China was in chaos in the 1930s. The country was coping with a civil war that pitted Nationalists against Communists, the invading Japanese were controlling more and more land, and famine and disease were widespread.
But for Jews fleeing the Nazis in Austria and Germany, China was a welcome destination.
“Above the Drowning Sea” tells the story of Jewish refugees from Vienna who landed in the port city of Shanghai, which had been functioning as a treaty port for almost 100 years, filled with Europeans. In telling such a big story, the documentary goes small, focusing on just a few of the 20,000 Jews who relocated to the city and on several Chinese people whose lives were linked to the new residents.
After Kristallnacht, most Jews in Vienna were desperate to leave Austria, but before doing so, they had to find a country that would accept them. Defying his government, the Chinese consul in Vienna, Ho Feng Shan, signed visas allowing a few Jewish families to depart for Shanghai, then controlled by the Japanese.
Word spread among the population that Shanghai offered a haven. By the time he was recalled to China, Ho had signed an estimated 5,000 visas. After his death in 1997, Yad Vashem named him one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
The movie shows how the Jewish refugees made do among the Chinese. They were watch repairers, bakers and merchants. Jewish families often rented rooms from Chinese families, and Jewish and Chinese children played together.
The Nazis wanted to exterminate Jews, and the Japanese viewed Chinese people as rats. So the Jewish and Chinese people bonded.
A moving part of the documentary shows a Jewish woman reuniting with a Chinese woman who had been her childhood playmate. “Mèimei, mèimei!” (sister, sister) the two cry as they embrace after 60 years of separation.
Atlanta Jewish Film Festival screenings: Jan. 30, 3:45 p.m., Perimeter Pointe; Feb. 3, 1:10 p.m., Springs Cinema; Feb. 4, 11:15 a.m., Tara