Shanghai: introduction to a new life

Fred Marcus

Fred Marcus

Fred’s excitement over the voyage to China provides temporary consolation for all that has been left behind in Germany: a home, a comfortable life, an identity. Although some of their friends and family will also end up in Shanghai, the way of life they had known is lost and their arrival in Shanghai on April 25, 1939 provides an abrupt introduction to their drastically changed circumstances.

At the time, the city of Shanghai is the fifth largest city in the world and a major port city with an “International Settlement” that has been administered by a council of Western powers since the late 19th Century: Great Britain and the Commonwealth, the United States, France, Denmark, Italy, and Germany. The area surrounding Shanghai falls to Japanese control in 1937, but they do not take full control of the city and the International Settlement until 1941.

A well-established Jewish community has been living in Shanghai for hundreds of years, and this community provides support to the many Jewish refugees from Europe who pour into the city: some 20,000 refugees enter Shanghai before 1942. Together with support from international Jewish organizations, the wealthy Jewish residents of Shanghai provide housing and operate soup kitchens that ensure new arrivals have a place to sleep and eat.

Photos of Fred and Semmy Marcus from identification cards issued in Shanghai, 1939.

Courtesy of Audrey Friedman Marcus

Ward Road Heim shelter for Jewish refugees from Europe, Hongkew, Shanghai, China, 1939. This was the first of several hostels established to ease the housing plight of the refugees from Europe. Fred and Semmy Marcus live here after their arrival in Shanghai.

©The Oster Visual Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish PeopleCourtesy of Yair Hendl, Israel 


Fred Marcus: I want to speak about the arrival in Shanghai. For some unexpected or inexplicable reason, I never thought of what would happen when we reached Shanghai. And Dad didn’t talk to me about it, maybe because he was so worried, he didn’t want to worry me. So we arrive at the Bund in Shanghai. I come from 25 days, 29 days of sitting at the white tablecloth with three forks here and three knives there and three spoons there and a water glass and two wine glasses, and all excited now in Shanghai.

And the first thing, we’re led—we have a picture of this in one of these books, by the way—we are led on a plank onto a flatbed truck with a few sides. And we are carted, standing, into a bombed-out neighborhood of Shanghai that is called Hongkew, and which was the scene of fighting between Chinese and Japanese outside the International Settlement in 1937.

And that stood like a bombed-out war zone, and a few buildings remained. And we were taken to one of these red brick school buildings and put into a room with 29 double-decker bunks, upstairs and downstairs. “You take the upper one,” my dad said, of course.

And I had to be in the [INAUDIBLE] metal bedsteads, black metal things. And Dad got very incensed the first night. As soon as the lights went out, some of the younger people were telling dirty jokes, the likes of which I had never heard. And I could feel the whole bed shaking as he jumped out into the—yelled into the darkness, “There are younger people in this room! Why don’t you just shut up!” And I was terribly embarrassed that my father should do that. […]

So when we arrived and got off the truck and were shown to our bunks, they announced that it was too late for dinner. And the vision of that table in the ship’s dining room is very vivid. It had upturned corners, so if there was a storm, things would not roll off the table, and beautiful linen. We were taken into the dining shed, and we were given a piece of bread with a single sardine on it. And I believe it was margarine, which I refuse to eat to this day, and a mug of tepid tea, pre-sweetened.

And I can remember that the enamel on the mug was chipped, and the black metal was showing through. And I took a bite, and I took a sip, and all of a sudden, I could feel the tears running down my cheeks. I wasn’t really aware I was crying. I wanted to cry, but I could feel the tears running down my cheeks, and I—they mingled on my lips—the taste of the salt of my tears mingled with this. It was just such a shock to go from one world into that of being a refugee.

And fiendishly enough, they—our Nazi passports—we had German passports to leave the country— had in their front page where the name is, a big red J stamped into it. And the bend of the J, a date was written that was 30 days after you left Germany. So 30 days after leaving Germany, a few days after arriving in Shanghai, I became a stateless refugee and remained such until 1951.

“I never thought of what would happen when we reached Shanghai.”

USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, Interview 9214

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