Just when a cynic might think there are no more Holocaust stories to be told, yet another undiscovered perspective pops up on local screens. Even if you’ve seen The Pianist and The Fighter and Night and Fog, there is still Shanghai Ghetto, a documentary by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, to remind you that an event of such historical and personal impact can spawn an infinity of tales worth telling.
In this case, as the title suggests, it is the tale of some 20,000 European Jews who managed to move to Shanghai before emigration from their Nazi-dominated homelands became impossible. It’s a tale mostly related through the points of view of septuagenarians who were children at the time, of people who found themselves displaced into an utterly alien culture for what turned out to be a far lengthier stay than they had anticipated. (While generally unknown, this chapter of World War II history has been examined before, in Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy’s 1998 Austrian documentary The Port of Last Resort, which showed at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival a few years ago.)
Why Shanghai? In a curious fluke of history, this Chinese city was an almost totally open port in the late 1930s. The city had British and French territories, which in the aftermath of the 19th-century Opium Wars had come to be officially foreign turf — sort of mini-colonies. In 1937, the Japanese conquered and occupied Shanghai. The Europeans, whose businesses dominated the port, decided not to maintain official customs and immigration formalities, for fear that the Japanese would then take control of them. So Shanghai became the one place in the world where refugees could arrive without visas or identity papers of any sort.
Naturally, most European Jews who were prescient enough to get out while the getting was good would rather have gone to the United States or Canada. But, in the 1938 Evian Conference, the Western world — including the United States, in a particularly shameful episode — essentially closed its doors to them. Shanghai’s odd status made it one place to which the Jews could flee without visas or sponsorship.
According to the film’s interviewees, it was like being dropped into a different world. While they were helped to settle in the city’s poorest neighborhood by the two long-established Jewish communities — Baghdad Jews who had come long ago with the British, and more-recently-arrived Russian Jews — they still were surrounded by huge numbers of Chinese.
Despite the degradation they had just suffered in Europe, the hideous impoverishment of the natives around them put their own troubles in perspective. They managed to build a cultural life and set up small businesses.
All of which was fine and dandy until Pearl Harbor. With the Japanese now partners with the Nazis, the more established British Jews, who had been the benefactors of the new arrivals, were immediately rounded up into camps. In another irony, the stateless Jews were merely concentrated into an unwalled ghetto area.
Directors Janklowicz-Mann and Mann wisely take the simplest, most direct approach. They have been wrongly criticized by some for relying too heavily on talking heads. In fact, while the movie makes considerable use of still photos, maps, newspaper headlines, and stock footage, it is at its best when we just see the interviewees talking. Their perspectives and the honest emotions on their faces are more moving than further illustrative visuals could have been.
As The Pianist has demonstrated, though certainly not for the first time, the horror of what happened between 1937 and 1945 is best conveyed through a personal perspective. The big picture is both too huge to be comprehended and too horrific to be believed.
Much of the historical information within is presented by two professors, but it is always the testimony of the direct witnesses that dominates, even in the smallest personal anecdotes. Of all these witnesses, it is Harold Janklowicz, the father of one of the film’s directors, whose memories are the most emotional and evocative.