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'Shanghai Ghetto'

'Shanghai Ghetto': Another side of the Holocaust

Friday, December 06, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

God, assuming He exists, works in strange ways -- never more so than during the Holocaust. While His earthly agents in the Vatican and good Christian governments of Europe and America did nothing, thousands of Jewish refugees were delivered from evil by an unlikely rescuer on the other side of the war-torn world: Hirohito's Empire of Japan.

'Shanghai Ghetto'

RATING: PG-13 in nature for Holocaust themes and images

NARRATOR: Martin Landau

DIRECTORS: Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann

WEB SITE: www.shanghaighetto.com


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This amazing, largely unknown story is fascinatingly told in "Shanghai Ghetto," a beautiful documentary co-directed by Dana Janklowicz and Amir Mann, with narration by Martin Landau.

In the late 1930s, as Hitler's "Final Solution" became clear, German Jews were increasingly desperate to emigrate. But one by one, the cold-blooded bureaucrats of virtually every European country and America denied them permission to enter.

Strangely enough, the one place in the world that didn't require entrance visas was the "international" city of Shanghai, then controlled by Japan. Though quite brutal overall, the Japanese occupation of China was rather light-handed in Shanghai until U.S. entry into the war after Pearl Harbor in 1941. Prior to that, Shanghai was miraculously "open."

Seeing no other alternative, thousands of Jews -- against the advice of ill-fated relatives who told them to "wait it out" -- sold everything they had to scrape together steamship passage to China. Arriving penniless in an exotic urban cauldron that they were totally unprepared for (and that was totally unprepared for them), they found a society whose most profound difference from their own was not its alien language, culture or squalid living conditions but its unaccountable, life-giving willingness to take them in.

Their saga is told with great chronological clarity through interviews with articulate survivors and historians, who recall the complex relationships among the Jews, the local Chinese and the Japanese occupiers, plus the crucial assistance of the American Jewish community, which enabled them not only to survive but to create a rich cultural life of their own there.

Rare film footage of the time and place is employed, but the film's most moving moments stem from Janklowicz and Mann's clandestine trip to Shanghai with two of the survivors and a digital camera in April 2000, shooting at the site of the Jewish ghetto, whose labyrinthine lanes and alleys had remained unchanged since World War II.

With all the talking heads, there are static moments. But they are offset by dynamic revelations. "It wasn't anti-Semitism that bothered me as much as assimilation," observes one man, whose mission was to keep the community's ethno-cultural and spiritual values -- as well as the community itself -- alive.

If you and I thought we knew everything we needed to know about the Holocaust, we were wrong. That crime of the millennium contains precious few uplifting chapters with happy endings, but "Shanghai Ghetto" is one of them.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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