My Life in Shanghai

Excerpted from: My life in Shanghai:
The memories we took with us
by Harry Todtenkopf
edited by Howard Kleinmann

First of all, I would like to warn you: If you are expecting me to deliver a learned treatise about Chinese culture and the various dynasties, you will be sorely disappointed. When we reached Shanghai in the beginning of 1939, we did not have the slightest interest in Chinese culture, and when someone would mention that its culture was thousands of years old, there was inevitably someone else who would remark, having the rather primitive hygienic conditions in mind, that in all that time it had not mastered indoor plumbing.

The Ghetto Days

We lived in the most primitive kind of housing, together with the poor Chinese population, for three and a half years. Everybody was supposed to provide for himself with respect to food and clothing, but those who were not able to do that had the option of living in a kind of hostel, sharing a room with thirty or more people. Bread and one simple meal a day were also distributed to whoever was in need.

When we moved into this area, I again joined forces with my friend and partner, and we started a coal delivery business, supplying refugees and to a certain extent also the communal kitchens. It was a widespread custom in Shanghai to heat with so-called Waska stones, which consisted of compressed coal dust, were supposed to burn for twelve hours, and were used in specially designed ovens. We sold these stones in the summer for delivery in the winter and were, as it was the custom, paid at the time the order was received. The manufacturer, a Chinese, of course, had his factory outside the ghetto, that is, in an area where we were not allowed to go. He came to see us once a week, picked up the order that had come in, and received from us the money for the merchandise. He jotted everything down in his little notebook, and it would have been out of the question to ask for a receipt: One’s word was one’s word, and nobody dealt in any other way.

That year, inflation was rampant and coal went up to about three times the price quoted at the time of the first orders. Suddenly, towards the end of the summer, we read in the papers that the manufacture of these stones was to be forbidden for reasons of wartime economy. However, our supplier made no use of this opportunity to return the devaluated money. Rather, he began on that very day with his deliveries and within fourteen days he no longer owed us anything. The law was never enacted.

Another Chinese who lived in the same area was our source for coal. Since coal was scarce and expensive, it was being “stretched” with rocks which were broken in pieces, rolled in coal dust, and added to the delivery. Then we picked out the stones – or at least part of them – and sold the stuff at a slightly higher price to compensate for the loss. Toward the end of the season, I happened to mention to our supplier how many stones had accumulated on our premises during the year. The man asked the stones to be returned to him – it came to just short of a ton – had them placed on scales, and delivered to us the exact weight in coal. In contrast to these honorable merchants, who only agreed to supply people who had been introduced to them by other, well-reputed Chinese, there were also cases of shadier business practices.

A Mr. M. from Belgium had taken a lease on large business premises. There was a large and impressive front room, from which six smaller rooms fanned out and were sublet to various smaller firms as independent offices. The outsider would get the impression of dealing here with an important firm. For a short time we had rented an office in such a pigeonhole. The front room was always full of elegant Chinese in flowing robes who actually never did anything. Big black boards where hung on the walls, on which one could read for example, that the M.S. Chung Cha would lift anchor on September 8, and underneath there were written all sorts of Chinese characters. Two such ships were to sail in different directions.

Guessing Game, Waiting Game

Shortly before September 8, the date was pushed back by a month. We used to play guessing games about which forthcoming sailing dates would be chalked up for the two phantom ships. This went on for several months until one day a different set of Chinese were sitting in the office. Soon thereafter, there appeared hordes of indignant Chinese with all their belongings. They had no intention of leaving the premises. They had paid for their return trip to the interior, had waited patiently for their departure with that patience which is proverbial for the Chinese, and had just realized that they had become the victims of fraud. Behind all this, of course, was the Belgian gentleman, but nothing happened to him. He was a Belgian citizen, responsible only to his Consulate, and he had seen to it that nothing could be brought up against him there. The salient point of the story, however, is this: The Chinese have a different concept of fraud. They shrug and say, admiringly, “more clever.” What we call fraud is simply superior cunning to them.

The Chinese way of doing business also involved the following. Upon entering an office, or the premise of a Chinese barber, one was immediately offered a cup of tea and cigarettes. A haircut included a shoeshine at no extra charge. When one entered the house of a poor Chinese, hot water was served instead of tea, and you could not possibly refuse it. When difficult arithmetic calculations were necessary, they were preformed with a few balls on an abacus. I never learned how they did it. And frequently they are all as playful as children. They are especially fond of the game of Mah-Jong – a kind of draughts or checkers – at which large sums are won and lost.

The most terrible day of that period came shortly before the end of the war. It was the day of the American bombing raid. The Japanese had placed us in a part of the city where every third house contained a small munitions factory. Besides, there was also the broadcasting station, which transmitted all shipping traffic. They figured, it seems, that by placing the ghetto in this sector, it would be spared by the American bombers. The broadcasting station was the foremost reason why Americans could not or would not take this into consideration.

One day, at one o’clock in the afternoon, our shacks became targets for the bombers. Everything collapsed. There were many dead and injured among us and among the Chinese. Our family also lost its home, and by sheer miracle our little boy, who was an infant at the time, escaped being buried in his crib under the tumbling walls. We were among some 500 refugees who had been bombed out. We all moved into dormitories in a school building, and that is where we stayed until the end of the war.

“At Long Last Peace Came.”

At long last peace came. For us too it was deliverance. A huge American plane flew over our camp. We ran to the schoolyard. The plane returned once more, flew very low above us, and showered us with fliers promising us that we would be liberated within a few days. We later found our children under the beds, where they were hiding in fear of air raids.

We stayed on in Shanghai for close to a year after the end of the war. From the very first day, we refugees were supplied with foodstuffs by the Americans. This help was given free of charge, most generously, and everything was of excellent quality. After all these years we again had butter and cheese and many things our children had never known.

In 1947 we made as quick an exit as possible from Shanghai. We took our memories with us, and were able to do so because we had survived this darkest period in history for the Jewish people. China and the Chinese people who suffered with us made our survival possible, and I am forever grateful for that.

Copyright Asian Jewish Life.

Image: The Shanghai Ghetto – printed with permission from Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.

The complete article, My life in Shanghai: The memories we took with us, can be found here.