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China

Sonja Mühlberger's Shanghai

Sonja Mühlberger was born in Shanghai, where her parents had found refuge from the Nazi regime. The city of her childhood has changed dramatically. And yet she can still find traces of the old, Jewish Shanghai.

June 2012. It's quite exciting to be back in Shanghai, the city in which I was born. I lived here until I was eight years old.

Lots of new houses have sprung up in the area where we used to live. The streets are wider today and there are trees in them. The house where we lived is no longer standing. A massive building with a glass façade now occupies the site.

But many old buildings can still be found in the side streets. I recognize the ones in which friends and acquaintances lived.

Sonja Mühlberger pictured here at the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School in 1945 From the private archive of Sonja Mühlberger

Sonja Mühlberger pictured at the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, 1945

My parents came to Shanghai in 1939. My mother was pregnant with me at the time. They met each other at the Jewish sports club Schild in Frankfurt in the 1930s.

In 1938, my father was deported to Dachau. My mother learned that there was only one way of securing his release: She had to provide valid travel papers.

Back then, Shanghai was the only place in the world that stood open to German Jews. The city was partly under international control and foreigners did not need permission to travel and reside there. However, the German authorities requested proof that émigrés could actually enter China.

Taste of snow

Through relatives, my mother obtained the required paperwork from the Chinese consulate in the Netherlands. My father was released and they both boarded a ship in Genoa on March 29, 1939. I still have photographs of my parents running around together on the ship. After all the years of suppression in Nazi Germany they were finally free and happy again.

Sonja Mühlberger pictured here with her father in Hongkou From the private archive of Sonja Mühlberger

Sonja Mühlberger with her father in Hongkou

Hongkou in the northeast of the city was the poorest part of Shanghai. Most refugees went there. They were only permitted to take one suitcase out of Germany. They were poor and ragged, but as a child I always had the impression that the Chinese people who lived there were much poorer. Many didn't even have shoes and when I saw people in winter not wearing shoes it was strange to me.

I still remember one day when snow fell. Luckily my father was at home. He had the idea to take our wash pan and climb onto the roof to gather snow. I was supposed to hold my hands in it so that I got a feeling for the snow. My mother had read me German fairytales and it was in this situation that the fairytale of Snow White first meant something to me. 

I remember a type of homesickness and insecurity among the adults. Of course, nobody knew what was happening with their relatives back in Europe.

Only good news

My father regularly listened to the news in different languages. And once he sent a Red Cross letter to my mother's parents which returned six month later. I still have the letter. It only contains positive things. "Sonja is growing-up," my father wrote. My grandparents wrote back that they were healthy. They later died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

In 1941 the Japanese took control of the city and from 1943 all Jewish refugees were forced to live in a designated area of Hongkou. That applied to all Jews from Germany and Austria who had become stateless.

A letter from Sonja Mühlberger's grandparents sent from Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942

A letter from Sonja Mühlberger's grandparents sent from Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942



The Designated Area for Stateless Jews was sometimes called a ghetto, but it was different from the ghettos in Europe. The refugees from Germany lived here together with all other nationalities. But unlike the Russians, Chinese and Japanese, the Jewish refugees needed a permit leave the area.

The ghetto had no grave consequences for us. We already lived in the area. It was harder for others, such as those who came from the wealthy French Concession area. My school was situated outside of the designated area, but we children could leave without any problems.

However, my father needed a permit in order to travel to work. He helped out an egg dealer in the French Concession. But he must have got the permit without any problems, because I remember that I went there with him many times.

Reconstruction at home

The Ghetto Permit issued to Sonja Mühlberger's mother bears the number 980

The Ghetto Permit issued to Sonja Mühlberger's mother bears the number 980

In 1947, my parents decided to go back to Germany. My father later said that he wanted to help build a new, democratic Germany. I think he really wanted that. In the Soviet consulate he received an entry permit to East Berlin.

My best friend had already immigrated to Australia and I was happy about moving to Germany. The suitcases and boxes were packed and a new chapter in life began.

I happily explained to anyone wanted to listen - or not - that we were going to Germany. But my excitement was not always met with understanding among the other refugees. To return to the country of the murderers was unthinkable for them.

Sonja Mühlberger on the streets of Shanghai

Sonja Mühlberger still feels at home on the bustling streets of Shanghai

Once I was even spat on by an adult. He spat on me, a child, despite the fact that I couldn't do anything about my parent's decision. I will never forget that my entire life.

I think that nevertheless I had a good childhood. My parents shielded me from so many negative things and really looked after me. My mother read and sang to me, my father answered all my questions and took me to kindergarten and to school everyday on his bicycle.

Yes, I want to say that I had a sheltered childhood.

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