Between 1938, the year of Kristallnacht, and 1941, the year the United States entered World War II, nearly 20,000 Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany poured into Shanghai. Together with entrenched communities of Baghdadi and Russian Jews, as well as a small contingent of their prescient coreligionists who left Europe in the early 1930s, the new arrivals swelled the Jewish presence in China’s free port city to more than 23,000.
Henry Meisel, now 85 and a resident of Old Bridge, was among them. “I was eight years old when I came there and a teenager when I left, two years after the war ended,” he said.
Meisel remembers severe overcrowding, hungry days when food was scarce, and major culture shock. Most of the Jews were contained within a small section called Hongkou, which Meisel described as “a ghetto without walls. We were in this ghetto not because we were Jewish, but because we were stateless,” he said.
Meisel discussed his experiences before a group of more than 65 at Young Israel of Aberdeen on March 27. The presentation included a showing of the 2002 documentary film Shanghai Ghetto, directed by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann and narrated by Martin Landau.
While Shanghai may not have seemed a likely place for thousands of Ashkenazi Jews seeking safety from Nazi terror, its political circumstances made it almost ideal, the film explained.
Because it was designated as a free port, as established by the Treaty of Nanking (signed in 1842 at the end of the First Opium War), no one entity was responsible for passport or visa control. Virtually everyone could come in.
This remained true even after the Japanese became an occupying force following their defeat of the Chinese in 1937.
Later, in the early 1940s, the Germans began pressuring their Axis allies to implement anti-Jewish policies similar to those in Europe. But, Meisel said, the Japanese declined.
Asked why, Meisel offered a few possibilities. “One theory is that during the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese sought financial assistance from American bankers, and the only one to help was a Jew.”
Another suggestion is that Sephardi Jews, long established in China and, to a lesser extent in Japan, “helped pave the way for the rest of us,” he said. They were viewed as integral, productive members of the economy.
Yet another reason may have been that Japanese culture respected the business skills and love of learning attributed to Jews, said Meisel, the same qualities that Hitler condemned.
At one point, the Japanese had even proposed a plan to resettle a million Jews in Manchuria. The scheme fell apart, however, when Jewish philanthropists and financiers were slow to respond to requests for funds. And then Pearl Harbor came.
Nevertheless, Meisel insisted, whatever their motivation, “The Japanese saved us.”
After the war, most of the Jews left Shanghai. Because U.S. immigration quotas made it hard to come here, there remained only two viable choices: return to Austria and Germany or go to Israel. “My family chose Israel,” Meisel said.
Shortly after his arrival, Meisel enlisted in the army and served two years. He then had a job as a civilian working at an air force base.
Meisel then chose to go to Vienna to join his parents, who had left Israel after just seven months. But his ultimate goal was the United States, where he finally arrived in January 1953. Initially, he lived in Brooklyn with an aunt, later moving to a room in Manhattan’s Washington Heights.
Months later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Fort Hood in Texas. “By the time I was 25, I had served in two armies and worked for the Israeli Air Force,” Meisel recalled.
The next step was a job with the Muriel Cigar Co. while he attended Baruch College at night, eventually earning a master’s degree in marketing. The bulk of his career was spent as a sales representative for Commerce Clearing House, a publisher of legal documents.
Meisel and his wife, Elaine, have two daughters and were longtime members of Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen.