University of Minnesota

Jewish Refugees in Shanghai 犹太难民在上海

Minnesota Connection

The Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota and Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas sought out and interviewed four Minnesotans who fled, with their families, to Shanghai during the period 1933-1941. The stories of these four Minnesotans provide a local context to the traveling exhibit Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941) while it is displayed at the Sabes Jewish Community Center. The Minnesota stories portion of the exhibit will also be on display at the Jewish Community Center of the Greater St. Paul Area. Each story is enriched by the display of historical photos, official documents, and other family treasures which tell of their journey and survival. We hope that by sharing the unique stories of Helen Bix, Kurt Hort, Manny Gabler, and Ellen Wiss, we will inspire visitors to learn more about this period in history and learn more about the people that make our community.

Additionally, the Confucius Institute was able to connect with a local Chinese Minnesotan who grew up in Shanghai during this time period. Doug Lew's story shares one perspective of the Chinese experience in Shanghai’s international concessions. During the period 1933-1941 Chinese families struggled with the direct impacts of the war and the Japanese occupation in Shanghai.

Helen Bix

Helen Bix
Helen's passport document
Helen's passport document
Helen's buddha that she brought with her to the U.S.
Helen recalls her home in Shanghai being decorated with buddhas.
This is one that she brought with her to the U.S.
Shanghai Jewish School, class photo 1943
Shanghai Jewish School, class photo 1943
First row, 4th from left sitting next to her teacher: Helen
Shanghai Jewish School, class photo 1947
Shanghai Jewish School, class photo 1947
First row, far right: Helen
Recent photo of Helen, 2012
Recent photo of Helen, 2012
Helen and her brother Emil's immigration identification book, 1941
Helen and her brother Emil's immigration identification book, 1941
Helen's document of identification as a refugee in Shanghai
Helen's document of identification as a refugee in Shanghai

Germany 1938. Kristallnacht. As one chaotic event followed another, Helen Bix as a little girl witnessed her comfortable lifestyle disappear. What she thought was her home, was no longer a safe place. After a long and arduous trek that lasted four months Helen, age four, her mother and brother arrived in Shanghai, an Open City for Jewish immigrants. Helen began a life that would experience different cultures, language barriers, rampant tropical diseases, and unsanitary conditions.

Helen received an excellent education in Shanghai. She attended the Shanghai Jewish School, which was run by the Sephardic community under the auspices of the British system of schooling. She describes her life as “the life that a typical Jewish child would have anywhere else in the western hemisphere”. Her 10 years in Shanghai resulted in close friendships with classmates, many whom she still talks to today.

Helen's school had many extra-curricular activities. She had interest in the Betar group, a Zionist Organization, which had a very active militant youth organization. Her dream was to go to Israel to become a chalutz, a pioneer, a zealot for what was to be her country. Helen felt that she was a stateless refugee and hoped that Israel would be a home. Although she kept the dream alive for many years, it was not to be.

Helen's mother, Berta Helman, was a remarkable woman whose courage sustained their family. Helen's mother struggled alone to feed her family after Helen's step-father died in 1941. She opened a tailoring store, making clothing to order, working long hours under difficult conditions. Money was hard to come by and Helen vividly remembers being called to the principal's office on several occasions when her mother had difficulty making her tuition payments. Like her mother, Helen also had faith in Judaism, which they both believed helped them persevere throughout life.

Life as Helen knew it ended in February 1943, when the Japanese made a proclamation that all refugees who came to Shanghai after 1937 had to move to Hongkew. It was a run down ghetto heavily patrolled by Japanese soldiers.

After the war, through the efforts of the Jewish Agency and HIAS, Helen's family was resettled to Minneapolis. Helen's mother opened a factory first making aprons, which later manufactured ladies loungewear. At the age of 19, Helen had to take over the business while her mother convalesced from heart disease. Although inexperienced, Helen designed and sold garments, traveled to New York buying offices, and kept the operation running. At the same time, Helen continued her education at the University of Minnesota in the evenings. It was at the University that she met Harold, the man she knew she wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Together they expanded the loungewear business with incredible dedication and many hours of hard work. After selling their business in 1991, Helen and her husband traveled extensively around the world for three years. They then settled to Lake Worth, Florida's Wycliffe Golf & Country Club.

Helen Bix is featured in the book "East Gate of Kaifeng: A Jewish World Inside China" by Patricia Needle.


1938年,德国的水晶之夜是很多犹太人噩梦的开始。混乱的事件接踵而至,小女孩Helen Bix目睹了她无忧无虑的生活一去不复返。那时她知道,她的家乡不再是她安全的港湾。经历了长达4个月之久的长途跋涉,四岁的Helen与她的哥哥、母亲一同抵达上海—一座对犹太移民完全开放的城市。从此,Helen开始了一段全新的生活,在这里,她将接触不同的文化、经历语言障碍、直面肆虐城市的热带疾病以及肮脏的生活环境。



Helen的母亲Berta Helman是一位杰出的女士,正是她的勇气才支撑起了这个家庭。1941年,Helen的继父去世之后,Helen的母亲便独自一人挑起了家庭的经济大梁。她开了一家裁缝店,为顾客订做衣服,在艰苦的环境下长时间工作,赚钱异常艰难。Helen仍清楚地记得自己好几次因为母亲没能支付学费而被叫到校长办公室。与她母亲一样,Helen也信仰犹太教,她们认为是犹太教帮助他们在困难环境中得以继续顽强生存。



Manny Gabler

Manny Gabler
Manny Gabler photographed in 2015
Manny Gabler photographed in 2015.
Photo credit David Sherman
Manny with his parents and brother Ralph in 1947 in Shanghai
Manny (right) with his parents and brother Ralph in 1947 in Shanghai
Manny with classmates from the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School
Manny (far right) with classmates from the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School
Directory of Jewish Refugees form
All Jewish Refugees who arrived in Shanghai were registered
Manny Gabler photographed in 1948
Manny Gabler photographed in 1948 before leaving Shanghai.
1943 Census report
The 1943 Census reported the Gabler family's residence.
Thumbnail 1
Manny's kindergarten report card from the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School shows that he was a conscientious pupil.

Manfred Gabler was born February 18, 1938 in Milan, Italy. Before his birth,Manny's parents, Simon and Esther Gabler, had been able to flee their home in Germany because they had family who were already living in Italy at the time. Manny's father was a Polish citizen working in Germany. Manny's mother, a German citizen originally named Irmgard, was not Jewish by birth but converted to Judaism in 1935 when they married and took on the Jewish name Esther. After converting, she was largely cut off by her family who disapproved of their union and her conversion.

The couple arrived in Milan just before Manny's birth, and in 1939 when Manny was one year old, the family left for Shanghai by ship, departing from Genoa. The Gabler family arrived in Shanghai's Hongkew district near the docks, where most of the Jewish refugees settled. For the first several years they lived at the Chaoufoong Road Heim, a converted warehouse designated for Jewish refugees. The dormitory beds were set up like barracks and there was little privacy for the young family. Manny's brother Ralph was born in 1940. After some time, the family was able to move to a small room on Tongshan Road.

Manny's father, who had worked as an auto mechanic in Germany, found work outside the Hongkew district at a Chinese company called China Fiber. Because his work was outside the district gates, Manny's father was able to pass through the checkpoints more easily than other residents, and the family had some interaction with the local Chinese community. Even as a child, Manny remembers recognizing how many of the Chinese people in their community were suffering from extreme poverty, illness, and starvation. He had positive interactions with his Chinese neighbors, and remembers that they displayed no prejudice against the Jews.

Beginning in 1943 Manny attended the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, which was run by the Kadoorie and Sassoon families, Baghdadi Jews who arrived in Shanghai as merchants and had built successful international businesses in the city. In 1948, when Manny was ten years old, the family was granted permission to emigrate to the United States. They arrived in San Francisco, and then settled in Pittsburgh.

In 1961 Manny joined the U.S. Army and during that time he entertained the troops with his guitar and song as part of the folk duo Ken and Manny. After finishing his tour of service he worked as an international sales representative for a guitar company, a job that had him traveling to many cities across the United States and internationally. In 1982 Manny settled in Minnesota, and shortly thereafter he started a successful business providing high-end audio and video installation in homes and businesses. He sold this business in 2005 and retired in 2007.

Manny and his brother Ralph returned to Shanghai in 1998 and visited the Hongkew district and the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum. During a tour of the neighborhood they identified the door to their former apartment and found that the doorframe had not been painted for 50 years. The holes where their mezuzah had been were still clearly visible.


1938年2月18日,Manfred Gabler在意大利米兰出生。在Manny(即Manfred,后文统称为Manny)出生前,他的父母Simon Gabler与Esther Gabler已经逃离德国,因为那时他们有已经居住在意大利的亲戚可以投靠。Simon是一位在德国工作的波兰籍公民,而Esther则是德国公民,原名Irmgard,并非犹太出身,1935年与Simon结婚而皈依犹太教,并将名字改为Esther,一个较为常见的犹太名字。因为Esther的家人并不赞成她与Simon的婚姻,也不支持她皈依犹太教的行为,所以她在婚后几乎与其家族断交。



1961年Manny参军,成为部队的文艺兵,期间他作为民谣二重唱“Ken and Manny”的一员为战友弹奏吉他和演唱歌曲。退伍后,他成为了一家吉他公司的国际销售代表,这份工作使他游历了美国众多城市,也造访了许多国外城市。1982年,Manny在明尼苏达定居,不久便成功开创了自己的事业:为家庭或公司的高档电子产品提供安装服务。2005年他出售了公司并于2007年退休。


Kurt Hort

Kurt Hort
A photo of Kurt's dad's shop in Germany
A photo of Kurt's dad's shop in Germany
Kurt and wife, Perla, pictured with a famous comedian during a B'Nai Brith celebration
Kurt (far left) and wife, Perla, pictured with a famous comedian during a B'Nai Brith celebration
Kurt's parents in front of their Heim in the ghetto
Kurt's parents in front of their Heim in the ghetto
Kurt's mom in Shanghai
Kurt's mom in Shanghai
Kurt working for the Stateless Refugee Hospital
Kurt (middle) worked for the Stateless Refugee Hospital during his time in the camp.
The gate to Choufoong Hou Heim refugee camp where Kurt's family lived
The gate to Choufoong Hou Heim refugee camp where Kurt's family lived
Inside Choufoong Hou Heim refugee camp
Ohel Moshe Synagogue (1940s), located inside the Choufoong Hou Heim. The building is now the location of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

Kurt Hort was born Kurt Horwitz in the Kaulsdorf neighborhood of Berlin in 1921. The son of a pharmacist and language teacher, Kurt remembers growing up in a comfortable, loving home that valued learning. Kurt's father was taken to the Oranienburg concentration camp during the Kristallnacht attacks: Kurt and his mother narrowly escaped arrest by riding the Berlin rails all night. After Kristallnacht, Kurt's mother was able to secure tickets to Shanghai through the help of a well-connected friend. In an act of ultimate bravery, Kurt's mother then visited the concentration camp where his father was held to deliver his ticket. He was miraculously released two weeks later on Christmas and the family fled to Shanghai.

Kurt arrived to Shanghai at the age of 18. He and his family were placed in the Choufoong Hou Heim refugee camp in the Hongkew District, which he remembers as a “cross between a POW camp and a concentration ghetto…where you die every second.” After recovering from multiple debilitating tropical diseases, Kurt worked as a ghetto guard before landing a job in the Stateless Refugee Hospital. In his role at the hospital, Kurt saved many lives. At one point, he was nearly gunned down by an American P-51 while trying to deliver morphine to a surgeon mid-procedure.

Kurt met and married his first wife, Perla, a Polish refugee, in Shanghai. The two were married in 1942 in a small ceremony, followed by a humble Chinese meal at home with family. Their daughter Vivian was born in 1946 in the ghetto hospital where Kurt worked.

In 1947, Kurt, his new wife, and their baby received permission to enter the US via San Francisco. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee placed his young family in Minnesota, where Kurt continued his career in pharmaceuticals with Wyatt Labs. Kurt's parents were unable to travel with him at the same time, and were taken to a communist army POW camp in an unknown location. Hubert Humphrey, then mayor of Minneapolis, later helped Kurt locate and bring his parents to Minnesota.

Despite his success in sales, he left Wyatt labs to start his own business when Perla fell ill with cancer. From humble beginnings with one small gift shop, Kurt grew the business to 18 locations. Kurt's first wife passed away in 1997. Kurt met his second wife and business partner, Louise, on his houseboat in the Mississippi River. The two married in 2000.

In addition to being a successful businessman, Kurt was also a respected community leader. Kurt was president of the Saint Paul chapter of B'Nai Brith for many years, eventually becoming president for the entire Midwest region. Kurt also actively participates in Holocaust remembrance activities and educational opportunities for new generations to learn about the ghettoes of Shanghai. Kurt says he is “proud and happy” to call Minnesota, “a place of such decency and liberal values,” his home now.

Kurt Hort is featured in the video: "Jewish Refugees of Shanghai: Life in the Ghetto"


Kurt Hort原名Kurt Horwitz,1921年出生于柏林的考尔斯多夫社区。作为药剂师和语言教师的孩子,Kurt记得,自己是在一个舒适、温馨、珍视教育的家庭中成长起来的。然而好景不长,在水晶之夜的袭击中,他父亲被强行带离,并被关押至奥拉宁堡集中营。Kurt与他母亲由于连夜搭乘从柏林驶离的火车而侥幸逃脱。在水晶之夜发生后,Kurt的母亲在一位人脉甚广的友人的帮助下,拿到了逃往上海的船票。随后,她鼓起极大的勇气,将船票带到了关押她丈夫的集中营。两周后的圣诞节,Kurt的父亲就被奇迹般地释放了,于是一家人逃到了上海。



1947年,Kurt和他的新婚妻子以及他们的女儿获得了取道旧金山进入美国的许可,美犹联合分配委员会将他们一家安置在明尼苏达,Kurt在Wyatt Labs公司继续从事着制药工作。Kurt的父母则没法跟他一起前往美国。随后,在当时明尼阿波利斯市市长Hubert Humphrey的帮助下,Kurt找到了他的父母并将他们接回了明尼苏达。

尽管他在Wyatt 那做销售做得很成功,但当妻子佩尔拉罹患癌症后,他还是离开了Wyatt Labs,自己做起了生意。从创业伊始的简陋小礼品店,Kurt在后来将他的业务扩展到了18个地区。他的第一任妻子Perla于1997年离世。之后,他在位于密西西比河的船屋上遇见的他的第二任妻子Louise,她同时也是他的商业伙伴。2000年,他俩结了婚。


Ellen Wiss

Ellen Wiss
Ellen, 1 year old
Ellen, 1 year old
Ellen and her parents, 1946
Ellen and her parents, 1946
Ellen and her Ama
Ellen and her “Ama” (nanny)
Ellen at Wayside Park with friends in 1947
Ellen (second from right) at Wayside Park with friends in 1947
Ellen's birth certificate
Ellen's birth certificate, she was born in Shanghai on March 30, 1945
Marriage certificate belonging to Ellen's parents
Marriage certificate belonging to Ellen's parents.
Note that the names "Israel" and "Sara" were added as middle names by the German government to indicate that they were Jews. Those are not their middle names. Also the designation of "mosaisch" is added for the same reason.
Driver's license of Bernhard Eisner, 1935
Driver's license of Bernhard Eisner (Ellen's father), 1935

Ellen Eisner Wiss was born to Bernard and Hildegard Eisner in Shanghai on March 30, 1945, her parent's 6th wedding anniversary. Her father was at work, so her mother walked to the hospital and labored to the sound of American planes in the sky and bombs falling on Shanghai.

The Eisner family's story as so many others is truly one of courage and the triumph of the human spirit. Ellen's parents lived in Koenigsberg, East Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) on the Baltic Sea. Their families had lived there for generations and her mother's family were landowners of considerable means. Unlike many parts of Germany and Eastern Europe, the Jews of that region were well-assimilated into the local society and were not subjected to the earlier periodic anti-Semitic discrimination and abuse. For this reason the Jewish community thought they were immune from the atrocities that were taking place elsewhere in Germany. In fact when Ellen's father returned from a business trip in November of 1938 and heard that the Jewish men in Koenigsberg has been taken into “protective custody” by the German Army, he turned himself in.

Her mother made arrangements to leave Germany after she learned that “protective custody” included transport to a detention camp, which failed because the train was turned away at the Polish border. In the spring of 1939, Shanghai was their only port of refuge. They booked passage and persuaded their family members to leave as well. Sadly the rest of the family was scheduled to leave six weeks later, but never made it out. All of them perished in Theresienstadt.

Ellen's parents arrived in Shanghai with almost nothing but found that the Chinese inhabitants had even less. Her parents were able to avoid the Shanghai “Heime” by securing a room on Chusan Road in the Russian Concession. Her father found work repairing radios and bicycles, and then as a driver for the American army after Shanghai was liberated. Her mother supplemented their income by allowing members of a Russian orchestra to use their room as a practice studio. Even though they lived in a single room with no indoor plumbing, her mother was able to employ household help and an “Ama” for her children. However, their life took another tragic turn when their first daughter died of dysentery in 1942.

Memories from Ellen's childhood in Shanghai are limited to impressions of their room and playing at Wayside Park. After the liberation most of the refugees were able to leave quickly, but because Ellen had been born in Shanghai, she was considered “stateless” which fell under a separate quota and that delayed her family's departure by more than two years.

Ellen's family finally arrived at the Embarcadero in San Francisco on April 20, 1948 and then took the train to Denver, where life was nearly idyllic. Her brother John was born in Denver on July 1, 1949. They never had much money, but their house was filled with laughter, music, books, friends, great food, and an expectation to excel.

Ellen married her high school sweetheart in 1962 and they have one daughter. She and her husband were both educators, and now reside in Duluth, Minnesota. In 2008, Ellen reclaimed her German citizenship.


Ellen Eisner Wiss于1945年3月30日在上海出生,这一天恰巧是她父母Bernhard Eisner与Hildegard Eisner的6周年结婚纪念日。 由于当时Ellen的父亲Bernhard正上班,所以Helen的母亲Hildegard就独自一人步行前往医院,在美国军机的轰鸣声和不时落下的炸弹声中生下了Ellen。






Doug Lew

Doug Lew

Doug Lew was born in Shanghai, China in 1931. His parents, who had been raised by missionaries, were well educated and had opportunities to attend university in the United States in the 1920s. His father studied political science at the University of Chicago. His parents met upon their return to Shanghai, married and had four children. Doug is the youngest, and the only son.

As a Christian Chinese family and English language speakers, the family had certain privileges not granted to other Chinese living in Shanghai. Their family lived in an apartment in the French Concession on Duplex Street and had several international neighbors, including a family of Russian Jews who spoke perfect Chinese.

Doug describes Shanghai during the Japanese occupation as a time that was short and turbulent. He vividly recalls a harsh encounter with a Japanese soldier when he biked over the Huangpu River to buy fishing lines in the Japanese section. The protocol for when you passed a Japanese soldier was that you needed to bow, even if you were on a bike or in a car. As Doug biked over the bridge he did not see any soldiers on duty so he did not stop. Moments after he crossed the bridge, by surprise, he was called back by a Japanese soldier. The soldier slapped Doug across the cheek and made him stand in front of the soldier for 15 minutes before he was dismissed. Fearful of what would happen next, Doug turned around and went home without purchasing the fishing lines he wanted.

As a student at St. John’s Middle School, Doug remembers biking to and from school and seeing massive pits in the ground. These trenches were shelters being dug in preparation for potential air raid attacks. Many thought the pits where pointless since they were never used, although Doug does remember one time when he actually had to jump into one of the rain water-filled pits while he was caught on the road during an air raid.

In 1946 Doug’s father was offered a faculty position at Drake University in Iowa but the family had a difficult time securing immigration visas. During the two years it took for the family to arrange to leave for the United States, Doug attended the Shanghai American School where he befriended a Jewish classmate, Ellis “Jake” Jacob. Jake had been born in Shanghai in a family of well-to-do Baghdadi Jews. While they were only classmates for two years, their friendship sustained the test of time. The two friends were reunited by the Shanghai American School’s alumni representative and are still in communication today. Jake wrote a book, The Shanghai I Knew, which profiled his early life as a Jewish boy in China. When Doug read the book it brought back many vivid memories of his early life.

In 1948 when Doug was only 15 years old and had one more year of high school left, his family finally received their visas to go to the United States. After arrival in the United States, Doug attended Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois where he obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Masters degree in History. His father had landed a faculty position at Bradley after his Drake University job offer fell through during the two year wait for visas.

Doug had a successful career as an art director for advertising agencies, a career which eventually brought him to Minnesota. Doug is also an accomplished watercolor artist. In 1988, 40 years after leaving Shanghai, Doug returned to Shanghai with his wife for a visit, touring places where he used to live. Incorporated in this trip was a visit to Beijing where he gave talks at local art and design colleges.

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