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A Safe Haven on the Sea



Senior Fellow Jacob Fertig is a documentary filmmaker and impact producer based in New York City. He is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Denizen Studios. Together with filmmaker Eris Qian, he has written an article on the surprising journeys that Jewish refugees took to Shanghai to escape the Nazis.

Shanghai became the destination for about 20,000 Jewish refugees who had fled the Holocaust. Nearly two-thirds of these refugees were from Austria and Germany, and the majority of the rest were from Eastern Europe. Few people are aware of the curious months-long journey that brought tens of thousands of Holocaust refugees to the city in the first place, frequently in surprisingly posh accommodations. Survivors and historians have painted vivid portraits of Jewish life in the Shanghai ghetto — squalor, isolation, shortages of food and medicine — but few are aware of the circumstances that came before these conditions.

Shanghai was in fact one of the only free ports that did not require a visa to enter at the time, because the Chinese government had little control over border enforcement. According to the reports of the surviving, the trip east was astonishingly luxurious. The cruise ships served three lavish meals each day and packed the guests’ calendars with impressive shows and social gatherings. This was a drastic shift from the turmoil that characterized the life of the refugees in Europe, and from the conditions that were expecting them once arrived in Shanghai.

“The narrative of the stately oceanic passage jumps out from the bleakness of the Holocaust. It’s hard to ignore the parallel to the biblical Miriam’s Song of the Sea, sung by the Israelites upon crossing the Red Sea to refuge,” Jacob writes in the article.  “With their enemies close behind them and a vast desert ahead of them, they allowed themselves a brief respite to rejoice.”

You can find Jacob Fertig’s article on this Tablet Magazine page.