Shabbat in Shanghai: A Personal Account of Jewish Refuges in China

Chinese Jews

Jews have had a long history in China. Jewish settlers have been documented in China as early as the 7th or 8th century CE. Many more arrived as refugees from the Russian Revolution of 1917. A surge of European Jews and Jewish families arrives in the late 1930s and 1940s, seeking refuge from the Holocaust in Europe.

I had the unique opportunity to sit down with Franklin Gerechter and discuss his family’s migration from Eastern Europe to Shanghai.

In 1916, Franklin’s mother, Ruth, was born in Madenu, East Prussia. She lived with her parents and sister in a small community with a population of 500. Her parents owned the local department store there. In 1936 they left Germany, moving from Italy to Japan until they finally settled in Shanghai in 1943.

In 1907, Franklin’s father, Gerhard, was born in Berlin. His father was a doctor and very active in German politics and police administration. Around 1933, Gerhard left Germany and lived in France and South America, before returning to Europe. He left Europe again and settled in Japan from 1939-1943. He lived in Kobe and married with one daughter, Eva. He also became active in helping Jews escape Germany via Japan.

In 1941, however, Gerhard’s wife died. A few years later, in 1943, he would leave Japan and went to China. There he met Ruth in Shanghai. Their wedding certificate was printed in Chinese.

In Shanghai, Gerhard worked to send information to the Allies regarding the German plot to deport Jews who lived there. He also spied on Jews who gave information to the Germans in exchange for favorable treatment in Shanghai.

Ruth and Gerhard were far from the only Jews living in Shanghai at the time. Several famous Jews also called China home. The artist, Peter Max, was a child in Shanghai, as was the former Treasury Sect. under President Carter, William Blumenthal.

In 1947, Ruth and Gerhard were able to obtain a sponsor and move to Paterson, New Jersey. Later, Franklin would be born in New York. At the same time, Ruth’s sister’s family was living in Shanghai, but was unable to get a sponsor for entrance into the United States (which was required under the Jewish quotas that existed at the time). As a result, they were sent to Chile, where they lived until 1965, before coming to the USA.

Both Ruth and Gerhard have passed away – Gerhard in 1977 in New York, and Ruth in 2002 in Los Angeles. Their story is a testament to the unwavering resilience and strength of the Jewish people.