Return of a Shanghai Jew

After decades of trying to forget the miseries of his refugee childhood during World War II, a Southern Californian circles back to China to embrace the people who saved his life.

By Adam Minter
Adam Minter is a freelance writer based in Shanghai.

January 15, 2006

At the market, Gaoyang Road widens and hooks toward a set of encroaching Shanghai high-rises. Below, in their shadows, is a gray, run-down, two-story building that holds a tobacco shop, a beauty parlor and a noodle restaurant on its first floor. The top level is residential, and it juts over the first, creating a covered lane hung with laundry. Just south of the building, Jerry Moses, a retired Southern California businessman, squints and looks up, hands clasped behind his back. "I don't know, I don't know," he says with long vowels stretched by his German accent. "This isn't right." He takes a deep breath and walks slowly toward the lane, brow furrowed. "All this is new. I can't recognize it."

Moses last walked on Gaoyang Road in 1947. It was called Chaoufoong Road then, and it was home to many of the 18,000 European Jewish refugees who had sought refuge from Nazi Germany in Shanghai's Hongkew District (today known as Hongkou) during the run-up to World War II. He casts his gaze at the lane, his brow loosens and he begins to nod. "This is it, this is it," he says softly. "I know this is it." One week into his first visit to Shanghai in almost 60 years, Moses has found his third home in an exile that lasted from 1941 to 1947.

He strides into the space, his manner now much closer to that of the 12-year-old boy who had left than the 70-year-old man who has returned. "I used to ride a bike up and down here," he declares, pointing toward the weathered bricks. A single red door colors the building facade. Moses runs his hand across the wood and sits on the step below it. "I have to think," he sighs. "Give me a second." That second scarcely passes before he sings a faint melody. "It's a Chinese song I knew as a kid," he says. "I don't remember the words. It just came back to me." One word, however, is very clear: ZuGaNin, the name for a local in Shanghai dialect.

Moses stands and skips a hand along the bricks. From 1945 to 1947 he lived inside with his mother, father, older sister and younger brother. He walks to the end of the alley, where a middle-aged man suddenly emerges pushing a bicycle. "Nong ho!" Moses says, greeting the man in the dialect he learned as a boy. "Ala ZongGoNin," he says, stabbing his chest with a finger. Then, pointing to the building, "Ala YouTaNin!"

We are Chinese. We are Jewish.

The man with the bicycle is startled: A white foreigner in this back alley who speaks the notoriously difficult dialect? He looks at Moses, then at me—a white man in his 30s—and finally at a Japanese woman, a photographer with a large camera. "YouTaNin?"

Moses nods excitedly. "Jewish. YouTaNin. Ala YouTaNin! Shanghai YouTaNin!"

The men launch into a loud mash of Mandarin, Shanghainese and English, interrupted by laughter and handshakes. They really don't understand each other, but after a few minutes (and translation help), the Shanghainese man, whose first name is Yide, understands that Moses is one of the celebrated Shanghai Jews, and that he used to live in his building. Yide invites Jerry into his home.

The low door leads into a dank space. "That's where we lived," Moses says, pointing at locals hovering over steaming noodle bowls. "It was a single room and it used to have a raised Japanese floor," he adds. "Now it's a restaurant!" Beside the restaurant is a staircase at an 80-degree angle. With Yide's help, Moses climbs to a dim apartment filled with two beds and a small table. A pretty middle-aged Chinese woman named Xiaomei takes Moses' arm and escorts him to the most comfortable chair. When he speaks in dialect, she looks at Yide and giggles. Soon, the three are laughing and talking like old friends catching up on the last 60 years.

"YouTaNin, Ho!" declares Yide. Jews are very good.

"ZongGoNin, Ho!" replies Moses. Chinese are very good.

They laugh and Moses says, "Come here." Yide does, and they embrace. "Tell them I am so grateful. That the Chinese people were so nice to us," he says, asking me for a precise translation. "Tell them I would be dead without this country." He looks away and says softly to himself: "Shanghai."

On a clear autumn day, Moses leans over a railing on Shanghai's Waibaidu Bridge and looks across the Huangpu River at the futuristic skyline. "When I was a boy there was nothing there," he recalls, as he walks north across Suzhou Creek into the teeming Hongkou District. Ahead is a worn, working-class neighborhood of two- and three-story buildings. Open doors reveal old men smoking and playing cards around wooden tables; women work on the steps, washing clothes and carrots in red plastic tubs; tight, muscular men commute on foot with shovels swung across their shoulders. "This is how they lived when we were here," he says. "This is my Shanghai." He leans over a man selling live crabs out of a cardboard box and announces "Ala ZongGoNin," somehow forgetting "YouTaNin." As he walks away the man shakes his head and smiles a crooked smile. No, you're not.

In July 1947, Moses and his family left Shanghai on a ship bound for San Francisco, en route to their postwar home in Chile. "I remember the river water turning from brown to blue as we entered the ocean," he says. "And that's really when my life began."

Until this three-week trip last fall, he had never returned to his wartime refuge, despite a restless nature that kept him moving between Southern California and Germany throughout his adult life. Even now, with marriage, divorce, child-rearing and a career running his own clothing shop in the Fairfax District behind him, he cannot stay in one place for long. "I'm not sure what kept me from coming back," he says. "I guess I didn't want to dwell on the past." He shrugs. "I didn't want to be a victim. I mean, I lived and most other German Jews didn't."

He stops in the middle of the street and raises his voice for emphasis. "But at this point in my life, you know, why not come back? The plane ride isn't so long." With that, he sets off again through old Hongkou. The streets are crowded with young men, but Moses is drawn to the clusters of old people who favor the sidewalks. "Some of them might have been here when I was a kid," he says. And so as he greets them and shakes hands. It is a natural impulse, often felt late in life, to thank those who made a successful life possible. But Moses was a refugee, and so his gratitude is expressed to strangers who, in their own way, represent the culture that embraced him at his most vulnerable. "I love these people," he says. "I feel like I've come home." Shanghai's lure for entrepreneurs and refugees dates to mid-19th century treaties that granted colonial powers the right to govern designated areas, or concessions, in certain Chinese cities. Visas to enter the concessions usually were unnecessary or perfunctory. Traveling to Shanghai was the greatest challenge.

Like most of the Jews who fled to eastern China in the 1930s and early 1940s, the Moses family was German Jewish, with the German half as important as the Jewish. Originally from Breslau, they belonged to a 20,000-member Jewish community that strongly influenced the city's cultural life. Jerry's father, Max Moses, was a fabric buyer for a Jewish-owned department store chain. At an employee holiday party, he met Frida Koritofsky. They were married in 1932. Jerry, born in 1934, was the second of three children.

His childhood memories are vague and impressionistic until the infamous Kristallnacht in November 1938. Two days of Nazi-organized riots destroyed hundreds of Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues. Max was among the more than 25,000 Jewish men imprisoned. According to Moses, his father would have died in a concentration camp if not for Frida's determination to free him, and Nazi Germany's determination to expel its Jews. "Like a lot of wives, she wanted to get her husband out of jail. And she was told that if my father left Germany in, like, 48 hours, they would let him go." But few countries would accept fleeing European Jews. "Somehow, my mother found out that the only place he could go without a permit was Shanghai."

Near the waterfront, Moses stops outside a whitewashed two-story building that houses a massage parlor. Two days earlier he had found it, relying only on instinct. "I think this is where my father lived when he arrived in 1939," he says. "And then we lived here with him when we arrived in 1941." He sits on a concrete embankment across the street and folds his arms. "I remember there was a doctor on the first floor who kept a human fetus in a jar in the window. We lived in one of two apartments up there." He pauses. "If this is really it. I don't know." Displeasure tightens his lips. "I'm a little shocked it's a massage parlor."

He crosses the street, strides down a narrow brick alley and emerges into a neighborhood of squat concrete homes. Sitting alone on a wooden stool, a tiny old woman with silky gray hair looks up curiously at the foreigners. "Ala Shanghai YouTaNin," says Moses as he approaches her. She nods with a knowing smile and takes his hand. Moses opens his wallet and pulls out a black-and-white visa photo snapped in 1947. "Ala!" he declares, pointing at the delicate 12-year-old with the protruding ears, the dark circles under his eyes and the thin smile. Then he stretches that world-weary half-smile and places the photo next to his striking blue eyes. "Ala!"

The woman takes the photo and smiles gently. Her name is Jiaodi. She has lived here for 60 of her 92 years, but she has no memory of any Jews. Moses pats her hand. "Something about this woman," he says softly. "She reminds me of our amma [maid]. She cooked and cleaned for us when we lived in this building. Later, when we had to go to the heime [a refugee group home], she came and brought us candy." His brow rises. "It's not her, but she is so close to her."

He fixates on Jiaodi for several minutes, holding her hand, until a woman interrupts, attracted by the conversation. Soon a crowd has gathered. They pass around the photo and repeat the words Shanghai YouTaNin. "I remember the Jews who lived there," says a large old woman in a purple coat. "There were two little kids always running around in back, playing. And then there was one who was still a baby," she adds before slipping away. Moses' eyes widen. "That would have been me and my sister. My brother was young," he whispers. "We were here." He embraces each of the older people surrounding him.

In early 1941, Frida Moses and her children still were in Germany, waiting to join Max in Shanghai. The Nazis were about to make extermination—and not emigration—the solution to their so-called Jewish problem. Exit permits were almost impossible to obtain, and the widening war had closed the sea routes to Shanghai used by most European refugees. "My mother is the hero," says Moses. "Without her, we'd all be dead." Frida took the direct approach: She went to Breslau's Gestapo headquarters and demanded an exit stamp or death. According to her son, who often heard the story recounted, the commanding officer replied: "You're brave for a Jew."

If not for a nonaggression pact between Russia and Germany, the family would never have boarded a train bound for Vladivostok, in Siberia. "Can you imagine?" asks Moses. "This skinny little German woman, who had never left the country, traveling to China with three kids?" At a Siberian port they transferred to a Japanese ship that took them to Shanghai.

"We definitely came off the boat over there," Moses says, nodding toward the Huangpu River. He still is behind the massage parlor and encircled by curious Shanghainese. He approaches two windows that face the back alley and rakes his hands across the steel security bars. "My first memory of Shanghai is beggars sticking their hands through there," he says. "We didn't know what they wanted. We didn't understand at all."

People were starving to death by the tens of thousands in the wake of the Japanese conquest of the Chinese sections of the city. "You'd see bodies in the streets, on the sidewalks," Moses recalls. "But you know, if we were thirsty, they [the Chinese] gave us water. If we were hungry, they gave us rice cakes." He purses his lips before continuing. "As bad as we had it, they had it worse. And they felt bad for us."

He walks around to the front of the massage parlor and yanks on the glass door. Inside, two teenage girls in tight pants and low-cut blouses smile nervously at the two white men and the Japanese woman with the very large camera. Behind them, a red curtain snaps open to reveal an emaciated 6-foot-tall man with tobacco-stained teeth and a dead cigarette between bony fingers. "Ala Shanghai YouTaNin," Moses says.

The man's head cocks left, curious. "Shanghai YouTaNin?"

Moses nods and, via a translator, explains that his family once lived on the top floor. The tall man nods and without hesitation leads the way up the stairs to a hallway lined with several doors. "They've changed the layout," Moses says with a chuckle. The tall man opens the last one. A fake leather couch is set against a wall. The blue carpet is damp. Bars screen the windows. "My birthday is on Dec. 8," Moses says. "And I remember my parents set out a birthday table for me covered with presents near the window."

At 4 in the morning on Dec. 8, 1941, explosions thundered across the Shanghai waterfront as Japanese soldiers overcame a British ship anchored in the Huangpu River. "I remember the sky turning red and boom boom boom!" Moses recalls. "Nobody could have imagined what was happening." In Hawaii, it was still Dec. 7, and Pearl Harbor was under attack. "I watched the sky turn red. I remember. Red."

A few days later, Moses is enjoying a club sandwich in a Western-style café in Shanghai's former French concession. "Children are dumb," he says between mouthfuls. "They adapt. They don't think of it as miserable." For 10 minutes he has been reflecting on the three years his family spent in a refugee group home in Hongkou. "It wasn't a happy time, but comparatively, what could have happened, what would have happened…." He pauses. "I don't want to go around saying I had such a miserable time in Shanghai."

In the weeks after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese forced the Moses family out of their strategically located waterfront home. Lacking the resources to rent or purchase something else, they settled into Chaoufoong Heim, one of five large group homes—or heime—established by Jewish social service organizations for refugees. The Moses family shared a room with two Austrian couples. Communal kitchens serving several hundred refugees living inside and outside of the heime provided one or two meager meals a day—more for children. "Hungry," he sighs. "Always hungry." He ate starchy soup so often that today he cannot stomach noodles. He remembers his father thinly slicing bread and finding worms.

From 1937 until late 1942 the occupying forces mostly left Shanghai's Jewish refugees unmolested. But in 1943, under pressure from their Nazi allies, the Japanese established a "designated area" for stateless Jewish refugees under the control of an officer named Ghoya who, notoriously, called himself "King of the Jews." Jews and Chinese needed a permit, issued only by Ghoya, to enter or leave the area. "I remember him coming to the camp with his violin and demanding that everyone listen to him play," Moses recalls. "And if you didn't, he'd beat the hell out of you." The Chinese endured much worse. "I remember a coolie [a Chinese laborer] asking a Japanese soldier for payment after a ride on a rickshaw," he says. "And I watched the soldier beat the coolie to death. They didn't do that to us."

Chaoufoong Heim was demolished years ago, and in its place stands a market. Late one afternoon, Moses dodged bicycle deliverymen and slipped through its main gate. "Why do I want to come here? I have no idea." He smiles at vendors who look up, startled, from live seafood squirming under the knife. Voices ricochet around the space, hitting a back wall that Moses thinks might have been there 60 years ago. "This must be it," he says with a shrug. "But there's nothing here. It doesn't mean anything to me."

The memories are scattered, unconnected to faces or objects but vividly attuned to the senses. He speaks of Shanghai's damp winter cold as he shuffles along the concrete. And he remembers summers when temperatures lingered at a humid 100 degrees. "Every summer Jews died," he sighs. "My bad memory is that you would sweat all the time and people were sick and there was no medicine."

But Moses refuses to become maudlin or tragic. "It was normal for us kids to grow up there," he insists. "You take kids into an environment and then it becomes normal for them." Thinking back, the mind first recalls the usual "hardships" of childhood: "My parents and older people were always running around telling us to behave." Even the hostilities of war escaped him: "I used to play with the Japanese kids near here," he says as he pretends to sketch a hopscotch outline in front of the market. "Watch," he instructs as he jumps on one leg while singing a child's song in perfect Japanese.

In 1945, Moses attended school for the first time, despite the constant U.S. bombing of Shanghai. "I remember playing soccer, and we could see the black specks falling from planes in the sky," he says. "After a while you got used to it." But soon the war ended and the Japanese disappeared. The Moses family moved to the apartment that now is a noodle restaurant.

For the next two years Max Moses worked hard to find a new home, mailing embassies, consulates, immigration departments and distant relatives who might sponsor the stateless family. As they searched and waited, the family was often visited by their amma, years after she had worked for them.

In the course of three weeks in Shanghai, the memory of that amma—and Jiaodi, the old woman who is so like her—haunts Moses. "I think she is why I love these people," he says. "Why I came back." And so, less than 24 hours before his departure, he carries a bouquet of carnations into the lane behind the massage parlor and knocks on the door of a child-size concrete home. Jiaodi recognizes him with a smile and invites him inside. "I don't know why I'm drawn back to this woman," Moses says again. "But I am."

He thanks her for the kindness of the Chinese during the war. "You saved our lives," he says. They pose together for a few photos, and then she smiles and waves as he disappears down the alley. "Our amma," he says. "When we sailed for Chile, she was on the dock crying."

It was a journey made with some reluctance. According to Moses, his family wanted to go to the United States in the fall of 1947, but the wait was too long. "My parents were worried that we wouldn't survive another summer in Shanghai," he explains. Moses would find a way to get to America anyway. "I emigrated on my own in 1962," he says.

In front of the massage parlor Moses hails a taxi that speeds down Changzhi Road. Xiaomei and Yide have asked him to tea. Sixty years ago the boulevard was the center of a thriving Jewish community known to some as "Little Vienna." Today, Chinese occupy the area and many of the blocks are empty plots strewn with rubble from recent demolitions of buildings with distinctly European architectural details. "It's OK," says Moses. "Those buildings were nothing to keep. Living inside of them was miserable." The taxi turns on Gaoyang Road, passes the former site of the Chaoufoong Heim, and stops in front of the building where the Moses family lived from 1945 to 1947. Waiting on the curb is Xiaomei.

He steps out of the taxi and embraces her. She beams, shaking both of his hands. She leads him down the alley and up the stairs to the small apartment where Yide awaits. On the table are bowls holding fruits, nuts and lotus root stuffed with sticky rice. "We don't know what you like," says Xiaomei. "So we prepared sweet things." But first they present Moses with gifts, including chocolate and other snacks. "And here," says Xiaomei, "some winter underwear to keep you warm."

Moses smiles and laughs as he unwraps the presents, his deep blue eyes sparkling with tears that he won't let fall. Yide shows him photographs of the family, including Xiaomei's mother, who just turned 90. Xiaomei invites him to stay with them when he returns to Shanghai. They explain that their apartment—Moses' old apartment building—may be razed next year. Overwhelmed, he stands and embraces them. "For 60 years I tried to forget," he says. "I didn't want to come back. I didn't want to be a victim." In their practical Shanghai manner, Xiaomei and Yide usher him to the table and encourage him to eat. He grasps his chopsticks and, with well-practiced precision, picks up a slice of lotus root and drops it into his bowl. "Not enough," Xiaomei says as she uses her chopsticks to add another serving.

"When I was a boy in Hongkew, I was always hungry," Moses says, his mouth full of sticky rice. "And the Chinese people fed me even though they had less." He shakes his head. "Now I come here and they give me food." Through glistening eyes he looks at Xiaomei.

"Welcome home," she says. "Eat."