Welcoming refuge: Calgary groups tell story of how Jews fled Nazis for Shanghai

Richard Gotfried grew up hearing about how his father escaped Russia to seek refuge in China. Now his story, and that of thousands of Jewish people, is being told in Calgary.

Richard Gotfried says his family knows firsthand how Chinese people made them feel at home

Richard Gotfried's father, Abraham Gotfried, is pictured here with other Jewish people who sought refuge in Shanghai. Shanghai welcomed Jewish refugees for years, including thousands who later fled Nazi Germany. (Submitted by Richard Gotfried)

Richard Gotfried grew up hearing about how his father escaped Russia to seek refuge in China. Now his story, and that of thousands of Jewish people, is being told in Calgary.

A new exhibit in Calgary, Shanghai: A Refuge During the Holocaust, details how thousands of Jewish people sought refuge in Shanghai during the Second World War. 

And before that, the city was already welcoming Jewish refugees, including Gotfried's father, who immigrated as a child to China.

Gotfried's grandfather was killed by the Bolsheviks during the 1917 revolution in Russia. His role as an officer in the czar's army made him a target, and his wife and their five children fled to Shanghai, one of the few places offering refuge to Russian Jews.

Gotfried, who is the MLA in Calgary-Fish Creek, has been learning about his family's history and the many Jewish people who fled Nazi-occupied Europe to make a home in the safety of China.

Gotfried spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray. This interview has been edited for length and clarity:

Q: This exhibit at the Chinese Cultural Centre focuses on the Jews that fled Nazi Germany. How did they end up in Shanghai?

A: It was through a twist of fate and compassion.

There was a Chinese consul general in Vienna by the name of Ho Feng-Shan, who took it upon himself — against the orders of his superiors — to issue thousands of visas for Jews to have safe passage and to be allowed to land in Shanghai, at a time when Canada said none was too many.

That's the lesson for us here, I think, from this story.

Q: You mentioned both in your family's case but also in this case that Shanghai was welcoming at a time others weren't. Can you dig into that more? Why was that?

A: The international concessions of Shanghai were part of the Treaty of Nanjing but the Chinese people were very welcoming.

I think that's the story here and the beauty of this co-exhibit between the Chinese Cultural Centre here in Calgary and in the Calgary Jewish Federation.

It was a welcoming place. It was a place where they said, "Come, come to to Shanghai," to this place of welcome, this place of international collaboration, in many ways, and co-operation at that time.

They were allowed to land in spite of the fact that the Japanese occupation, of course, was in place, and led to some other issues, which are chronicled in this exhibition.

Q:  That was 1937. Was there any understanding between Confucianism and Jewish culture?

A: That was actually highlighted at the opening of this exhibit. Through Confucianism, in the open and welcoming nature of it, there was no sense of racism, no sense of anti-Semitism at the time.

In the many stories that we saw was the embracing and the co-mingling of the Chinese residents of Hongkou, which became the Shanghai ghetto. There were stories actually of children playing together, of the Chinese families supporting these unlikely refugees and ensuring that they were fed.

I mean, it was a tough conditions. There were 10 people living in a small apartment, in many cases, but it became a thriving community in its own right.

Q: This exhibit tells a story in part of your distant relatives, Gottfrieds with an extra "T." What became of them and other Jewish refugees in Shanghai after the war?

A: Many sought refuge beyond Shanghai. I mean, of course, there were signs of the communist revolution coming after 1945 but many did have relatives that were given safe passage to the U.S., to Australia, to Canada.

Hongkou and the Shanghai ghetto, it was a place of refuge for them but not necessarily a place of final resting and landing for them.

But many stayed. There was still a vibrant population. My father did not leave until 1949 until he was forced to. I hear that there's some rumours that some stayed until the mid-1950s.

Q: What does that mean to you, all these generations later as a Gotfried living in Calgary, to see an exhibit like this?

A: My father ended up going from China to Thailand, where he met my mother, who was a United Nations nurse. And through a twist of fate we ended up in Calgary, and I say I was conceived in Asia, born in Calgary.

But for me, I spent 20 years in the airline industry with Cathay Pacific. Strong roots, rebuilding those roots back to Asia and also strong roots with the Chinese community here in Calgary.

Richard Gotfried's grandfather, Aaron Gotfried, was killed in the Bolshevik revolution due to his role in the czar's army. The officer's family then fled to Shanghai, which welcomed Jewish refugees. (Submitted by Richard Gotfried)

For me, it's kind of a homecoming and a blending of my heritage, my Jewish heritage. I'm actually a Presbyterian because my mother was an Irish Presbyterian.

The big story here is, I think, of the welcoming place that Alberta is and how we need to not only embrace and treasure that, but to defend that, that which allows us to be the community and the society that we are.

Listen to the full interview with Richard Gotfried here:

The seldom-told history of Jews who escaped the Holocaust and found refuge in Shanghai will be marked in a new exhibit in Calgary. MLA Richard Gotfried tells his father's story. 7:05

The free exhibit runs until Feb. 24 at the Chinese Cultural Centre. It then moves to the Calgary Jewish Community Centre, where it will be exhibited from Feb. 26 to March 10.

With files from Lisa Robinson and the Calgary Eyeopener.

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