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Shanghai Ghetto

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Shanghai Ghetto

Starring: Martin Landau
Director: Dana Janklowicz-Mann
Rated: NR
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: September 2002
Genre: Documentary

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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

I had a buddy in high school, name of Herschel, who had blond hair and blue eyes. The odd thing is that his eyes cast an Asian look about him, though whenever we asked him about this remarkably distinct feature he replied only, "I was born in Shanghai." I knew from reading Jewish history that there was a Jewish community there just as there are in many areas of the non-Western world but not until I saw "Shanghai Ghetto" was I able to visualize just what this Chinese-based extended family was all about. Come to think of it, even after seeing "Shanghai Ghetto," I'm still wondering how this fellow was born other than through a union of German-Jewish and Chinese parents because there is no such indication of cross-cultural conjugation in the 95-minute documentary filmed and edited over a period of five years by Dana Janklowicz-Mann (whose son is one of the leading interviewees) and Amir Mann. After all, the 20,000 Jews living in the title Shanghai Ghetto were a pretty closed group in that the occupation forces in control of the large city may not have enclosed them by behind walls but required passes of those who wished to leave the area by day.

As you watch this doc, you become aware of one of the most unusual ironies of the 20th Century, chief of which is that the saviors of this fairly large group of escaping Jews, mostly from Germany but some from Russia and Poland as well, are not the Americans or even the Chinese, but rather the Japanese occupiers who allowed them into the country.

Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann open the film with the obligatory introduction, indicating that during the 1930s, Jews in Berlin were as a whole prosperous and in the professions. Ironically, their loyalty to Germany, their assimilation into the country is resented by the Nazis who took power in 1933 and incited the Master Race by indicting the Jews for "taking over" the German practices of law and medicine and the like. After Kristalnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass in which hundreds of Jewish stores were smashed and later synagogues burned to the ground beginning in 1938-- many Jews wanted out while others felt that the troubles would soon end. But who would take them? For all the love that Jews even today have for Franklin D. Roosevelt, Roosevelt dillied and dallied and would not issue more than a token number of visas to allow German Jews refuge in the U.S.

Those who sailed to Shanghai, other than the restricted territory of British Palestine willing to accept refugees, did so because (and here's another irony) the Japanese occupation, for political reasons, did not require visas to enter. That's not all: many of the refugees traveled the 8,000 to this new, old world by Japanese steamship, which departed from Genoa, Italy and housed the lucky emigrants able to raise the money to take the voyage. When they arrived, they settled into the poorest area of the large city and later, after a while were restricted to a ghetto. Lucky for them that they were not Americans, since after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were the enemies of the U.S. and England but did little to harm the German Jews were resided in Shanghai.

Janklowicz and Mann combine the usual talking-heads interviewing technique with stock footage, obviously grainy after some sixty years, showing the utter poverty and crowded conditions of the Chinese, and while the Jews shared the penury, they ironically did not think of themselves as deprived but instead lamented the awful conditions of the local population.

The interview subjects, all children at the time of the disruption, include Harold Janklowicz, the father of the director, who recalls his years under horrendous conditions, not realizing that the Jews who remained behind in most of Europe fared quite a bit worse. He and the other subjects I. Betty Grebenschikoff, Sigmund Tobias and Evelyn Pike Rubin, all of whom escaped from Germany describe how they would have to leave the cooked rice on the windowsill for five or ten minutes so that the bugs would crawl out before they could consume the gruel. In some cases, noodles would spill out from trucks onto the filthy streets, while starving children picked up the product and sifted out the debris the broken glass as well as the dirt. Because of the filthy bathroom conditions, the residents would not shower but would instead sponge themselves in the one room in which they'd reside.

One feature missing that makes this documentary less involving than "Komediant" about Yiddish theater in the U.S. is that the very nature of the subject precludes what we call entertainment. Though brief mention is made of a cabaret society that developed to entertain the refugees, this is not developed, presumably because of the lack of footage of these celebratory events. Another deficiency is the directors' emphasis on the talking heads when stock footage might have been used to a greater degree. At least one of the subjects, I. Betty Grebenschikoff, delivers her talk in a monotone as though emotionally dead from her experiences sixty years ago as opposed to the far more lively Prof. Irene Eber, a Professor of History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who did not have to live through the misery but has done research in the area.

All in all, an instructive experience albeit one oddly lacking in the emotion that the directors might be expected to bring to such a terrible ordeal.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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