LONDON — “I had no idea what Shanghai was like,” says Otto Schnepp, one of the contributors featured in the documentary “Above the Drowning Sea.”
“It was like going to the moon,” he says.
Schnepp left Vienna as a refugee with his parents after the Anschluss at the age of 13. He lived in Shanghai until 1948.
Following the Evian Conference in July 1938, and Kristallnacht the following November, it became increasingly difficult for European Jews to find refuge in a country willing to take them.
China was an unlikely destination: it was in the throes of a civil war between its nationalist government and the communists, led by Mao Zedong. The country was also under Japanese occupation. Shanghai was a city in chaos; famine and poverty were rife.
Nevertheless, it became an unexpected safe haven for over 20,000 Jews from Austria, Germany and Poland.
“Above the Drowning Sea” is narrated by actor Julianna Margulies and was written and directed by US-based Emmy award winning writer and producer René Balcer (Law & Order) and director Nicola Zavaglia.
The film tells the story of thousands of Jews who managed to escape Nazi occupied Austria to the open port city of Shanghai between 1938 and 1940 due to the brave intervention of the Vienna-based Chinese consul, Ho Feng Shan.
Defying orders and resisting threats from the Gestapo, Ho issued around 2,000 Chinese visas to Jews before the Germans seized the consulate building. He then set up office in a nearby restaurant, where he continued to supply visas. By the time he was ordered to return to China in 1940, he had signed approximately 5,000.
In 2000, Yad Vashem posthumously designated him as Righteous Among The Nations.
This compelling, compassionate and beautifully shot film includes interviews with a small group of Jewish refugees whose lives were saved by Ho Feng Shan, as well as some of the Shanghainese residents who befriended the families. The former refugees, most of whom were young children at the time, recollect life in Shanghai and Vienna — the departure point for many.
Since September 2017, “Above the Drowning Sea” has screened at numerous international film festivals as well as at private events. Last month, it had its first UK screening at BAFTA in London in partnership with the Pureland Series, and it will also be shown at the LA Jewish Film Festival on April 29.
Balcer first learned about Ho Feng Shan and the Jewish refugee experience in Shanghai from his wife, who is Shanghainese.
“She heard the story from her parents and also from [former] refugees,” Balcer tells The Times of Israel over the phone.
“She grew up in Hong Kong and Thailand and every now and again when she was out with her family in a public place, like in a restaurant, they would be approached by a Jewish person after they heard them speaking Shanghainese. They would be told that hearing it brought back memories of their childhood in Shanghai,” Balcer says.
The way of the dove
The current worldwide refugee crisis prompted Balcer to make the film, and the documentary is framed by contemporary footage, which emphasizes the story’s historical relevance.
“I thought, what can we learn from history about a crisis like this and what lessons can we [gain from it]?” he says.
“I’m not saying that the situations are completely analogous but there are parallels,” he continues. “History doesn’t necessary repeat itself but it certainly rhymes.”
The film highlights the lack of tension that existed between the Jews and the Chinese. Balcer attributes this to several factors. Anti-Semitism, he says, was largely unknown then.
There has never been a state religion in the thousands of years of Chinese civilization, Balcer says, noting that the Chinese recognized religion’s potentially divisive nature. Therefore, through the various dynasties all religions were tolerated and accepted, and none were favored.
Perhaps the bigger factor was the Confucian upbringing of most Chinese at the time, he says.
“Confucianism,” says Balcer, “taught that we are all born equal and the only way someone distinguishes themselves is through education and good works — but essentially, we are all the same. As one of the Chinese witnesses says in the film, ‘They were just like us.’”
More similar than different
Both communities were living under duress and suffered from the Japanese occupation of the city.
The film shows that some of the relationships that formed went beyond tolerance. Some were personal — Jewish families rented rooms from Chinese families and children played together. Others were mercantile. Jewish shops sprang up, photographic studios and watch repairers appeared, all used by their Chinese neighbors.
But there had also been an established Jewish community in China prior to the arrival of its European refugees. In the 19th century wealthy Jewish families such as the Kadooris, the Sassoons and the Hardoons, had arrived from Bombay and Baghdad, founding hospitals and schools. They helped the new arrivals establish themselves.
Microbiologist, Dr. Karl Bettelheim, 86, recalls that shortly after his family’s arrival to Shanghai in 1938, his father, who was an accountant, found a job with the Sassoon Foundation.
“The city was divided at that time and they provided a flat [in the international settlement] which overlooked the river. One of the things I remember was the banana boats that went past — little sampans [flat bottomed Chinese wooden boats] — laden with bananas going to the market,” says Bettelheim.
Bettelheim was just a toddler when he fled Vienna, following his father’s arrest by the Gestapo.
“I’ve heard varying reports about what happened. My father was arrested for a day, a night or more — I’m not sure. In the end he was released on condition that he left the country within a fortnight or he would be sent to Dachau,” says Bettelheim. “He went to Belgium but decided that nowhere in Europe [would be safe] because Hitler was too strong. There was the possibility of going to Uruguay but that didn’t come about.”
Although he does not appear in “Above the Drowning Sea,” Bettelheim contributed to an earlier film, “Sanctuary Shanghai,” made in 1998, which took refugees back to their old landmarks in the city. He tells The Times of Israel through tears that he had not returned to Shanghai until then.
“I didn’t want to go back and see it under communist rule because that was not the Shanghai I remembered,” Bettelheim says.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Bettlelheim recalls that, “things changed rapidly.” In 1942, the Japanese ordered that all Jews be ghettoized into the Hongkou district, where many Jews already lived.
The area was referred to as “Little Vienna” because of its Viennese coffee houses and its bakeries. Conditions in the ghetto were crowded and it was stiflingly hot.
“We were forced to move into the area with very little time to do it in. From living in a two or three bedroom house, suddenly there were three of us, plus a dog, in one room,” he says. “My mother had a little charcoal burner [to cook on] and I wasn’t taught how to use a toilet properly until after the war.”
But despite the hardships towards the middle of the war, Bettelheim remembers his time in Shanghai fondly.
Bettelheim says he “wept bitterly” when he left Shanghai in 1949 at the age of 12, on the last ship to leave the city before the communists took over. The family went first to Vienna and then London, where they eventually settled.
Balcer says that “Above the Drowning Sea” shows us the potential of the individual to influence the lives of those around them.
“None of this happened because of the actions of one government who did this or that. And it wasn’t an NGO who did some grand humanitarian act, or a religious entity,” says Belcer. “It was really the act of individuals like Ho Fen Shang and then the citizens of the Hongkou district that led to some 20,000 Jews being saved.”