Two boys stand on a city street corner, wearing fashionable hats and coats. The younger boy, Ralph, just four years old, looks uncertain in front of the camera. His older cousin, Peter, presumably more accustomed to picture taking, smiles broadly.
It was 1938 in Berlin. As German Jews, the cousins had experienced increasing Nazi persecution throughout their short lives. For Peter, that persecution led ultimately to death six years later in Auschwitz, at age 13. For Ralph, the chance for survival came via an unlikely route: Shanghai.
This is the story of his escape, shared in honor of #ChineseNewYear and the thousands of European Jews who found refuge in China during the Holocaust.
The Decision to Flee
Ralph’s parents, Hans and Gerda Harpuder, were lifelong Berliners. Hans worked in sales and eventually took over his father’s factory that manufactured ropes and canvases; Gerda was a shopkeeper. She gave birth to their daughter, Ursula, in 1925 and to Ralph nine years later.
Confronted with intensifying anti-Jewish legislation and restrictions during the 1930s, three of Ralph’s uncles managed to immigrate to the United States. Then in November 1938, during an event known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis unleashed a wave of violent attacks on Jewish-owned businesses, homes, and synagogues. They rounded up 30,000 Jewish men and sent them to concentration camps, where they were detained until they could prove their plans to emigrate from Germany.
Hans Harpuder hid with friends to avoid being arrested after Kristallnacht, while searching frantically for a way to flee with his family. By that time, most countries in the world were limiting or denying entry to Jews. Shanghai offered a rare escape route, because no visas were required for entering the port city.
Arrival in Shanghai
In early 1939, Hans, Gerda, their two children, and Gerda’s mother, Selma, traveled by train from Berlin to Trieste, Italy, where they boarded the SS Conte Verde. After several weeks at sea, they arrived in Shanghai and moved into a refugee boarding home in the Hongkew district, with the help of a Jewish aid organization.
Once known as the “Paris of the Orient,” Shanghai when the Harpuders arrived had been badly bombed during the Japanese invasion of 1937. Ralph recalled the Hongkew district in ruins. The refugees helped to rebuild and transform it into what was called “Little Vienna” because of the European-style shops and cafés.
The Harpuders mainly lived off money acquired from the sale of belongings shipped from Berlin. Hunger remained a constant threat, however; it was often alleviated only by the sale of another family heirloom. A piece of cut-glass crystal sold by Ralph’s grandmother, Selma, provided food for at most two days.
The Last Place of Refuge
After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese authorities in Shanghai imposed stricter security measures on refugees. They ordered all Jews to move into the Hongkew district, which quickly became overcrowded. Living conditions deteriorated in what residents called the Shanghai ghetto.
Despite the daily deprivations, the Harpuders held on to some semblance of normal life. They were active in the Jewish community and celebrated the high holidays. Ralph was one of some 600 students to attend a school set up by the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association. He played with other immigrant children and Japanese children in the remnants of bombed buildings. He went to the movies often and collected and traded cigarette sleeves. He recalled later that they were “a good substitute for toys our parents could not afford to buy.”
American forces arrived in Shanghai in early September 1945, the day after Japan’s formal surrender to Allied forces. The next month, Ralph’s father, Hans, died of malnutrition. The family later learned that Hans’s sister, Genia, had been killed in Stutthof earlier that year. Hans’s mother, Gertrude, and nephew, Peter, were murdered at Auschwitz.
The Harpuders obtained papers enabling them to immigrate to the United States through Gerda’s brother, who had fled to California before the war. They sailed for California in 1947, settling in Los Angeles.
In his postwar memoir, Ralph reflected on the significance of Shanghai: “To the foreigners and Jews who settled in Shanghai long before the war began, Shanghai will be remembered as a carefree city in which fortunes were made. To 20,000 Jewish refugees who fled the horrors of Nazism, Shanghai will be remembered with gratitude for being the last place of refuge, a city that spared them from the Holocaust.”
Photographs and artifact: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ralph Harpuder
Quotes by Ralph Harpuder: Shanghai Remembered: Stories of Jews Who Escaped to Shanghai from Nazi Europe, edited by Berl Falbaum (Royal Oak, Michigan: Momentum Books LLC, 2005).
Anne Merrill is a digital content strategist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.