How does it feel to learn that you are considered “stateless”? Ellen Krakow, a resident of New Rochelle, discussed her family’s journey from Berlin to Shanghai, to Israel and finally to Washington Heights, New York, at a recent Hadassah meeting held at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle. In a riveting presentation to a packed audience, Krakow, who was born on March 12, 1947, in Shanghai, China, explained that she has three birth certificates: one issued by The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (The Joint), one issued by the Shanghai Jewish Community and the third from the Municipality of Shanghai. Listed for “Provenance of Origin,” the birth certificates reports “stateless.”
Krakow said, “That’s what we were—stateless Jews.”
Krakow’s story began in Berlin, Germany, where her extended family lived for generations. Her grandfather fought for Germany during WWI and the family enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in the only homeland they knew and loved. Although the 1930s saw troubling times for the Jews, Krakow’s grandparents refused to accept that their lives would be changed. In fact, the family believed Germany was an enlightened country and that they would be safe in the German democratic society to which they belonged. Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass,” occurred on November 9 and 10, 1938, beginning the slide into the ugliness of the Holocaust. Actions against Jews and mob violence took hold. Shops and stores were ransacked, windows broken, inventory destroyed. Synagogues and Torah scrolls were burned and desecrated. Jews were beaten and murdered and thousands were sent to concentration camps. The family realized it was time to leave the country. German borders remained open and their search for a new home began.
It became apparent that difficulties were in store for the family. England, France, the United States and most other countries imposed restrictions, preventing Jews from entering these lands. In a serendipitous moment, Krakow’s father was in a travel agent’s office for The Norddeutscher Lloyd Shipping Line, when a call came in announcing a cancelation of 16 tickets to a place called Shanghai, China. The tickets were available for cash only, “take it or leave it,” with no visas necessary, no sponsorships required and no imposed restrictions. The family accepted the only refuge available to them in 1939: Shanghai, China.
Krakow’s parents were married on February 23, 1939; four weeks later, on March 21, 16 members of the family left Nazi Germany from the port in Bremen. Traveling on a German ocean liner, the Gneisenau, Krakow’s mother called the trip her “one-way cruise.” The 10-week journey to the exotic Far East took the family halfway around the world. Shanghai was supposed to be a temporary haven; the family yearned to emigrate to America. The war years intervened and the temporary stay turned into 10 long years of a difficult lifestyle. Not only was Shanghai a strange and bewildering place, but the community of 18,000-plus refugees lived under extremely harsh conditions. Allied with the Germans, the Japanese invaded and occupied Shanghai, imposed greater restrictions on the people and forced everyone into a ghetto. Hongkew, the ghetto, was a cramped, dirty, bombed-out area of dark lanes and tenement-type houses with little or no plumbing and tiny rooms housing many families. However, the resourcefulness of the residents could be seen in the systems created to enable an acceptable lifestyle: schools and retail establishments were set up; synagogues, fraternal organizations, sports clubs and newspapers and entertainment venues were established. An infrastructure was created to help people accommodate and survive the awful situation of living in a foreign environment and culture. The area was known as “Little Europe.”
With the war ending in 1945, Krakow’s family was determined to leave Shanghai. The Joint offered to help resettle the refugees, offering families three choices—to return to Germany, to remain in Shanghai or to go to Israel. The U.S. was still not an option. In January 1949, the family set sail on the SS Castelbianco Roma, heading to the newly established State of Israel, and settled in Ra’anana, a bleak, desert town at that time. After 2½ years, visas were approved for the family’s desired trip to America and, after spending six months in London, they arrived in Washington Heights in 1952. On June 18, 1956, the family became U.S. citizens.
Krakow described her trip back to Shanghai in April 2006, when she traveled with her 87-year-old mother and joined more than 110 other former “Shanghailanders” for an unforgettable “Last Look at Shanghai” reunion.
Krakow explained, “These Shanghailanders represented the Jewish people who lived out the war years in a strange part of the world, in the city of Shanghai that served as a refuge of last resort for European Jews during WWII. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about how fortunate my family was to have found a safe haven in Shanghai, China. We were the lucky ones.”
Joined by Chinese officials interested in the history of friendly Chinese-Jewish relations, the reunion was a remarkable event. The groups walked down their old streets, saw the buildings that served as their homes, synagogues, stores and cafes. Krakow viewed the hospital where she was born, now an apartment house. We saw “all of our old lives.” Krakow’s mom and Krakow were interviewed for the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum in Hong Kew, where a display “Born in Shanghai” tells the family’s story.
Krakow retains cartons of memorabilia, documents and photos of living in Shanghai. She offered, “My family saved everything. It’s something that I cherish. My hope is that others do not forget either.”
She continued, “To the people of 1939 Shanghai, I say ‘thank you.’ I feel a great pull and a great tug at my heart whenever Shanghai is mentioned. You opened your doors to a strange people, you let these refugees in, you let them live among you, and for that I am grateful. If you hadn’t done all that, who knows what might have happened to my parents. I might not be here writing about it. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.”
Krakow has been married to Elliot Krakow for 45 years; they have two children and five grandchildren. Krakow worked as the administrative assistant at Beth-El Synagogue Nursery School for 20 years. Now retired, she is involved with her synagogue, Congregation Anshe Shalom in New Rochelle, and is a committed member of Hadassah.
By Yvette Finkelstein