In 1939, 300 students from the Mir Yeshiva, or Talmudic college, fled Nazi-occupied Poland for Lithuania. The following year the Soviet Union entered Lithuania and annexed it. Fearing that they would fare no better under Russia than under the Nazis, the yeshiva students and their teachers once again made preparations to flee.
Leaving Lithuania was not a straightforward matter. There were few overland routes they could safely take; all the surrounding countries were either under Russian or Nazi control. Nor was it easy to obtain visas to allow them into countries that might offer them refuge; most of the foreign missions in Lithuania had closed. The Japanese, Dutch and British consulates were however still running a skeleton service and it was through the goodwill, and bravery of their diplomats that the Mir students were saved.
The immediate challenge that the students faced when trying to leave Lithuania was that they were stateless. Most of them had no valid identity documents. Even those who had managed to keep hold of their Polish passports found them to be worthless in the wake of the Nazi occupation of their country. Without passports they could not cross any borders. But how could they get passports?
It was the British Consul (probably Sir Thomas Hildebrand Preston though some sources name a man called Gant) who first came to their rescue. Approached by Yaakov Ederman, one of the yeshiva students, he defied his superiors in London by issuing the students with temporary British travel documents to be used instead of passports. He left the documents undated so that they would not expire and issued them without meeting any of the students or confirming their identities. He also issued visas for a limited number of the students to enter Palestine. Meanwhile the Dutch Consul Jan Zwartendijk furnished the remaining students with visas for Curaçao, an island under his country’s control in the Caribbean.
There was still the logistical problem of how to leave Lithuania. The only route open to them was to travel across Russia to Japan. Japan had not yet joined the war but its government was not minded to admit refugees fleeing Europe. Nevertheless, Moshe Zupnik, another of the students, went to see the Japanese Consul in Kovno, Chiune Sugihara. Arriving at the consulate carrying 300 travel documents, he joined a lengthy queue of people all hoping to obtain a visa for Japan. He queued all day but failed to get to see Sugihara. The next day he was smarter. He bribed a guard and got himself to the front of the queue.
Chiune Sugihara told Zupnik that he was painfully aware of the situation the Jews outside his office were in and that he had already cabled his superiors in Japan asking for permission to issue visas. Their reply was that no visas were to be issued. But he was not prepared to allow people to die. He asked for Zupnik’s assurance that there were funds in place to support the students on their journey if they did travel to Japan and to provide for them during their sojourn there. Zupnik, who was unaware of the yeshiva’s financial situation, did his best to reassure him.
In fact the question of how to fund the students’ exodus was in the process of being resolved through the yeshiva’s remarkable president, Rabbi Abraham Kalmanowitz. A lifelong activist on behalf of refugees, an activity for which he was imprisoned during the Russian Revolution, he had traveled to the USA in the 1930s to raise funds for the Mir yeshiva. He had taken out American citizenship while he was there. Now, back in Lithuania, he used his American passport to travel to Sweden from where he flew to Britain and then New York. Working flat out he raised enough money to pay the $180 per head exit fee demanded by the Russians and sufficient to sustain the students on their journey. It was just an everyday episode in the life of an extraordinary individual who dedicated all his energies to the saving of lives.
Zupnik knew nothing of Kalmanowitz’s activities. But he succeeded in reassuring Sugihara and over the following days the two men worked together to prepare visas, for the students and for hundreds of other refugees. Flouting his government’s orders, Chiune Sugihara is believed to have saved the lives of at least 6,000 people who would otherwise have been slaughtered by the Nazis. In 1984, he was declared as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, an honour reserved for only those who took great personal risks to rescue Jews from the Shoah.
The students and their rabbis left Lithuania in December 1940 and January 1941. They traveled in groups of 50 or 60 on the Trans-Siberian railway through Moscow and Siberia to Vladivostok. From there they took a boat to Kobe in Japan. It was a gruelling journey, made all the more challenging by the elderly refugees accompanying them; people who in many cases could barely walk. As they passed through Vladivostok the Russian police arrested 15 of the students. They weren’t released until their companions raised enough money to bribe their captors.
There was a serious setback when the students finally arrived in Kobe. Those bound for Curaçao were told that their visas were not valid. With nowhere else to go they found themselves stranded in the Japanese port city. The small Jewish community that had been in Kobe since the middle of the 19th century accommodated the stranded students as best they could but their presence caused yet another problem for the city authorities who were already overwhelmed by the number of refugees who had arrived since the outbreak of the war in Europe.
Despite joining the war on the side of the Nazis, the Japanese treated Jews relatively well. It has been argued that this was partly due to the work of Jacob Schiff who raised large amounts of money for Japan in their 1904 war with Russia. Whatever the reason, Jews in Japan did not suffer from the same monstrosities as those meted out to the prisoners of war in Japanese camps. But the refugee problem in Kobe remained too great for the authorities and they soon transferred the yeshiva students to Shanghai, the Chinese city over which they had seized control.
Like Kobe, Shanghai had an established Jewish community. The first to arrive Jews had been merchants from Iraq and India who came to the city when foreign traders were first allowed to enter in 1843. They were followed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms. And the rabbis and students from Mir yeshiva arrived just as Shanghai was experiencing a further wave of Jewish immigration. This time the arrivals were European Jews escaping the Shoah, people in the same situation as the students of the Mir yeshiva.
Shanghai, under Japanese occupation, was a haven for the displaced and dispossessed.
In her recently published book The Box with the Sunflower Clasp, Rachel Meller sensitively tells the story of her aunt Lisbeth and her parents who arrived in Shanghai from Vienna in March 1940. Unlike the yeshiva students they arrived by sea, sailing from Trieste on the Conte Rosso. Theirs was one of the last sea journeys to be made from Italy to China. A few months after they sailed Italy entered the war on the German side and the British closed the Suez canal to Italian shipping.
Rachel Meller’s book of Jewish life in Shanghai is fascinating; unlike most books on the subject it tells a personal story rather than a political history. The author describes how her teenage aunt Lisbeth and her parents gave up their comfortable middle class life in Vienna for a life in one room in a Shanghai slum, how Lisbeth had to come to terms with a city where disease and poverty were rife, life was cheap and employment hard to find. Her father had travelled to Shanghai ahead of his wife and daughter to try to find work and create a home for the family. When she first saw her father after her arrival in the city Lisbeth hardly recognised him. The man was shrunken, gaunt and pale. For the vast majority of its residents, Shanghai in 1940 was a debilitating and dangerous place to live. Her father died two years later.
When Lisbeth arrived in Shanghai it was an international city, divided between the French, British, Americans and Japanese. She had been warned not to speak German in the streets but in all other respects, in the prosperous areas away from the slums it was a vibrant, cosmopolitan place. That is until the Japanese seized the city in 1941, shortly after their attack on Pearl Harbor.
Initially the Japanese occupation of the city made little difference to Lisbeth’s life. She found the Japanese respectful and tolerant, just as the yeshiva students had experienced in Kobe. She obtained a job in a bookshop and fell in love with the owner, a refugee like herself from Vienna. Her life fell into a settled pattern until she awoke one morning in February 1943 to the sound of a radio announcement. It was an order for all ‘stateless refugees’, in other words Jews, to leave their homes within three months and move into a narrowly defined area of the city. The Nazis had prevailed on their Japanese allies and the Jews of Shanghai were to be forced into a ghetto.
The Shanghai ghetto was in one of the most run down and dilapidated parts of the city, a teeming slum in which 100,000 people were already crammed. Now, all 17,000 Jewish refugees in the city were to join them; all obliged to find themselves a place to sleep, uncontaminated food to eat. For Lisbeth and her mother, once prosperous Viennese Jews, the humiliation was unbearable.
Fortunately the Shanghai ghetto under the Japanese was unlike the Nazi ghettos of Europe. Apart from the intolerable living conditions there were few restrictions placed on its residents. They could keep their old jobs and were free to move around the city provided they obtained the correct exit passes; a condition that was not always easy to fulfil.
It was the students from the Mir yeshiva who found the move to the ghetto most intolerable. After arriving from Kobe they had lived a relatively privileged life in Shanghai, housed in one of the city’s synagogues, and supported by donations from the USA. Their life had become so comfortable, in comparison to the other refugees, that they rioted when they heard that they were to be moved to the ghetto. They yelled that they were an intellectual elite who deserved better treatment.
Some scholars have used this the riot of the Mir students to argue that they had grown arrogant and spoilt in their exile. It hardly matters now. All that really matters is that however unpleasant their lives in the Shanghai ghetto during the last years of the war, they survived. They would not have done so had they remained in Lithuania.
Shanghai, under Japanese occupation, was a haven for the displaced and dispossessed. One of the very few places in the world during the Shoah to offer a refuge to those Jewish refugees who, for whatever reason, had been unable to find sanctuary elsewhere. The escape of the Mir yeshiva has been recounted many times. The lesser known stories of the Shanghai ghetto are only just beginning to emerge, as Rachel Meller’s book testifies.
This article originally appeared in Harry Freedman’s Jewish Notebook. Visit and subscribe to Harry Freedman’s Jewish Notebook here.