The Shanghai Jews: Risk and Resilience in a Refugee Community

Exhibit Location: The Joseph Regenstein Library, Third Floor
Dates: January 15 – March 30, 2019

This three-case exhibit is part of an event series at the University of Chicago exploring the experience of many thousands of Jewish refugees who escaped to Shanghai during World War II.

The Exhibit

Exhibit poster, including a 1939 photograph of Karin Zacharias and Rudy Oppenheim en route to Shanghai, courtesy of Jacqueline Pardo.

This series opens with an exhibit featuring unique historical objects, documents, and photographs donated by families who lived in Shanghai during the war.

Author and UChicago faculty member Rachel DeWoskin, who co-curated the exhibition, describes the contents and tells the story of the exhibit:

“This exhibit came to life because I had the almost miraculous fortune to meet Dr. Jacqueline Pardo while researching my historical novel, Someday We Will Fly. Jacqueline’s mother, Karin Pardo (nee Zacharias), lived out World War II in Shanghai after fleeing Germany with her parents and brother in 1939. Many thousands of Jewish families survived the war by escaping to Shanghai when much of the rest of the world closed its borders.

Life in Shanghai was almost unimaginably unfamiliar for the Zachariases. Karin’s mother was a concert-level pianist in Germany; in Shanghai, she had to focus her energy on feeding and keeping her family safe. Karin’s father, trained as a lawyer in Germany, created a lending library in Shanghai, out of the more than 3,000 books he had managed to bring from Germany. He also started businesses from a cigar shop to an inspired if short-lived restaurant. Both parents worked relentlessly to make sure Karin and her brother had food, books, and friends; that they were educated; and that they grew up with as much normalcy as possible in the context of war.

The objects, documents, and photos of Karin’s girlhood — her school bag; notebooks and diaries; a thank you note she and other members of her Girl Guide troupe wrote to American soldiers who had given them chocolate; and her exemplary report card (on which her music teacher writes hilariously, “She can’t sing.”) — highlight the sweep and scope of a lived girlhood in Shanghai during the war. We have also displayed here Karin’s Chinese language notes; Japanese language notes; Girl Guide logbooks; a shirt with embroidered dragons twisting up its sides, and paper dolls her grandmother sent her from Germany, before dying at Theresienstadt.

The books from the family’s lending library, as well as Karin’s father’s sweater, bag, and cigar box, are juxtaposed to census documents, passports, food ration coupons for basic necessities; and money. We hope to give a sense of the fiber of daily life for refugees in Shanghai, including moments of joy and generosity: a Passover menu; a concert program; a lovingly painted wallet made by a friend; and a ring made for Karin by her brother, who, after finishing school in Shanghai, did an apprenticeship with a silversmith.

Records of the lives of families who survived WWII in Shanghai informed my creation of Lillia Kazka, the young refugee at the center of my novel Someday We Will Fly. Lillia escapes Warsaw for Japanese-occupied Shanghai because it is the only remaining place her family can land in 1939. Of course Lillia and the other characters in my novel are fictional, but the Shanghai they inhabit was real, and the objects in this exhibit brought that city and era to life for me.

We hope visitors will find this record of one family’s survival moving, and that it honors the many thousands of other Jewish families who survived WWII by seeking refuge in Shanghai. In important ways, the world of 1940’s Shanghai is perhaps not so different from the world we live in. The dangers faced by children and their parents remain real, as do the courage and resilience refugees demonstrate in ways both too small to be seen and too vast to be measured. These objects from wartime family life allow us to imagine how, in catastrophic contexts, we keep alive the possibilities of childhood, hope, and love.”

Curators

This exhibit is co-curated by Rachel DeWoskin, Jacqueline Pardo, and Vidura Jang Bahadur.

DeWoskin is the author of four novels including Someday We Will Fly (Penguin, 2019); and the memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton, 2005). She is on the core fiction faculty at the University of Chicago, and is an affiliated faculty member of the Centers for East Asian Studies and Jewish Studies. Pardo is a Staff Psychiatrist, Student Counseling Service; and Clinical Associate of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.

The Keynote Conversation and Concert

On March 13, at 5:30 p.m. in Fulton Hall, the University will host Michael Blumenthal, who came of age in Japanese-occupied Shanghai and then went on to become President Carter’s Secretary of the Treasury. Following his keynote conversation with Creative Writing faculty member and novelist Rachel DeWoskin, there will be a concert of war-time classical music, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s assistant concertmaster, violinist Yuan-Qing Yu, and her quartet, Civitas Ensemble.

The Symposium

On March 14, a day-long symposium will be held at the Franke Institute, featuring conversations between University of Chicago faculty and invited guests on topics including the experience of the Shanghai Jews; Iraqi Jewish business networks and the financial history of the Jewish elites in China; the literature of war-time childhood and adolescence; the role of fiction in creating and remembering history; the musical and artistic history and legacy of the Shanghai Jews; and readings of both Holocaust-era and contemporary poetry and prose.

Support

This series was made possible by support from the Joyce Z. and Jacob Greenberg Center for Jewish Studies; The Franke Institute; The Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS); the Departments of Anthropology, East Asian Languages and Civilizations (EALC), and History; the Program on Creative Writing; the University of Chicago Library; and a Title VI National Resource Center Grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

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