Eric Kisch, "Kisches from Shanghai"

Eric Kisch talks about his experiences

On Sunday July 15th about 30 people gathered at the Holocaust Centre to hear Eric Kisch, a child survivor, talk about his experiences growing up in Shanghai.

Eric currently live in America and was holidaying in Australia while visiting family and friends. He was born in Vienna of Austrian parents and lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong till the age of nine. Then he came to Australia where he learnt his third language in nine years. He completed his schooling and University of Melbourne. At the age of 23 he took up post graduate studies in New York.

Relatively little was known about people's experiences in Shanghai. Recently memoirs have been published and Eric gave a reading list which is attached to this newsletter. He also recommends the film, "The Last Refuge in Shanghai" for an excellent depiction of the times.

Why did European Jewish people go to Shanghai? Shanghai was an international city which started as a fishing village until Western powers wanted a foothold in Chinese trade. There were three waves of Jewish migration. The first was in the 1800's. Anglo trading companies established themselves there, families such as the Sassoon's and Kadoori's. The second was after the Russian Revolution in 1917, when white Russians settled in Shanghai. The third and biggest wave was in the 1930's. European refugees fled there up till 1941, because a visa was not required. Ultimately Shanghai took 15,000 refugees, mostly from Germany and Austria. In 1941 the Japanese closed the door.

The story of Eric's family connection to Shanghai began on May 29th, 1938 when his father and uncle were grabbed in the street by the Gestapo and sent to forced labour camps in Dachau and Buchenwald. Miraculously, they were released in February 1939 and given four weeks to get out of Austria.

In February 1940 Eric, aged two, his mother, Grete and grandmother, Nina arrived in Shanghai on the last boat to leave Europe. They lived in the French concession until 1943, when the Japanese herded all the Jewish people into a ghetto in Hongkew. They left China in July 1946 and stayed in Hong Kong till papers for Australia allowed them to leave for Melbourne in November 1946. Nina had left Shanghai earlier to join her son in Melbourne.

Eric sifted through boxes of papers and photographs belonging to his parents. He found some remarkable documents which tell the story. His mother's identity card shows the name "Sara", the name given to all Jewish women. His father's papers from Buchenwald give he first name as "Jude". He had shipping lists and tickets and photographs.

Eric talked about life in Shanghai and how for a child it was an adventure, a haven, a refuge. For the adults it was very different, even though relative to the events in Europe it was safe. Shanghai was an international city, full of foreign troops and armoured cars, typhoons and flooding. Sanitation and health were not too great to begin with and flooding resulted in a heavy toll of tropical disease.

Eric's father, Walter, arrived in Shanghai a year before the rest of the family. He managed to borrow money and establish a handbag shop in the French area. His brother, Ernst, who was a doctor, went ti Kiangsi province to a mission hospital. Eric remembers his uncle visiting from the country with huge crocks of eggs.

Eric showed us many photographs and documents on a Powerpoint presentation. We saw "then and now" images as he has recently returned to China. Jewish Hongkew was transformed into little Europe, with the area where he lived known as "Little Vienna". Eric attended a Jewish school which had been established by the Kadoori family, the Shanghai Jewish Youth School. We also saw pictures of the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, the old Ward Road Synagogue, the last remaining structure of Jewish Hongkew. It is now a museum, with a Chinese caretaker.

From Shanghai, Eric and his parents went to Hong Kong where they waited five months for a passage to Australia. They stayed at the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, which was converted to a displaced persons camp and is now a luxury hotel.

Eric returned to Shanghai in October 2000. He didn't recognise anything. During the war it was a European neighbourhood. Now it is totally Chinese.

The evening was attended by several people who had also spent childhood years in Shanghai, including someone who lived in the same street as Eric's family. A lively discussion ensued with reminiscences of extraordinary circumstances.

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