John Krich: Jews found refuge and pain in China
IF SAN FRANCISCO and Shanghai are sister cities, Ulrike Ottinger knows why.
When the veteran German documentarian sought out Jews who once found both refuge and misery in China's version of a wild Barbary Coast, the Bay Area provided her with more than enough testimonials - 4½ hours of finished film. The U.S. premiere screening of Ottinger's "Exile Shanghai" (12:30 p.m. Sunday, Castro Theatre; repeating 1 p.m. May 4 at Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley) is one of the Film Festival's truly cross-cultural events - and a kind of double homecoming for five "shanghaied" Bay Area residents who will be on screen and in the audience.
"But Shanghai is the real star," says Rena Krasno of Mountain View, whose story domi-nates the movie's first hour. "These aren't interviews in the normal sense. Each person shows a different facet of Shanghai, but you can't reflect all of them."
A true child of fate, Krasno was born in Shanghai when her father, fleeing Russia via China with a group of Zionists, suffered an appendicitis attack that left him trapped and state-less. While Sephardic Jewish traders from India had come to Shanghai as early as 1845, the Ashkenazi Jews from Russia were more typically like Krasno's father, the editor of a cultural journal published in three languages.
"Of course, we had servants, but even the prostitutes had servants." observes Krasno, who says of her upbringing, "Looking back, especially from Mountain View, it was very exciting. Somehow, life was stable even though no one knew about the future."
She has maintained a lifelong interest in the land of her birth, writing a memoir called "Strangers Always" and leading the Sino-Judaic Institute, an organisation that encourages research on a history that goes back to Marco Polo's mention of Jews, helps support China's "amazing" seven centers for Judaic studies and publishes a newsletter.
"Somehow, when I left and got distance," says Krasno, "I realized that I had absorbed knowledge that made China close to my heart - even though there was only one Chinese girl in my school and our courses never mentioned a word about China. The bad part of the colo-nial system was that I had no social contact with the Chinese."
That certainly wasn't the case for Geoffrey Heller, a long-time administrator with UC?Berkeley, whose boyhood tales conclude "Exile Shanghai." Arriving in 1940 to rejoin parents who had escaped Hitler's ovens by way of the Trans-Siberian Express, Heller was one of an estimated 20.000 German Jews sent to a "restricted" area by the Japanese to satisfy their Nazi allies.
Forced to live amongst, Chinese in the crowded Hongkew district, surviving without run-ning water and with the constant fear of being deported, Heller came to "greatly admire my Chinese neighbours for being able to maintain such civilized ways under adverse conditions."
Says the retired Heller, "I always hoped to be part of the rebirth of a free China" - at least, until he landed in San Francisco, which he considers "the world's most heavenly place." Still, he recalls fondly when "we Jews and Chinese shared a common enemy and celebrated a common victory."
After escaping the Nazis, Theodore Alexander, now "Rabbi Ted" of Danville, found em-ployment with one of Shanghai's large banking firms and was relatively comfortable "until the Japanese 'exchanged' my home for a hovel."
Alexander notes with pride how Jews reconstructed "a little Vienna, a little Berlin" by starting coffee houses, theaters, cultural groups, even synagogues amidst the bombed-out ru-ins of the Hongkew neighborhood ringed with barbed wire. One-day passes out were allowed for medical treatment, but residents first had to endure beatings from the Japanese commander who dubbed himself "King of the Jews."
Newborn babies died of the cold in the ghetto's unheated hospital. Recalls Alexander, "You could be sent to prison for the slightest offense, like not bowing low enough to a soldier. And since the jail was infested with typhus, even a single day there was like a death sentence. Peo-ple came out and began saying goodbye to their friends and relatives."
Of immense historical value, Ottinger's real-life epic, praised as both "perfectionist" and "kaleidoscopic," aims at larger themes by interspersing the Bay Area's survivors with period music and poetic imagery of Shanghai today.
"While Ottinger began with German Jews, her interest grew to include all conditions of ex-ile," observes Krasno. "And since all the people shown were young at the time, we see how youth finds something to be enthusiastic about no matter the circumstances. In this sense, the film is very optimistic."
As a result, the movie balances the common impression of old Shanghai as a place of un-bound evil and corruption by highlighting the better aspects of the city's fabled openness. "Since this was a place where the entry was free and people didn't ask questions, there were a lot of political refugees and also a lot of criminals," Krasno admits.
"Exile Shanghai" is a paean to colonial Shanghai's brief moment as what Krasno calls "a microcosm to the world." Even San Francisco's vaunted tolerance and multiculturalism pales before a place where, as Krasno describes, "you could walk from street to street and come under a different form of government an law."
Stressing the Chinese city that has survived all various European encroachments, the visuals of "Exile Shanghai" also emphasize the interconnectedness of history and individuals. Through an experimental approach that Geoffrey Heller likens to "a classical Chinese poem," Ottinger shows how time and place link people as though in the long strands of some master noodle maker.
SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER, Friday, April 25th, 1997