Family revisits Jewish descendants' past in city

Gao Zichen
"It was in Shanghai that my grandparents met, fell in love and married, moved to Bolivia after the war, and settled in the United States in 1952," James Weber said.
Gao Zichen
Family revisits Jewish descendants' past in city
Gao Zichen

The Webers take a group photo with Chen Jian (4th left), director of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, during their visit to the city.

The family of James Weber, descendants of Shanghai Jewish refugees from San Francisco, visited the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in January this year.

"Thank you for preserving our family history so beautifully. What a blessing to share this experience together," James Weber said. "Joseph and Tessie would be so honored to see this beautiful museum preserving their history and stories. What a surprise seeing our great-grandfather's picture Dr Silbermann."

Dr Silbermann was remembered as a popular man who, in addition to receiving patients at his home, also worked at the nearby Ward Road House clinic as chief physician around that time.

James' grandfather, Joseph Weber, the son-in-law of Dr Silbermann, fled Austria with his parents and sister when he was 17 years old, as part of the nearly 20,000 Jewish refugees who fled Nazi-occupied areas in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s and settled in Shanghai, which was the only place on Earth that would allow refugees to enter without a visa.

From August 1939 to March 1947, Joseph spent a difficult and unforgettable youthful time of his life.

"It was in Shanghai that my grandparents met, fell in love and married, moved to Bolivia after the war, and settled in the United States in 1952," James said.

In his eyes, many photographs and exhibits in the museum seem to have come out of the "Book", a reference to Joseph's memoirs written around 1990 for his children. More than a third of the story details his experiences in Shanghai.

"Many pictures in the exhibition are similar to those kept in my grandparents' home: the Kadoorie School grandma attended, photos of her wedding dress, and the Victoria, the ship they took to Shanghai, where a replica of the model ship is displayed."

Across from the museum, there is a bronze sculpture of a Chinese woman bending down to hold an umbrella for a little Jewish girl with a bear in her arms on a rainy day.

On February 24, the same drizzly day, the day before Jonathan Weber, James' son, returned to the US, he and his Chinese wife stood staring at the sculpture, eyes turning red.

"I'm gonna cry just thinking about it. My family would not, I wouldn't be here today if my family hadn't been received in Shanghai," Jonathan said, choking up at one point.

"My great-grandfather was about the same age I am now when he got married in Shanghai. There definitely was gratitude from the Jewish refugees themselves and their families. Their children who lived in America, and then my parents and now me and my siblings, we haven't lost the gratitude."

Jonathan was the first in his family to come to Shanghai to "find his roots." In the summer of 2019, he met his future wife Annie from Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, when he was a college student. When they learned that Ningbo is close to Shanghai the family wanted to know if there's anything in Shanghai related to the Jewish refugees. In early 2020, on his way back from Ningbo, Jonathan stumbled upon the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum online and found the place preserving his family's history here.

This was his second visit to the museum after expansion, with the big family of 10 people.

Family revisits Jewish descendants' past in city
Gao Zichen

Jonathan Weber and his Chinese wife stand near the sculpture across from the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

Across the street from the museum, 125 Wayside Road (now Huoshan Road) was once the home of Jonathan's great-grandmother. Nearly 80 years later, Jonathan and Annie walked through that neighborhood of red and gray brick houses, the heart of the former ghetto where most of the Jewish refugees lived, feeling the magic of fate.

To make a living, Joseph had done more than 20 odd jobs in Shanghai. While working as a draftsman in an architectural office, he found that the best way to learn Chinese was to drop in on the workers at the construction site after work.

"Good-natured men would instruct me willingly. I developed some friendships and one day asked one of the master carpenters to make me a container for my four pairs of shoes. He used Philippine mahogany and the case turned out so beautifully that Father confiscated it right away, to be used as a food container," Joseph wrote in his memoirs.

Tessie and he had also been invited to dinner at Chinese friends' homes and attended their weddings. Although food was extremely scarce, they were always warmly entertained by their Chinese friends.

"Dish followed dish, each one a work of art. Pheasants and other birds would be deboned in the kitchen and then reassembled to their original shape, the same with fish and all served with delicious sauces and kept hot at the table in chafing dishes.

"According to Chinese etiquette, the honored guests were offered the most delectable bits by the hosts, who picked them from the dishes and placed them on our plates with their chopsticks. Between the main dishes there was lots of hot rice wine urged on us by the hosts who constantly refilled our small china cups. The concluding dish was a large tureen of soup which no one could enjoy – we were simply too stuffed."

It was a moment of warmth in the bleak life of the refuge years, when having to live under military occupation, with no end in sight, and the continued shadow of the war and possibly more Nazi persecution.

"When we have kids, we definitely want to bring them back to see their family here in China. And if when they're old enough, then we would definitely take them to this museum as well," Jonathan said.

(Gao Zichen is a volunteer at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.)

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