German-speaking Jews and the Chinese in Wartime Shanghai: Transnational Encounters through Comics, Memoirs, Films

Title: 1238 | German-speaking Jews and the Chinese in Wartime Shanghai: Transnational Encounters through Comics, Memoirs, Films
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: Literature
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Lee Roberts, Purdue University, Fort Wayne, United States (discussant, presenter)
Joanne Miyang Cho, William Paterson University, United States (presenter)
Wenyan Gu, East China Normal University, China (presenter)


This panel is closely related to the conference theme ("Asia at the Crossroads"), since it showcases three important crossroads moments in German-Jewish and Chinese relations from 1938 until just after the Second World War. Each presentation highlights the global transfer of people via a focus on the approximately 17,000 German Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai in an attempt to escape from Nazis persecution in Europe. The papers in this panel also communicate how these transnational encounters between German-speaking Jews and Chinese people resulted in cross-cultural entanglement.

All three papers look at Jews who arrived in Shanghai during the years 1938-1941, but they focus on different media and occasionally even offer opposing interpretations on one and the same topic. Lee M. Roberts’ paper examines renderings of the Shanghai Ghetto in comics and children’s books to offer a view of how Chinese and German-Jewish refugee families not only crossed paths but also survived side by side in Asia. Joanne Miyang Cho’s paper probes an image of China among the German-speaking Jews, which was strikingly ambivalent. Indeed, despite their everyday contact, their relationship was not close due to cultural and class barriers. In contrast, Wenyan Gu’s paper examines recent Chinese films on Shanghai Jews that point to a different narrative. This paper highlights transnational communication between the two communities through close-ups on the detailed time-space aspect of their encounter as well as the subsequent shift of perspectives.

This panel addresses the conference’s diversity requirements on various levels, since it consists of a German literature specialist, a historian from the US, and a Chinese literature specialist from China, who are all at different stages in their careers. Finally, the panel has achieved the goal of diversity in both gender and also ethnic background.

Panel Abstracts:
Picturing Survival: Renderings of the Shanghai Ghetto in Comics and Children's Books
This presentation examines comics (e.g., Jewish Girl in Shanghai (2010), Shanghai Dream (2019)) and children’s books (Shanghai Sukkah (2015); Run to the Port of Last Resort (2018)) that depict Shanghai during World War Two to offer a view of how Chinese and German-Jewish refugee families, people from altogether different cultures, not only crossed paths but also survived side by side in Asia. Since Art Spiegelmann’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1980-1991), the graphic novel has been recognized as capable of treating serious topics like the Holocaust, but each case is different. In Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children (2019), a narrator named Suzanne recalls that, after the Second World War, “Nobody ever said, ‘I will explain what happened to you…. I will explain what happened to your parents, that you are never going to see them again’” (73). Suzanne’s childhood is unbelievably tragic, but while this comic conveys her story in a manner deemed appropriate for tender readers, the passage quoted here manages to express the victim’s anguish. Moreover, the artwork conveys her puppet-like quality in the presence of Nazis. As we will see, these texts about Shanghai treat the Holocaust and also communicate the cultural specificity of particularly meaningful aspects of this shared history.

An Image of China among German-speaking Jewish Refugees in Shanghai
This chapter explores relationships between German-Jewish refugees and the Chinese in Shanghai. As Nazi Germany increased its anti-Semitic persecution, the Jews tried to find a place to emigrate. However, it was difficult to emigrate to other Western countries or Palestine due to the West’s restrictive emigration policy. Then, the Jews found out that Shanghai, which was under Japanese occupation, did not require a visa, and so about 17,000 of the Jews moved there between 1938 and 1941. In examining the relationship between these Jews and the Chinese, I will focus on the following two aspects. First, even though they frequently made simple business transactions, their relationship was a distant one. In addition to a cultural barrier, there was a class barrier between these formerly well-to-do Jews and their poor Chinese servants (amahs) and street vendors, many of whom were themselves refugees as a result of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Few of them knew any middle- and upper-class Chinese. Secondly, since Shanghai was their temporary residence, these Jews showed little interest in Chinese language and culture. Rather they were far more interested in learning English. When they did mention China, they sometimes even pointed out negative Chinese practices, such as infanticide and foot-binding. Thus, their view of China was influenced by the Sinophobic discourse of the West, that is, the “Yellow Peril.” Many Chinese, conversely, lacked deeper knowledge of Jews and frequently lumped them in among the Western colonialists or “white devils.”

Transcultural Contact in Cinematic Accounts of the German-speaking Jewish Refugees in Shanghai
Among the roughly 17,000 German-speaking Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai to escape Nazi prosecution during the Second World War, very few had established social contacts with the local Chinese. While such a statement may be easily concluded from early cinematic accounts, more recent and notably Chinese filmic production on the Shanghai Jews reveal a different narrative. This paper probes the cinematic representation of intercultural understanding between the Jewish refugees and the co-existing Chinese natives through a comparative examination of the documentaries on the Jewish Shanghailanders. Similar to such earlier documentaries as Exil Shanghai (1997) by Ulrike Ottinger and Shanghai Ghetto (2002) by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann, the later Chinese documentaries are based on interviews of Jewish refugees who were mostly children during their years in Shanghai. Unlike the former two, however, the Chinese films manage to highlight transnational communication between the Jewish and Shanghai Chinese communities through close-ups on the detailed time-space aspect of the encounters and the subsequent shift of perspectives. The narrative focus on several rather intimate episodes of personal encounters elevates the overt theme of “peace and rescue” in Survival in Shanghai (2015, by China Central Television), whereas frequent temporal juxtapositions of different memorial topoi in Ark Shanghai (2010, by Tianying Media) assemble all related figures, hitherto and present, Jews and Chinese alike. Through differentiated analysis of the cinematic arrangement of these personal narratives, this paper explores how transcultural encounters between the Jewish refugees and Chinese communities are being depicted and altered on screen

This panel is on Tuesday - Session 02 - Room 1

Go to Room 1