Boredom and Excitement at Sea: Jewish Refugees' Experiences on Shanghai-bound Ships

Wed, 04/26/2023 - 10:46am
Jewish refugees from Vienna sit on the deck of the Conte Biancamano while en route to Shanghai. Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Eric Goldstaub
Jewish refugees from Vienna sit on the deck of the Conte Biancamano while en route to Shanghai. Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Eric Goldstaub

Between 1938 and 1940 an estimated 17,000 mostly Austrian and German Jews traveled from Europe to Shanghai, many on luxury liners. They were escaping the upsurge of violent antisemitism in Europe and headed primarily to Shanghai, at the time one of the few places in the world without any immigration barriers.

The journey between continents took an average of three to four weeks, mainly on Italian ships that stopped at ports such as Suez, Bombay, and Manila en route to China. These new refugees—Jews from all walks of life and from across the economic spectrum—were now passengers journeying together to an uncertain future in an unfamiliar place. Some had already passed in and out of concentration camps, others were so young they viewed the trip as nothing more than a playful adventure. The one commonality they shared is that they were no longer in Nazi Europe.

So what transpired during these voyages and how did the passengers pass the time? How did they adapt to their new refugee status and prepare for their new lives in a faraway land?

These are the questions being examined by Ryan Cheuk Him Sun, the 2022-2023 Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellow at the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research (CAGR). Sun, a PhD candidate in History at the University of British Columbia, Canada, recently spent a month at the Center poring over the Visual History Archive (VHA) testimonies of people who, pushed out of Europe, traveled east on luxury liners with names like the Conte Biancamano, the Scharnhorst and the Hakusaki Maru.

“These people were on a ship for up to four weeks,” Sun said in a recent interview. “What did they do? They weren’t just sitting around doing nothing. What I discovered is that the ships became a space of multiple possibilities.”

Martha Stroud, Associate Director and Senior Research Officer at CAGR, said Sun’s focus on these little-known voyages breaks new ground in the field of Holocaust studies.

“Ryan Sun’s attention to the journey itself and to the place of narratives about these ship-bound experiences in survivor testimonies has the potential to shed light on a new range of Jewish refugees’ experiences of the Holocaust,” she said. “His research also contributes to reconfiguring the geographic boundaries of what people think of when they think about the Holocaust.”

In early March, Sun gave a lecture at the University of Southern California about his research and sat for an interview to discuss what he learned from the more than 50 VHA testimonies related to the ocean passages. In the first of two installments, Sun talks about the forces that created the Shanghai-bound exodus, the journey itself, and how the passenger liners provided a safe space for many to process the horrors they had just experienced in Nazi Europe.

On the circumstances that prompted Jews to flee Europe

1938 was a pivotal moment for many German and Austrian Jews. In March of that year, the Anschluss with Austria created a frenzy of antisemitic violence directed at Austrian Jews. In November of that year, the state-sponsored Kristallnacht pogroms targeted Jews across the Third Reich and included the rounding up and deportation of 30,000 Jewish males to concentration camps such as Buchenwald, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen.

The upsurge in antisemitism and violence and the beginning of deportations to concentration camps laid bare a harsh new reality: the impossibility of Jewish life in Nazi Germany and Austria.

As such, Jews were suddenly desperately looking for ways to get out, but emigration was not an easy task. Applicants for visas faced seemingly endless barriers, including a slow and sometimes hostile consular bureaucracy, quotas, waitlists, and the need to obtain permits and certificates.

Shanghai was the destination of choice because of its ambiguous legal position. Part of the city was an international settlement administered by the Shanghai Municipal Council which acknowledged Chinese sovereignty but operated outside of it. As a result, Europeans did not require visas to enter the city. And Shanghai already had a very vibrant Jewish community.

Aside from the Trans-Siberian railway, the best way to get to Shanghai was by boat.

Most of the ships were Italian and would start off from Genoa, Venice, or Naples. So German and Austrian Jews would gather at train stations in Berlin, Vienna and other cities and take the train across the German border to ports in Italy.

The people leaving were only allowed to take ten Reichsmarks each. And only two pieces of luggage. So many sold their household goods, gave them to family or friends, or just left them behind.

The exodus went in waves. The first group was primarily German and Austrian Jews. And then slowly you’d have more Jews from Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. And then suddenly, once the war broke out, the trip became more difficult. Only when Italy entered the war on Germany’s side did the Italian sea route close.

The Passage to Asia

Once at sea there was a real whirlwind of excitement, and for many passengers, the adventure was underway.

The ships themselves were little societies that mimicked the same social hierarchies you’d find on land. Passengers would be traveling in either first, second, or third class. A first-class ticket would ensure an abundance of luxury: fancy suites, private bathrooms, multi-course meals, a movie room in the library, a swimming pool, and many other spaces where you could lounge and relax. A second-class ticket afforded a reduced number of amenities, but guests still had their own dining hall.  And—as you’d assume—a third-class ticket secured commensurate accommodation at the very bottom of the ship: tiny quarters in which as many as four people would be crammed into a single room.

The ticket class system enabled some passengers—especially those in first class—to reclaim and even expand on the freedoms they had lost under Nazi rule. Conversely, many passengers experienced third class as a disruptive force that presented hitherto unknown challenges and difficulties.

However, children were largely impervious to ticket-class distinctions and would freely run up and down the stairs and explore the ship, even if they were frequently told off by the crew or certain adults. 

The Visual History Archive shows us that the ship played an active role in facilitating intimate relationships, with people from all walks of life chatting with one another and interacting with members of the crew. Friendships and relationships formed that lasted well into the refugees’ time in Shanghai and in many cases beyond.

For example, 18-year-old Gertrude Ginsburg recalls that there was dancing and that young people were genuinely having a good time. And 14-year-old Gertrude Jellinek remembers how some of the young people, including herself, were flirting with each other. And it was on a ship that 20-year-old Elizabeth Cohen met her future husband, Herman, who proposed after knowing Elizabeth for less than two weeks.

Some passengers ate Italian food and drank Italian wine, while others lived less lavishly. In one testimony, a woman recalls her family keeping Kosher by only eating hard-boiled eggs for the entire trip.

But these journeys weren’t all fun and games, especially for passengers traveling in third class. In their testimonies, these passengers describe wearing clothes ill-suited to the heat, suffering seasickness, or languishing under the sheets.

And in two testimonies, interviewees made references to a strange sensation: feeling bored.

A young mother who left for Shanghai in January 1939 described the journey as “endless,” adding that “sailing in third-class accommodations in the bottom of the ship and taking care of a toddler was nothing short of horrible.”.

Another third-class passenger described a “close and uncomfortable” trip to Asia that he summarized as follows: “Nothing. Sleeping. Eating.”

On the journey as an opportunity for decompression and the ship as an “in-between space” following trauma in Europe and ahead of arrival in Asia.

The one thing I heard over and over in the testimonies—the one thing that brought everyone together on the boat—was that they felt free because they were no longer in Nazi Europe.

The ship was a place where, over time, survivors from the first encounters with concentration camps could have discussed what they went through, but it still would have taken a bit of time and would have depended on who the other passengers on the ship were.

One interviewee talked about his father having been sent to a concentration camp for a little bit, and how, at first, he wouldn’t talk to other passengers about his experience, how he’d been paranoid and would keep to himself.

But often, after people had been stuck on the ship for a couple of weeks and had had time to ground themselves and just think things over, they’d slowly start to open up about their experiences in the camps. This was the moment where they would start talking about having been tortured, saying things like ‘The Nazis did this to us,’ or “They forced us to do that’.”

Other passengers expressed a sense of sadness that they’d left people behind, that they hadn’t been able to persuade others to join them.

One passenger recalls going to breakfast with her husband on the first day of the voyage and being shocked at the number of people she saw who had been mistreated and given inadequate diets in concentration camps. And she said the food they were served on the ship was too rich and caused many to suffer from terrible pain.

As a 10-year-old boy, Kurt Pollack enjoyed the adventures onboard the ship, but his father had been sent to a concentration camp and tortured before release. He remembered other men in similar situations, how they were at first extremely reserved but, halfway into the journey, slowly opened up about their experiences in the camps.

In the next installment in this series, Sun will speak about how Visual History Archive testimonies provide a child’s perspective of the journeys, how the experience at bustling transit ports like Colombo along the way introduced the passengers to “the Orient,” and what it was like for Jewish refugees to arrive in Shanghai.

Read more about Ryan Cheuk Him Sun here.

Watch his lecture here.

Philip Wood
Pip Wood has worked as a journalist for outlets including ABC and CNN and in communications for the United Nations, multinational development banks, and non-governmental organizations.