Whenever I hear people talking about new immigration policies, or imposing quotas on the numbers of refugees we allow into the country at one time, I wonder at our ability to forget the mistakes of our past. I realize the 1930s were a while ago, but the events of that time are written down in enough places that I find it hard to believe anyone could profess ignorance of their occurrence.
Canada, the United States, and Great Britain all closed their borders to people clamouring to flee the rising horror of Nazi Germany. Jews and others considered inferior were condemned to death in the camps because of these policies. Canada and the U.S. literally had quotas in place stating how many Jews were allowed to immigrate in a given year.
In 1938, as the noose began to tighten around them, German Jews began casting about for anyplace where they could find refuge. For about 20,000 of them that place turned out to be the city of Shanghai. Up until 1941, prior to Japan’s entry into World War Two, Shanghai remained a free city, which meant there was no need of passports, visas, or entry stamps, to gain admittance. All you had to do was be able to get there.
Shanghai’s unique situation came about as a hold over of colonial times. Much like other cities scattered throughout the world it was divided up into segments representing the rule of each colonial power. In the case of Shanghai, that was France, Great Britain, and a so-called international zone. By 1937, the Japanese had also carved out a stake for themselves in the city, which was their springboard for continued assaults upon China.
When the Jews started to arrive in 1938 Japan actually controlled the port of entry to the harbour, but even though they were already allied with the Germans, their racial policy at the time was quite different. They also made no bones about their need for Western currency, so raised no objections to the influx of refugees during this period before their direct involvement in the war.
All this information, and more, has been gathered together and presented in a fascinating documentary that’s just been released on DVD called The Port Of Last Resort. Co-directors Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy spent four years researching and filming this project. To tell the story they’ve utilized letters written during the period, still photographs taken by the refugees, interviews with some of the survivors, and most fascinating of all, film footage shot during the time by some of the families who lived in Shanghai during the period
Unlike so many documentaries of this type, ones dealing with the plight of persecuted people, the filmmakers don’t just dump images and figures into the audience’s laps, in an attempt to impress the situation upon them. Instead, they have personalized the experience by focusing on the specific stories of a few of the survivors.
The script will pull back to offer a broad vision of events, then it will focus in on the specific experiences of each of the interviewees, giving a personal face to the different realities faced by the displaced people. Starting in Germany we hear about the circumstances that finally persuaded them it was time to leave, and we continue to follow them right through to the end of the war.
Once the war in Europe began it became harder for people to travel to Shanghai, as the ports were closed to them. But some still managed to travel the overland route through Russia by train until they finally arrived. When the Germans invaded Russia that route was closed and the Jewish community in Shanghai was cut off from the rest of the world until the arrival of Allied troops in 1945.
Listening to the people interviewed talk about their lives during this period is fascinating. First of all, there is the obvious affection some of them have for their time in that city. There was no denying that Shanghai was unlike anything, any of them had experienced before.
Shanghai was a fake, a phony, neither occidental nor oriental. And yet – God forgive me – she was the most exciting and unique city in the world. She was poison, and the old-time Shanghailanders were addicts who never could free themselves of being in love with her.- Max Berges, refugee
The filmmakers, whether it was deliberate or not, I don’t know, have interviewed people who all had different perspectives of the experience. One man lived a life of deprivation in shelters; a woman, whose family had access to money in Switzerland, lived in a modern apartment; and a man who worked in the nightclubs of the city.
It’s the matter of fact emotional candour of these interviewees that gives this movie its true impact. Hearing one woman calmly recounting how her mother died three days after contracting dysentery, or one of the men telling of how his plans for vengeance against a Japanese tormentor came to naught because he could not kill him with a knife, are more poignant than any film footage or photos could ever be.
What’s truly amazing is how little anger or bitterness any of these people express when talking about their experience. No one points the finger of blame at the countries that could have offered them shelter. The most anyone says is that their quota numbers for entry into the United States was to high to allow them to wait for their turn to come.
As they acknowledge, part of that comes with the awareness that they were some of the lucky ones. Even when the Japanese passed a proclamation stating that all Europeans who had arrived after 1937 without documentation, i.e. Jews, were required to live within the boundaries of a certain district, life might have become harder, and existence more precarious, but it was still bearable.
It wasn’t until the end of the war that they discovered the reality of the situation they had left behind. Even then, it was months before they found out the true enormity of the horror they had only just escaped. Everyone had known the camps existed, but no one could have believed when they left Germany that they would never see the ones they left behind again.
The Port Of Last Resort provides a peek back in time at a piece of history that was largely unknown. It is also a timely reminder for us who have lives of safety and comfort, to both not take it for granted, and not be so quick to deny others access to what we cherish.
There are times when people are left with no choice but to pack up and leave behind all that is precious and dear to them. Let’s hope if those times come again we can prove that we have learnt the lessons of the past, put aside our petty fears and concerns, and welcome them with open arms instead of slamming the door in their faces.
The Port Of Last Resort is an ideal documentary in that it makes no judgments and lays no blame, instead it paints a picture that’s vivid and real. By letting the people and the pictures speak for themselves, the filmmakers have given this movie an intimacy that is too often absent from movies dealing with the subject. It’s that human element that makes this such a successful film.