In the late ’30s, when most of their ways of escape were being closed off, some 20,000 European Jews fled the increasing threat of Nazi persecution by immigrating to Shanghai, China. This may seem like an unlikely destination, but it was an expedient one since the instability of the region — a city divided into several international zones and on the verge of invasion by the Japanese — had left it with no fixed immigration policy.
It was a place one could go to without visa or passport and one that already had a large Jewish population. Still, housing this great influx was a problem and the newly arrived Jews soon found themselves confined to a squalid and poverty-ridden section of the city. A further complication occurred once Shanghai came under Japanese occupation.
At first, the Jews were left alone to survive the best they could with their meager resources since, as one survivor suggests, the Japanese view of the Jews was colored by anti-Semitic propaganda that portrayed them as people with powerful, if somewhat mysterious, financial connections in Europe. The Japanese figured it was best not to aggravate them, since the tide could once again turn in their favor. But eventually pressure from Germany, Japan’s Axis partner, led to increased strictures and a hardening of ghetto life.
This sad but little-known Holocaust side-story is well rendered in the new documentary by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, a modest cinematic achievement with a straightforward mix of talking heads and archival material, but effective nonetheless. One is struck by the ambivalence of those who went through the Shanghai experience, by their retrospective realization that though they suffered grueling hardships they managed to escape the horror of those who were left behind.
Many of the Shanghai Jews were from middle-class backgrounds and the sudden descent into brutal deprivation was a harrowing experience, but it’s something they lived through. When one of the survivors says, “What I thought of as purgatory was actually paradise,” he’s summing up one of the film’s more disturbing messages: As horrible as this was, it was far from the worst.
Opening Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.