managed to escape from Berlin.
Steven was only two-years-old in April of 1940 when he and his parents – along with about 20,000 German, Austrian and Polish Jews – were allowed to flee to Shanghai. They had no visas or passports and yet they found refuge in the city, thanks in part to the courageous work of a Chinese diplomat.
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Last month, Steven and a dozen other survivors of the Shanghai Ghetto, were honored at a special event in Chicago sponsored by the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation in Illinois.
Their story is worth recalling.
When my husband and his family arrived in Shanghai, they initially lived in an area called the French Concession. All that changed on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Along with thousands of other Jewish refugees in the city, Steven and his parents were declared “stateless” by the Japanese occupiers and eventually moved to a neighborhood in Shanghai that came to be known as the Hongkew Ghetto.
The area was in the most blighted part of the city, was crowded and in deplorable condition; there was little food and fresh water. Disease – dysentery and typhoid – was rampant and bombing raids occurred daily.
Despite such hardships, the Jews living in the Hongkew Ghetto felt lucky to have landed in Shanghai, escaping the death camps of Eastern Europe.
After the allies crushed the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese surrendered following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Steven and his family were able to immigrate to the U.S. He was still very young and had lived as a refugee for most of his life.
In the U.S., Steven and his parents first lived in New York and, later, in Washington, D.C. For the last 32 years my husband and I have been living in Georgia.
The recent event in Chicago was memorable and, as it turned out, was held in conjunction with the World’s Fair of Money. It’s an annual gathering of numismatists and draws thousands of coin collectors from around the globe.
This year, as already detailed, it also included 13 survivors of the Hongkew Ghetto and a few important guests. A special medal, produced by the China Shanghai Mint, was presented to the survivors. It’s a lovely keepsake and filled with meaningful images.
The medal includes a figure of a young child under an umbrella, signifying the shelter offered the refugees by the city of Shanghai. If you look closely enough, you’ll also spot a door with a mezuzah and the number 1943, the year refugees were forced into the ghetto.
Both the artist and the engraver of the commemorative coin, Qiming Zhao, and his son Rocky, were honorary guests at the Chicago event.
One of the featured speakers, Ho Man-Li, is the daughter of Dr. Ho Feng-Shan. He was the Chinese Consul General in Vienna in the 1930s, the period when Hitler and his Nazi thugs rose to power. He’s also the man responsible for saving the lives of hundreds of Jews.
Right after Kristallnacht, the state-sponsored pogrom in Germany and much of Austria, Ho issued hundreds of visas to Jews desperate to escape Europe and the Nazis. Working without any sort of official sanction, Ho managed to open the door to China for entire families.
His story was little known. In fact, Ho’s actions in Vienna went unnoticed during his lifetime, save for a black mark in his personnel file for disobeying orders. It wasn’t until after his death in 1997 that the details of what he had managed to accomplish came to light.
For his courageous work and humanitarian efforts, Ho was posthumously honored by Yad Vashem and given the title Righteous Among the Nations.