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Exhibit shares little-told tale of Jewish refugees' time in China


Curator showing old newspaper

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October 18, 2015

The interesting thing about this Holocaust story is that it’s rarely been told.

The account centers around Irma Glahs Gottlieb, a 95-year-old Scottsdale woman who survived the Nazi purge of Germany in the 1930s by moving to Shanghai, China.

While much of the Jewish diaspora connects survival stories to relocations in North America or other parts of Europe, the Holocaust’s connection to Shanghai is a lesser-known chapter of this tragic history.

Gottlieb’s bit of the narrative is something she has only told a handful of people up to this point, and only in bits and pieces to her children over the years.

“Actually, I didn’t want to talk about this but my children think I should talk about it,” Gottlieb said. “Why should they hear about all the hardships we had because eventually we lived a normal life? That’s what we called it — a ‘normal life.’ I felt the past was the past.”

Gottlieb has opened the past and shared her story publicly for the first time as part of the “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai” exhibit, which is currently up and running through Dec. 15 at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in Phoenix and at ASU’s Hayden Library on the Tempe campus.

Irma Gottlieb

Irma Gottlieb is one of many Jewish refugees who resettled in Shanghai during the 1930s while Jews were still allowed to leave Nazi Germany.

Photo and video (below) by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The exhibit is sponsored by ASU’s Confucius Institute, Center for Jewish Studies, and the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, and will feature artifacts, photographs, documents, and personal stories, like Gottlieb’s. Planned events throughout the exhibit’s run will include several lectures, a film screening and a book discussion.

“It’s a story we need to pay attention to because it’s still so relevant,” said Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of the ASU’s Center for Jewish Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We are in the midst of a major migration crisis in our country and Europe. It begs the question, what is our obligation to people in duress who have no other place to go?”

Gottlieb, who hailed from Succow, a small farming community in Germany, said hers was the only Jewish family in the town of 900 people.

“My first years were very, very playful and I had everything I could ask for. I’m an only child so needless to say I was very spoiled,” Gottlieb said. “The only time I knew I was different than the other kids is when the Jewish holidays came. Then my parents took me to a synagogue in the next town.”

By 1933, the atmosphere for Jews in Germany had become troublesome as persecution and violence became more commonplace. Gottlieb said it was a slow boil that started with being ignored by classmates while others taunted her. It became unbearable when her instructor refused to teach her.

So her parents, who owned a general store in Succow, sent her to a finishing school in Lehnitz, which was a donated mansion just outside of Berlin. The school was started by the Jewish community so that children and teens who had been excluded by their communities could continue their educations.

“During the morning and day we’d have lectures and I’d work on several languages (she is fluent in German, French and English) and in the afternoon we kept house,” Gottlieb said. “We’d clean, iron and peel potatoes in the kitchen, and every Friday night we’d have a rabbi who’d come to the house and hold service. That was the first time I actually felt comforted.”

That comfort didn’t last long. On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, a wave of anti-Semitic violence took place throughout Germany, Austria and areas of Czechoslovakia in what historians describe as Kristallnact (“Night of Broken Glass). The name depicts the act of Hitler Youth and SS officers smashing the windows of synagogues, homes and more than 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, burning many of them to the ground. Jewish cemeteries were also desecrated.

It was a clear sign to Gottlieb’s father, and many other Jews, that they needed to leave the country. But it wouldn’t be easy.

According to Gottlieb, the German government forced her family to sell the general store “for a song” and departing Jews could only leave the country with 10 marks in their pockets.

At that time, there were only a handful of countries that would take in Jewish refugees. Gottlieb’s family was originally going to flee to the United States, but visa restrictions were difficult and required an affidavit, a sponsor, and a waiting period because of a quota.

They didn’t feel like waiting was an option. Gottlieb's father had already been picked up by the Nazis and then released because he'd been a decorated World War I vet.

But Shanghai was an open city, with no visa requirements — though some form of documentation was required to exit Europe.

Jewish refugees obtained documentation in various ways, including through the aid of relief organizations. But a significant number of them received the necessary documents through the efforts of He Feng Shan, the Chinese consul in Vienna who is often described as the “Chinese Shindler,” and Sigihara Chiune, the Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania.

As a result, Shanghai became a modern-day “Noah’s Ark,” accepting some 18,000 Jewish refugees and offering them shelter.

Gottlieb and her parents fled Germany by taking a train to Genoa, Italy, where they boarded the SS Victoria, a small luxury cruise ship.

“Suddenly I could talk and dance,” said Gottlieb, who was 18 when she boarded the ship. “I didn’t have to watch what I said and nobody was stopping me. I still have the tickets.”

But that trip was the first and last taste of happiness she experienced in years. Gottlieb said the four-week journey became surreal — many of the young men on the ship had been released from concentration camps and were either bald or shaved.

And when Gottlieb and the other refugees eventually disembarked in Shanghai, she received a cultural and economic jolt.

“We went from luxury to nothing in one day. We didn’t really know what to expect.” Gottlieb said. “They put us in back of a truck and brought us to a refugee camp in Hongkew. Men were placed in one section, women in the other. We slept in bunk beds.”

Almost 77 years later, Gottlieb can still recall their inaugural meal in a large dining hall with a long wooden bench and table: a hard-boiled egg, a piece of bread and cold tea in a tin cup. Before anyone took a bite, an angry refugee rolled his egg down the table and tossed the piece of bread to the floor. Through clinched teeth, he announced the meal wasn’t fit for a dog. Gottlieb said silence engulfed the room.

“That was the hardest moment. It was very sad and sadder even now when I think about what my parents must have felt,” Gottlieb said. “I think I realized for the first time … I think I cried.”

But at least they were out of Germany.

“As bad as things might have been in Shanghai, they weren’t half as bad as for the Jews in Europe,” said Robert Joe Cutter, director of the Confucius Institute. “Had they stayed in Europe, about 90 percent of them would have been dead. It did save their lives.”

The Glahs' eventually moved into a dilapidated home, purchased by a Jewish family who rented the family a room. The room had no hot water, kitchen or for that matter, a bathroom — only a bucket.

Gottlieb’s father made daily trips to the camp to bring back their daily ration of soup, which is what they existed on for several months.

Life eventually got better over time. Eventually a container filled with some of the Glahs' home possesions arrived.

However, they were forced to sell many of these creature comforts for food and money.

“My mother would say, ‘Today we eat a chair. Tomorrow we eat a desk.’ It was basically whatever my dad sold that day,” Gottlieb said.

The Jewish refugees eventually settled into their new surroundings and created businesses, bakeries, schools, synagogues, grocery stores, restaurants, bookstores, boutiques and clothing stores. Musicians played concerts on a rooftop garden, acting troupes entertained the refugees, and sports — boxing, football, tennis and table tennis — became popular diversions.

So did the movies. Gottlieb recalled seeing a screening of “Gone With the Wind” in Shanghai for a dime. For four hours, the Hollywood classic gave her a temporary distraction.

“We all tried to live as normal as we could. We had school, our own teachers and the people were just angels — the people who donated money so we could have food and schools and concerts,” Gottlieb said. “For me, everything was wonderful because I didn’t have to wonder who was behind me and could say things freely. I looked at it differently, like a young person would.”

Gottlieb’s teen years gave way to adulthood when she met her husband Erich at a summer camp created for refugee children who needed a respite from the trauma of their forced exits back home. He wanted to marry her on the spot, but her parents said no. He had a job with the Chinese Salt Administration and her parents feared he would take her into the interior of China and they would never see her again.

“My parents said, ‘If he feels the same way about you when he comes back, then you can get married,’ ” Gottlieb said. “So he did.”

Erich returned two years later and in June 1941, they were married in front of the German consulate at the insistence of her parents, who wanted it to be legal in the eyes of the German government.

Gottlieb instantly recognized the act as ironic, given the fact they were stateless. And there’s also that reminder of why they left.

“My marriage license has a swastika,” Gottlieb wryly said.

Old wedding photo

Irma Gottlieb is seen in a wedding photograph with her husband when they married in Shanghai in 1941. Deanna Dent/ASU Now

When World War II broke out in 1939, Erich and Irma safely made their way to Chungking, China, where they lived for the next few years. She didn’t see her parents for four years and only had contact with them through two letters, delivered by the American Red Cross.

After the war, Gottlieb found her parents in a Japanese ghetto in Hongkew. Later they all moved together to the United States, eventually settling in the Chicago area, where Irma and Erich raised a family and finally returned to a 'normal life.'

Gottlieb’s daughter Evelyn Simon, who was born in Shanghai, said her mother has left out many of the darker details of her ordeal, but that the light outshines the darkness.

“There is a lot of dysfunction and trauma that goes from generation to generation in regards to the Holocaust, but that wasn’t totally the case with us,” Simon said. “My parents didn’t want to color our vision of the world growing up. A lot of this information hasn’t come up until recently.”

Gottlieb’s vision of the past remains mostly positive and agrees with Holocaust historian David Kranzler, describing the relocation as “The Miracle of Shanghai.”

“I am very, very lucky to be here because all of my friends have passed away from not enough food, medicine and illnesses,” Gottlieb said. “Our life was saved by going to Shanghai whereas every other country had the doors closed. I definitely see Shanghai as a haven.”

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