With a Single Step

Posted on December 24th, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single stepLao Tzu*, c. 550 BCE

Every exhibit at JMM is a journey. Many, like last year’s Just Married!,v are journeys through time set in our own backyard here in Maryland. A few, our current exhibit Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini, is an example, travel across the globe as well. But no matter how deep or how far the journey they all, following the Taoist proverb begin with a single step.

Sometimes that step occurs within the walls of our museum – like finding an unusual object in our collection. Sometimes it seems to be serendipity (besheret) – for example, my encounter with magician David London while escaping the heat at Artscape.

The single step that initiated our next project happened halfway around the world.

Two JMM Board members (Duke Zimmerman and Abe Kronsberg) on a tour of China stepped into the former Ohel Moshe synagogue in Shanghai which has been converted into the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and started a conversation with the Museum’s director James Yang. Their meeting let to an e-mail and that e-mail led to an agreement and just fourteen months later JMM will host the Maryland premiere of Jewish Refugees and Shanghai, a panel exhibition of photos and facsimiles with bilingual text in English and Mandarin.

My personal interest in the Shanghai story began years ago when I read Rabbi Marvin Tokayer’s Fugu Plan, the story of the Lithuanian refugees saved by Consul Sugihara and their difficult passage across Russia to Kobe, Japan and eventually to Shanghai. I knew that they were a small part of a much larger refugee community in Shanghai during the Holocaust, but I frankly lacked an appreciation for just how much larger (more than 20,000 Jewish residents) and how much longer (1937 to 1948) this refugee community survived.

Shanghai, today by far the largest city in the world, was a relatively small town into the early 1800s. The Treaty of Nanking (1842) imposed by the British at the end of the First Opium War had the effect of making Shanghai an open port – a place where East met West. It also encouraged the first Jewish settlers here, Baghdadi merchant families, like the Sassoons and the Kadoories, who made the city a base for their East Asian operations. A second wave of Jewish settlement came between 1903 and the mid-1920s and Jews fled the pogroms of Russia and later political uncertainty of the Soviet Union for new lives in Harbin and Shanghai.

The third, and most desperate wave of immigrants began to arrive from Germany in 1937 and, after the Anschluss, from Austria in 1938, many saved by exit visas from Chinese diplomat, Dr. Ho Feng Shan.The neighborhood where they settled, Hongkou, soon acquired the nickname “Little Vienna.” By the time they arrived, Japan had already occupied much of the city outside of the International Settlement and their fate during the war would be entwined with the shifting positions of the Japanese government, consistently under pressure from its German allies to adopt harsher policies towards the Jewish community.

The exhibit not only explains the history of the community as a whole, but also devotes considerable attention to individual stories, of both the famous and unheralded residents. There is a panel on the life of future US Treasury Secretary, W. Michael Blumenthal and one on artist Peter Max and his first Chinese art tutor. There are also stories of work life, weddings, and beauty contests – of help from Chinese neighbors and struggles to survive.

When we agreed to present this exhibit we also started looking through our own collections for Maryland connections to the Shanghai Jewish experience. We knew we had the marriage certificate in Chinese for Wilhelm and Selma Hirschfeld Kurz who were married in Shanghai and moved to Baltimore after the war. (JMM 2004.43.1)

We began conversations with our docent, Rena Rotenberg (whose husband was in Shanghai) and Yvonne Daniels who was born in that community (and has since agreed to be a speaker in an upcoming program). We also discovered a number of fundraising scripts and posters used locally in the effort to support the community both before and after the war. These conversations and materials will form the basis of a small lobby exhibit on the Jews of Shanghai and Maryland that will be a companion piece to the main exhibit during its run from February 3 through March 10.

Though the exhibit is at JMM for only a short period of time, we are packing a lot of programming into these five weeks. Our members-only preview, taking place on the evening of February 2nd is themed “Vienna Meets Shanghai” and features musical performances and culinary treats derived from both cultures – including a first-ever Lion Dance in the Lloyd Street Synagogue.

In subsequent weeks we will feature a half dozen lectures and films related to the Jewish experience in China – including two documentaries – Above the Drowning Sea and Minyan in Kaifeng (narrated by Leonard Nimoy, this is the unusual story of a 1,000 year-old Jewish community in central China).

Our Education department is also using this exhibit as a platform to expand our offerings. In conjunction with the Baltimore Jewish Council and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum we are offering a “Winter Teacher’s Institute.” In this program, which parallels our annual summer institute, we will provide on-site and off-site workshops that will enable teachers across Maryland to incorporate the Shanghai story into their curricula. In another initiative, our educators have reached out to Chinese language programs at both the high school and college level, inviting them to take this rare opportunity to practice reading skills in Mandarin while learning about an important piece of history. Several schools and college programs have already scheduled field trips.

With these initiatives we will take thousands more of our visitors on a journey – that began with a single step.


*This is a loose translation of the quote which references a “1000 li”, a Chinese unit of measurement that in the sixth century BCE was actually closer to ¼ of a mile today – but it’s the same concept.

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A Story from the Archives: Is This Goldie?

Posted on October 22nd, 2018 by

Blog post by JMM archivist Lorie Rombro. You can read more posts by Lorie here.

In 1948 the United Jewish Appeal, with the help of numerous international organizations assisting in moving over 240,000 displaced Jews from D.P. Camps, France, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, North Africa, Shanghai, and other places to new lives in Israel, America, Canada, Australia and all over the world.

One of the vessels moving refugees was the USAT General Stewart that was originally used in 1946 to transport the troops home from Europe and Asia. By 1950 the General Stewart was being used to transport refugees for the International Refugee Organization, traveling from Bremerhaven Germany to New York and Halifax, Novia Scotia. Many of these refugees fleeing to the United States and Canada were Jewish.

On December 1, 1950 Abraham, Sonja and their 4-year-old daughter Goldie Friedman would board the USAT General Stewart in Germany with almost 1300 other refugees and twelve days later arrived in New York. Aaron and Sonia were the sole survivors of their families, their lives had been torn apart by the Nazi regime and after ten years of living in ghettos, concentration camps and as a displaced person they would be able to start a new life in the United States.

The Friedman’s were met by workers of the United Service for New Americans, part of the United Jewish Appeal, an organization that was supported by the Associated Jewish Charities and Welfare Fund in Baltimore. From the harbor the Friedman family boarded a train to Baltimore and were met by Mrs. Julian Adler, a representative of the Council of Jewish Women in Baltimore.

Above images from the 1949 Associated Jewish Charities scrapbook.

Sonia, Aaron and Goldie Friedman and Mrs. Julian Adler from the Council of Jewish Women in Baltimore, JMM 1996.063.041.

I learned about the Freidman’s in the 1950-1951 Associated scrapbook in the museum’s collection. The Friedman family would have an entire article written about them in the New American magazine distributed by the United Service for New Americans. The first article, ­Baltimore Opens Its Doors to a Newcomer was printed on December 29, 1950. The article starts with “The recently liberalized immigration law has resulted in a new flow of refugees to this country…. Baltimore is receiving an average of ten such families a month…Approximately $300,000 is spent annually by Associated agencies for its refugee aid program, a quarter of a million dollars of which is expanded by the Jewish Family and Children’s Bureau. The Story of the arrival of and adjustment of one family under the auspices of the JFCB, the Friedman’s, will be told pictorially as a regular weekly feature of the Jewish press.”

As I moved on the next page of the scrapbook something about the picture on the cover made me turn back the page, the names were so familiar. On a whim I took a picture of the article and texted it to my mother, “Is this Goldie?” After a few hours, my mother texted back, “YES!”

I couldn’t believe it, the little girl in the article was one of my mother’s closest friends. I had grown up my whole life knowing Goldie and her family, we took family trips together, my first time at Disney was with them. I had met her father as well and remembered him as the kind and sweet grandfather of my friend. Because of this I was able to find information in our HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) records on Goldie’s arrival to this country and her parents’ history.

At the museum we often get to help families find information on their history, sometimes it’s hit or miss but it’s always very gratifying when we can use our collection to help someone understand their past. And in case you were wondering I always take a peak to look for my own history as well. United Hebrew Charities Donor Booklet, 1915, JMM 1997.134.067.

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A Single Suitcase

Posted on June 29th, 2018 by

A blog post by Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Last December, we reprinted an article from our journal, Generations (Winter 2002), telling the story of the Weil family and their arduous journey out of Germany in the early days of World War II.  I’d like to add an illustration to that story, in the form of a plain leather suitcase:

Suitcase owned by Theo and Hilde Weil. Gift of Toni Weil Mandel, JMM 1990.119.1

In 1938, Theo and Hilde Weil lived in Freiburg, Germany. Their three young-adult daughters, Toni, Lisa, and Erna, had a clear sense of what was happening to Jews in their country, and urged their parents to begin the lengthy and expensive process of applying for travel papers to the United States. Kristallnacht – and the subsequent arrest and detainment of Theo, which left him bedridden for several weeks after his family rescued him – showed the senior Weils that it was indeed time to leave their home and try to start over in a new country. In addition to moving forward with their visa applications, the family packed up much of their furniture and belongings and shipped them ahead to New York, hoping they’d soon be able to go there themselves.

“The trouble in Germany was things didn’t happen suddenly. It was a little and a little and a little, and you can always take a little more.”  – Toni Weil Mandel  (JMM OH 246)

 Shortly afterward, the three Weil sisters left Germany on their own, working and saving money for some time in England before they secured their US visas. After arriving in Boston in 1940, they learned that the crates of family furniture were being moved from New York to Baltimore; not knowing what else to do, the girls moved here as well, and managed to find work and shelter.

In the meantime, however, their parents in Freiburg were not faring well.  Despite finally receiving clearance to come to the US, the Weils were not permitted to leave Germany. In October of 1940, the Nazis announced that all remaining Jews in Freiburg would be deported, with only an hour’s notice. The Weils were allowed one suitcase in which to pack their things.

This suitcase measures 17” x 29” x 10” – about the same size as my own carry-on bag (it even has an expandable top, like mine, for when you need to cram in just that little bit more).  My carry-on barely holds the clothes, shoes, books, and toiletries I consider ‘essential’ for a few days’ vacation, let alone the things I would want if I suspected I would never see my home again.

While they were packing, Hilde wrote a quick letter to her daughters, which she later managed to shove out of the sealed train. The letter was found and mailed, by an unknown person, to the Weil sisters in Baltimore, who otherwise would have had little or no idea what had happened to their parents.

Hilde and Theo Weil, Hilde’s mother Lina Wachenheimer, several other relatives, and their Jewish neighbors were taken to France and imprisoned in Gurs.  Once the girls discovered what had happened, they began working to secure the release of their parents and grandmother, gathering the money, affidavits, and travel papers necessary to prove that these people – forced to leave their home without identification – were the people they claimed to be, and were, thanks to their earlier visas, permitted to come to the US.  Eventually their efforts succeeded, and in April 1941, the senior Weils arrived in Baltimore … still carrying their single suitcase.  (Lina stayed in New York, with her daughter Sophie.)  It is important to note that most internees at Gurs were not so fortunate.

Theo and Hilde settled in Baltimore with their daughters but, weakened and depressed by their time in the internment camp, their lives were never the same. In an interview, Toni later remembered that her mother was “starved to death” when she got to Baltimore, and that the first shocks of America’s abundance were hard for Hilde to bear: “When we took her the first time to a food market, she asked us to take her out, she couldn’t see that food. She said, what she’d seen in a few seconds would feed that camp for years.” (Toni Weil Mandel, JMM OH 246) Thankfully, the Weils had a community of people who had endured similar experiences; they joined Chevra Ahavas Chesed, a charitable organization and burial society founded by European Jewish refugees in 1940.  They were both naturalized as US citizens in 1947 and lived in Baltimore for the rest of their lives; Hilde died in 1961, at the age of 73, and Theo died in 1970.

Naturalization cards for Hilde and Theo Weil, issued by the US District Court in Baltimore on January 13, 1947.  Via ancestry.com.

Take some time today to put yourself in the shoes of Hilde and Theo Weil in October 1938. Though reluctant to give up their home and lives in Freiburg, they had shipped most of their large belongings off to a country to which they had no assurances they would be able to move. Their lives were in danger. Their daughters were on their own, across an ocean. They were given an hour to pack the remainder of their belongings into a single suitcase, knowing they were about to be sent off to face an uncertain fate. If this happened to you, how would you react? What would you pack? How would you get word to your children?  These are questions that we at the JMM take seriously, as part of our educational mission, and I urge our readers to consider them seriously as well.

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