A young boy says Kaddish in a small synagogue in Shanghai, his mournful Hebrew expressing the prayer’s connection with life in the wake of his father’s death.
In the past year, the resilient 10-year-old has experienced the split of his family, the horrors of Kristallnacht, the hurried escape to a foreign city, and now the death of his father.
With the few loved ones he has left, the boy, Jerry Lindenstraus, says goodbye to his father and his childhood as he knew it. As he recites this Jewish prayer for the dead, he faces a new world full of uncertainty and loss not uncommon to the other 18,000 Jewish refugees in the Hongkou district of Shanghai.
Lindenstraus, now 93 and a resident of New York City, survived a childhood that took him to four continents and near-constant loss and persistent trials. As a survivor, he seeks to memorialize the struggles of those he knew and lived with in the ghetto of Shanghai, having spent most of his life fighting for the increased awareness of Holocaust survivors.
Thousands of European Jews braved the miserable conditions of the ghettos to establish a refuge in Shanghai, a fact that often surprises many people.
When asked about the anti-Semitic events in history that led to the upheavals in his life, he simply said: “There were, and always will be.”
He also aims to inspire the next generation to be proactive in learning from mistakes of the past, and maybe to make life better for his grandchildren and others.
He was especially shocked and horrified by the Nazi-inspired torch rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017. He viewed the rally as a backslide into anti-Semitism. He condemns former President Donald Trump or anyone else who said there were good people on both sides of the rally.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “It [Anti-Semitism] has been there, it has always been there, hundreds of years ago, thousands of years go, and it will always be there.”
And it has to be called out for what it is, Lindenstraus said.
From childhood joy to terror
Lindenstraus was born in June of 1929 to parents Louie and Lillie, in the German town of Gumbinnen. He had a joyful childhood, and his family was a staple of the Jewish community. He was a typical mischievous boy with many friends, he said, even sneaking off to watch military parades that fulfilled every child’s desire for excitement.
“Life was great until 1933,” he said, “when the Nazis took power. That’s when life changed completely.” From there, he moved to Konigsberg, the capital of East Prussia, where his parents then got divorced.
What happened next went down in history.
On the nights of Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, German Nazis unleashed a series of violent attacks on Jewish communities throughout Germany. This incident came to be known as “Kristallnacht” or “the Night of Broken Glass.”
The sounds of shattering windows and the crackle of flames as synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses burned to the ground continues to haunt the minds of survivors. Lindenstraus didn’t hear the noises or the fires because he was asleep. But he learned about the devastation in a hard way.
“I didn’t see the flames because it was at night,” Lindenstraus said as he recalled the infamous event, “but when I tried to go to school the next day, it wasn’t there anymore.”
Soon after, his father decided it was time to leave Konigsburg for their safety.
They had heard of a place that would let in refugees without a visa.
“Out of all places, Shanghai, China,” Lindenstraus said. The city was a melting pot of vying international powers, vice, indulgence and poverty. The Chinese section was overrun with Japanese officers and Nazis.
“It was incredible,” he recounted. “I mean nothing that I could have ever expected.”
The blinding lights of the nightclubs and restaurants could not gloss over the poverty that was rampant among both the Chinese and the Jewish refugees.
The poor living conditions and stress led to his father’s death from pneumonia six months after their arrival in Shanghai, adding another shock to Lindenstraus’ turbulent childhood.
After the death of his father, he lived with his stepmother in half of a room, without running water, separated from another family only by a Persian carpet.
Like many other refugees in Shanghai, he contracted malaria and other tropical diseases due to the poor sanitation. But he still considers himself one of the more fortunate ones. He lived in the cramped ghetto for seven years, only allowed to exit once the Japanese surrendered in 1945.
“We woke up one day, and the Japanese were gone,” he said, grateful for his escape from the ghetto that served as a prison during his teenage years.
From China to South America
As Lindenstraus left his Shanghai life behind, he began a new one in Bogotá, Colombia, where his birth mother resided.
At first, he was hesitant due to their estranged relationship from years apart, but a relative reminded him gently: “Blood is thicker than water.” So when his mother sent him a ticket, he left the Shanghai ghetto’s rickshaws and opium dens for Colombia’s glitzy parties and political unrest. “I had to go,” he said, “[it was] my third lifestyle, with again different parents.”
After seven years in Colombia, Lindenstraus traveled around the U. S. until he started an export business in New York City in 1953, utilizing his multilingual skills.
Lindenstraus since has called New York City home. “When I came to New York, my money ran out, and I stayed, and I’m still here.”
In the 70 years he has spent in New York City, Lindenstraus married, had a son, and has seen his grandkids grow up as well.
Sixty-seven years after the funeral of his father in the small Ohel Moshe synagogue in Shanghai, Lindenstraus was invited back to speak at the grand opening of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which immortalizes that same synagogue. In the same place where he said Kaddish for his father, Lindenstraus was given a chance to speak for the survivors of the Holocaust.
“It was pretty emotional,” he said when asked about how it felt to come back to Shanghai after all those years. While his story is not the most common among those who lived through the Holocaust, he still wants the stories of the Shanghai refugees to be commemorated.
“The story of Shanghai is very unknown; even American Jews don’t know the story,” he said. Lindenstraus is glad that the city of Shanghai decided to recognize those who lived in the ghetto, and further educate the public of the atrocities that occurred under the Nazi regime by constructing a museum.
Staying on guard
Not long before Shanghai was commemorating Jews who had lived in ghettos there, the U.S. was experiencing renewed flashes of anti-Semitism. Neo-Nazis allied with white supremacists who did not want statues of Confederate war heroes Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson removed from downtown Charlottesville. On Aug. 11, 2027, Neo-Nazis shocked the country as they carried lit torches, a totem of Nazis during Lindenstraus’ childhood, onto the University of Virginia Lawn, yelling anti-Semitic slurs and threats.
The modern-day Nazis and their confederates had planned another rally for the next day on the downtown mall. The day ended in violence, with Heather Heyer being murdered by James Fields. Several dozens were injured. Lindenstraus was one of many Jewish people around the country and the world who took notice.
Many in Charlottesville will never forget.
The man who survived Nazi Germany, a Shanghai ghetto, the loss of his family, his father and a peaceful childhood, will not forget, either. And he does not want future generations to forget how easily their freedoms, homes and family can be taken away by anti-Semitism.
“Keep your eyes and ears open, and make sure to be involved, and be active so that these things don’t happen again,” he said.