By 1938, Jews in Berlin were facing outrageous discrimination and persecution. But it was not until Kristallnacht, Nov. 9 and 10 of that year, that German Jews seriously started to think about seeking refuge in Shanghai.
The Chinese city already had a tenable Jewish population, thanks to an immigration wave of Sephardic Jews in the mid-19th century and Russian Jews in the early 20th century. Because no entry visas were required to enter Shanghai until August 1939, it became a viable choice for thousands of Jews escaping Nazi persecution.
Margit Diamond, a resident of Weinberg Terrace in Squirrel Hill, was just 10 years old when her aunt, Lucie Hartwich, a teacher, left Berlin for Shanghai and began a journey that ultimately would lead to the education of a generation of Jews in China.
Diamond, 89, recalled her aunt — her mother’s sister — as running a successful school for Jewish children, housed in a synagogue in Berlin, after Jews had been banned from both attending and teaching at the public schools.
On the morning of Nov. 10, 1938, the phone in the small apartment that Diamond shared with her mother rang. It was Hartwich, telling Diamond’s mother not to send her daughter to school that day.
“My mother said, ‘Why? What’s the matter?’ And my aunt said, ‘Don’t you know what’s going on outside? Don’t you know the synagogues are burning? They set them aflame. They are throwing rocks through the windows of Jewish stores and they are going from house to house picking up Jewish men and presumably taking them to police stations,’” Diamond recalled.
Because Diamond’s father had already passed away and the Nazis would not be around looking for men in their apartment, Hartwich asked her sister if her own husband could stay there.
“So, my mother said ‘Of course,’” Diamond said. “My uncle came, and he was the first of a whole slew of people. Some of them we didn’t know. My best friend’s father, she and her family lived in the same apartment building where we lived, was the next person. He brought somebody that he knew but that we didn’t know. And of course, we didn’t have beds for everybody, or rooms. By the end of the day, one man was sleeping in a deck chair — I remember that very vividly.”
About half a dozen men ended up staying with Diamond and her mother after Kristallnacht.
“This was a problem until my mother made rules,” she said. “Wives and family are not to come and visit. Nobody is to come and visit because we lived on the second floor. We didn’t know if the people who lived on the third floor or on the first floor would denounce us.
“No phone calls. And the most difficult thing for my mother was, she used to shop just for her and me. Now, she had a whole bunch of men to feed. She went all over Berlin. She used to take the tram, and she would buy small quantities all over the place. But she had to do this almost daily. In the meantime, the atmosphere wasn’t too optimistic in our apartment. The men were edgy.”
After a time, Diamond’s uncle was among the first to leave the apartment, heading out with his wife on a ship to Shanghai. Many of the families who had sent their children to Hartwich’s school were also on that ship, Diamond said.
While on the month-long voyage, Hartwich realized “that once the people got to Shanghai, if they wanted to work, they’d have to be able to communicate, and very few of them knew much English. So, my aunt went to the captain of the ship and she said, ‘Listen. Will you let me have your dining room when you’re not using it? I’m going to have all these people speaking English by the time we arrive in Shanghai.’”
The captain agreed, and Hartwich got to work.
“She actually succeeded,” Diamond said. “They were all speaking English by the time they got there.”
A wealthy passenger on the ship, Horace Kadoorie, took notice of Hartwich’s work and was impressed.
The Kadoorie family were Sephardic Jews who emigrated from Baghdad in 1880 and settled in the Far East, according to the Israel-Asia Center.
“My aunt had no idea who she was talking to,” Diamond said. “When they were three or four days out of Shanghai, Mr. Kadoorie said to her, ‘Mrs. Hartwich, not only are there hundreds of people on this ship, but there are lots of children who have made it to Shanghai, and they will need an education. I will build you a school and you will run it.’ She got off the ship, and she had many of her own pupils from Berlin.”
Members of the Kadoorie family were “pivotal players in the development of business giants such as the Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotel Co. and China Light and Power,” states a description on the Israel-Asia Center website. The Kadoories not only had profitable business ventures, but also were invested in philanthropic pursuits.
Among those pursuits was the establishment of the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association (SJYA), the school which Horace Kadoorie tapped Hartwich to lead.
The SJYA, also known as the Kadoorie School, opened in November 1939, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives. About 700 students studied there, with the instruction in English, because of the assumption “that the pupils would soon be emigrating to English-speaking countries.”
That assumption turned out to be correct, according to Diamond. “The majority of her students ended up in San Francisco,” she said.
There are several historical books about the Jews of Shanghai that reference the work of Diamond’s Aunt Lucie.
“There is a lot my aunt forgot to tell us, incredible things she had done,” Diamond said.
Hartwich’s husband died a few weeks before they left Shanghai, soon after the war. Because of her reputation as a superior educator, she was recruited to go to Australia to teach, but she was only there a short time, Diamond said. Hartwich then moved to San Francisco.
“You can’t imagine how many of her ex-pupils who came here had fabulous careers as lawyers and doctors and God knows what,” Diamond said.
Diamond, who lived through Kristallnacht and was saved from being murdered by the Nazis by being sent to England on the Kindertransport, sees parallels between 1930s Germany — where Jews were reluctant to see the dangers of anti-Semitism and leave — and contemporary America.
“In Germany, they kept thinking ‘It’s not going to get any worse. We’ll just sit it out,’” she said.
After a pause, she added, “They are doing it here too, I want to tell you. Mark my words. I’ve seen this before.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.