Epic tale of intercultural love and discovery

A touching love tale between a Jewish man and a Chinese woman is the subject of German writer and freelance journalist Stefan Schomann's book "Last Refuse in Shanghai."

China has long been a treasure trove of soul-touching sagas of epic proportions for writers and historians. And nowhere is this more apparent in the intercultural love story between a young Jewish man and a Chinese woman in war-torn Shanghai during World War II.

The touching tale was discovered by Stefan Schomann, a German writer and freelance journalist, and it became the subject of his book “Last Refuge in Shanghai.” Schomann calls it “a crazy story that happened in a crazy time” in an “exotic location.”

In 1939, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, Robert Reuven Sokal fled his country with his family and joined around 20,000 fleeing Jews, to embark on an odyssey from central and eastern Europe to the foreign concessions in Shanghai, one of the few places that didn’t require Jewish refugees seeking sanctuary to have a visa.


“Last Refuge in Shanghai”

Cross-border lovers

In Shanghai, while studying at St John’s University, Sokal, son of a Viennese paint factory owner, met Julie Chenchu Yang, who was born into a wealthy Chinese family. By then, Shanghai had experienced the pain of the Japanese invasion and Shanghai’s Chinese and Jewish communities shared a common sorrow.

“I was looking for a story that tells more than just an epic story of Jewish immigration to China, to Shanghai. I wanted to tell how China experienced the war and what happened in China,” Schomann says.

To combine a Euro-centric perspective with a Chinese point of view, which is rarely seen in earlier books on the Jewish community in Shanghai, Schomann spoke with Chinese neighbors of the refugees as well as Jewish survivors.

Since few people in the West knew what really happened in Shanghai in 1937, he thinks “Last Refuge in Shanghai” may fill in missing gaps in history.

“It was important to me to tell this (story),” he explains.

The young lovers supported each other through countless challenges, including the turmoil and cruelty of war, opposition from Yang’s family, and other obstacles in their intercultural marriage, eventually embracing a happy ending.

Born in 1962, Schomann, a student of German literature, has been a frequent visitor to China for almost 20 years. He has written articles on China for leading German media outlets and published four books on China in German and Chinese.

Schomann began to write in both languages inspired by Lin Yutang (1895-1976), a renowned Chinese author who wrote in both Chinese and English. The German author confessed it was Lin who inspired him about all things Chinese.

“It was absolutely fascinating to encounter such a bright mind from China, who was writing with such (ease),” Schomann says of Lin who was also a philosopher, thinker and cultural activist. “His books have a lot to (contribute) for a better understanding of Chinese culture and history, and Chinese mentality.”

Yet, understanding China is not an easy task for a Westerner.

“I think it’s impossible to perceive (China) as a whole, or to judge (it) as a whole, or to make statements about (it) as a whole. It will just lead to strong simplifications and generalizations,” Schomann says.

The German writer compared forming an image of China was like piecing together a complicated mosaic.

“The big image is composed of many little images — pieces of the mosaic. And you are always working on one piece,” he says.

This perspective is best illustrated in his new book released in June, “China — Strolls Through an Empire,” which features 10 individual travel stories covering trips to a diversity of Chinese landscapes, from wild deserts in the northwest to modern cities in the coastal east, as well as landlocked cities with ancient history and precious cultural heritages.


Stefan Schomann takes a photo next to a poster for an event for his book "Last Refuge in Shanghai" at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in September 2010.

Writing about China

Schomann cited an article in his book to illustrate the concept of a mosaic. He wrote about the two-day annual traditional storytelling festival in central China’s Henan Province, where “the whole universe of Chinese culture, mentality and entertainment” was present. He tried to present “the essence of this culture” in a 2,500-word narrative.

“As a journalist you take something quite limited, but then you open up a whole world within this topic,” he says.

Schomann deems himself to be a peer of Chinese storytellers, one who, by using a different medium, shares his experiences, thinking, and observations over the years “to create a comparatively easy access to China.” He calls it a personal access.

“People are intimidated by China. It’s such a big country and such a complex subject,” he says, explaining how the language with its system of characters instead of an alphabet, is alien to Westerners. And that is just one factor.

His aim is to help readers “overcome this intimidation of China by telling them that you don’t have to understand everything, just make the first step, and then the second, and then the third. Then you will be able to get somewhere.”

To create a real-life impression of China, Schomann resorts to other things besides writing. While researching the Shanghai refugees, he came across some historical footage taken by German photographer Eugen Flegler (1897-1981).

Flegler went on excursions to take photos of the countryside and the peasants in and beyond Shanghai from 1936 to 1938. Very few people took pictures of China’s rural areas in those years.

Schomann curated an exhibition with these historical images. The exhibition has been held eight times in Germany and China.

Covering China for years, Schomann has his own understanding of the Chinese Dream. He describes it as China “becoming a well-respected member of the global community, and to increase China’s importance and significance on an international level.”

Within two decades, China has made great progress toward that aim, he says. “China became more international, more cosmopolitan, more respected on (the) international stage.” And that is a story worth repeating time and time again.


The memorial wall at Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum lists the names of 13,732 Jews who found a haven in Shanghai in the 1930s.

Special Reports