“Gene speaks Chinese of the gutter!” said an old family friend.
It was surprising, on the other hand that my elderly Jewish father-in-law, who died two days ago, spoke Chinese at all, one of many unusual skills…playing harmonica was another…. he picked up during an unusual and long life.
Along with 20,000 other European Jewish refugees, Gene spent World War II in Shanghai. It was a free port at the time, the only place that would have him. Along with a brother and sister, he spent eight years in Shanghai, first as a baker and then, after he developed a flour allergy, as a riverboat navigator on the Yangtze River.
This spring in China I was fascinated to visit the Jewish section of Shanghai. World War II was actually the third wave of Jewish immigrants to Shanghai. The first was two wealthy Baghdadi families—the Kadoories and Sassoons–and their employees, who became even more wealthy through opium trade, which was then legal. The Kadoorie family, now based in Hong Kong, still owns the Peninsula Hotel chain. The second wave of immigrants were refugees from the Russian pogroms.
Far the largest group was Europeans fleeing Hitler.
They struggled, to whatever extent possible, to maintain the sophisticated lives that they
had had in Europe, even when daily living was made near impossible by Japanese internment of “stateless persons” and by disease and poverty. Gene’s bakery made the dark rye breads favored by his countrymen.
Theaters and “coffee houses,” were common and even if customers had no money for coffee, let alone pastries, they would order hot water so they could enjoy their evening sociably.
One of two synagogues in Shanghai is now a Jewish museum, the whole district under historical protection to prevent wholesale replacement of old structures with glass buildings as is happening everywhere else in urban China.
Over the years Gene and his brother Bruno attended “rickshaw reunions” of those who had spent the war in China. Bruno died a few years ago, suffering dementia at the end. Although he was quite frail for a long time, Gene was always proud of his knowledge and intellect. “The most important thing,” he would tap his head as his body was giving up, “is that my mind is clear.”
He liked to pull out that rasty Chinese every time it was appropriate.
And often when it wasn’t.