Sara Lewi, la “cara de la comunidad”, salió de Shanghai hacía y ahí descubrió que su hogar, su judaísmo y su comunidad estaban en Shanghai, a donde volvió y donde vive hasta la fecha.

Sara Imas leaned forward, her jovial humour gone. She had been speaking English, but this was one story she could only tell in her native Chinese.

It was 1961, she remembers, a time when Shanghai relied on ice blocks to cool houses in the summer. The iceman would come, and Sara would escape into the back garden to play.

Sara, who was a young girl at the time, observed a worm fall from one of the garden’s trees. She felt sorry for it, so rushed forward to pick it up and return it to the tree.

“I was being merciful to that worm, but the worm wasn’t doing the same for me. It hurt me, and my hand became swollen,” she said.

Sara presented her wound to her father, Leiwi Imas. But if she expected sympathy, she didn’t get it.

“Sometimes it’s good that you want to offer help, but do others really need help? Look at that worm. That worm doesn’t need your help. So you should mind your own business,” Sara remembers him saying. “You should not be curious about everything. If you are, you end up being hurt.”

The Jews of Shanghai 

These words might seem strange, even contradictory, given that Leiwi was a refugee. As a Jew, Leiwi was forced to flee the Holocaust in 1939. He crossed the border from Germany to Poland and then to the Soviet Union, before finally reaching a safe haven in Shanghai.

His daughter Sara, now 65, was born in China, and she’s very clear: she is not a refugee herself. But in many ways, she has become the face of the community of persecuted Jews who resettled in Shanghai. She has published books, done national interviews and even sung in an anti-war music video. Her father’s past survives in her present.

An estimated 340,000 Jews escaped Nazi Germany and Austria between 1933 and 1945, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. But then, as now, there were more refugees than visas.

In 1938, US President Franklin Roosevelt called together 32 nations for a conference in the resort town of Evian-les-Bains, France, to find a solution. Over nine days they deliberated. By the end of the conference, only the Dominican Republic agreed to raise its refugee quota.

Still, there was one unlikely place where Jews could flee, where no quotas or visas stood in their way: Shanghai. European powers had imposed extraterritorial rights on the city, which meant that, until late 1939, foreigners could come and go as they pleased. No other major metropolis could boast such relaxed immigration laws.

But ultimately, only about 20,000 Holocaust refugees came to Shanghai. The culture, the language, the distance – it could all seem overwhelming to the Jews facing exile. The majority chose to relocate elsewhere.

Statue outside Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum [Allison Griner/Al Jazeera]

“People who had a lot of money, or who had good foreign connections, or had a name for themselves like the Mann brothers, who were writers, and the Freuds and the Einsteins – they mostly did not go to Shanghai,” explained Steve Hochstadt, a history professor at Illinois College. The ones who came were generally middle class individuals, with no grand riches or titles to their name, he added.

Like Leiwi Imas, Hochstadt’s own grandparents made the voyage in the late 1930s. They had managed to secure one affidavit to go to the US, but it wouldn’t cover the entire family. Sacrifices had to be made. They would part ways: their 18-year-old son to the US, and they to Shanghai, aboard a Lloyd Triestino steamship.

“Refugees try to stop being refugees,” Hochstadt observed in our telephone interview. His own father – that 18-year-old sent alone across the Atlantic – avoided the word entirely. He lost his accent, settled in California and rarely spoke about his ordeal.

But the situation was different for the Jews who landed in China. “In Shanghai, they were not going to assimilate. Much too difficult,” Hochstadt said. “Chinese is incredibly difficult [to learn], and they didn’t necessarily even want to become Chinese or stay the rest of their lives in Shanghai.”

Collecting stories

After the war, most of them left Shanghai. The Imas family was one of the few that remained. As the Shanghai refugees were once again scattered across the globe, their stories started to fragment and fade. Hochstadt said it was only in the 1990s that Shanghai’s role in harbouring Jews became well-known.

“The people who had been in Shanghai had suffered but had not lived in danger of dying,” Hochstadt said. “They didn’t want to compare themselves with concentration camp survivors. It took them a long time to be willing to say, ‘Yeah, I had a Holocaust experience, too. It wasn’t as bad, but it’s worth telling.'”

Hochstadt himself collected 100 of their stories, in an effort to fill the historical gap. He noticed that books hardly mentioned Holocaust refugees like his grandparents or Leiwi Imas. Instead, the books concentrated almost exclusively on the genocide, which Hochstadt found to be problematic.

“If you just focus on genocide, that’s something where other people are acting badly, and we didn’t have anything to do with it,” he said. “But a refugee crisis implicates everybody. That was true then, and that’s even truer today.”

Recent events have brought the Holocaust refugees back to the fore. Over four million refugees have poured out of Syria since 2011, when civil war erupted. World leaders, grappling with how to describe the crisis, have turned to the Holocaust as a metaphor. The Evian Conference is in the back of their minds, Hochstadt said.

A beacon of tradition in a foreign land

Back in Shanghai, Sara had other reasons for remembering the past. This year, China celebrated 70 years since Japan surrendered in World War II – or, as the Chinese call it, the War of Japanese Aggression.

With all the festivities came a new wave of attention. State media organisations, like China Central Television and Xinhua, marked the anniversary with articles featuring Sara, and she was asked to introduce a new statue for the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

As a Jew, Sara’s father, Leiwi Imas, was forced to flee the Holocaust in 1939 [Allison Griner/Al Jazeera]

And now, yet again, she was sitting in her living room, with two neighbours, a journalist and a camera staring at her expectantly. It was time to tell her story for the millionth time. A vivacious woman with a ready laugh, Sara was visibly drained by the task.

“Jewish people like sunshine. They don’t always want to come back to the war. Now, the war always comes back, comes back,” she said in passionate, if sometimes imperfect, English.

The moral of the worm story weighed heavily on her thoughts. Again and again, she returned to it. Her father had always encouraged her to keep her head down, to not speak up, to mind her own business. She was taught not to meddle, but the rest of the world wasn’t heeding th advice.

“Always the newspaper comes to take pictures, comes to speak [with me],” Sara said with naked frustration. “You come again, come again, come again. Do you know how much Jewish people hate this?”

In exasperation, her deep voice turned soft like a sigh. The more she speaks about her father, the more her memories flood back, she explained. Her sons and husband beg her not to agree to any more TV interviews. The dreams they bring keep her awake at night.

It’s her dad she misses the most. She describes him almost like a beacon of tradition in a foreign land. They would go to Shanghai’s synagogues together, making up to three visits a day sometimes. And Sara recalls that, when she would slurp her noodles “like a Chinese lady”, her father would get incredibly angry. He always hoped she would leave China for when she grew up.

In the short amount of time they had together, Sara and her father seldom spoke. Leiwi occupied himself with books and music, but he didn’t talk much.

“He’s not like me,” Sara said, laughing. She thinks that his reticence was the by-product of a troubled past. No more than 10 words passed between them each day, she estimates. So when Sara would catch him tasting food and chatting with his hired house chef – “No! More pepper!” – she would bristle with jealousy.

“I would say, ‘He speaks with the chef more than with me,'” she said. “But I think maybe he wanted to make me good food.”

One day he even threatened not to speak to her at all, unless she could translate the Hebrew greeting ‘Shabbat shalom’ into Chinese. ‘Hao de anxiri,’ she suggested. Wrong answer. She tried again, and stumbled. She felt she would cry if she disappointed her father. So Sara gave the challenge one last shot: “You can change nothing to say, ‘Shabbat shalom.’ Shabbat shalom is just Shabbat shalom.”

Success, at last. “My father said I was very clever. So he then talked with me for more than 10 words,” she said, her eyes bright with the memory.

Leiwi Imas died in 1962, when Sara was only 12 years old. He had become a powerful figure in Shanghai’s small Jewish community, running multiple businesses and leading the local Jewish club. The lesson he taught Sara that summer day in the garden, as her hand swelled with pain, was perhaps one he himself had taken to heart. Sara remembers he never took any handouts.

The man, with his fierce ideals, could be scary to young Sara, but the way she chooses to remember Leiwi is decidedly more light-hearted. Atop her mantelpiece sits a cartoonish, bronze statue of a man’s face. He has a bulbous nose, a crescent smile and a rose clasped between his teeth. Metal whiskers poke out from beneath his sculpted newsboy cap. He is the image of pure happiness.

“I always say, ‘This is my father,'” Sara said, gesturing to the statue. She refuses to let the housekeeper clean it for her.

The children of refugees sometimes find themselves caught in a limbo, somewhere between two cultures, just like their parents before them. But that was never a problem for Sara. Leiwi raised her to have a single identity: Jewish.

But something funny happened when she immigrated to in the early 1990s, to fulfil her late father’s wishes. There, for the first time, she understood that she was more than just Jewish. She was Chinese as well.

After a decade, Sara decided to return to Shanghai. It didn’t matter that her father came there as a refugee. That was a label for passports, not for human beings. “People on the inside are not refugees,” she said. “I came back to Shanghai, and I found my home.”


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