Betty Grebenschikoff (née Kohn) is a Holocaust survivor. When her peaceful childhood in Berlin, Germany, was shattered by Nazi violence against Jews, the family was forced to flee to China in 1939. They were just one step ahead of the Gestapo. Shanghai was the only open port at that time that admitted European Jews without visas or passports. It became a place of refuge for about 20,000 refugees.
Grebenschikoff grew up in Shanghai where the family tried to make a living under difficult circumstances. During World War II the Jewish refugees were interned by Japanese authorities in a segregated area of Shanghai, also known as the Shanghai Ghetto. Life became even harder than before.
In 1950 political events in China made yet another escape necessary, this time to Australia. Grebenschikoff finally realized her dream of emigrating to America in 1953.
Betty Grebenschikoff lectures extensively to museums, organizations, schools and colleges. Her memoir “ONCE MY NAME WAS SARA” is for sale directly from the author, and also the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg and the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in Shanghai. It has been translated into Chinese and that edition is also for sale at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
She is featured in two documentary films: SHANGHAI GHETTO, which premiered in 2002, and the recently released SURVIVAL IN SHANGHAI.
Grebenschikoff makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.
My name is Betty Grebenschikoff. I am a Holocaust survivor. I was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1929. Memories of my early childhood there are of a pleasant, peaceful existence living with my parents and sister in a comfortable apartment. I played with Jewish and non-Jewish children in the neighborhood. I went to a private Jewish school and during summer vacations we traveled in Germany and once also to my father’s relatives to what was then Czechoslovakia.
However, gradually life began to change. By the mid-thirties long simmering anti-Semitism burst into full bloom. The Nazi government took over Jewish businesses. Jewish lawyers, artists, teachers and doctors lost their accreditation. In 1938, by official decree, all Jews had to change their middle names. Jewish males had to use the name “Israel” and all Jewish females the name ”Sara” as a middle name. This was not a compliment but to ensure that we were officially labeled as Jews. That is why, decades later I titled my memoir “Once My Name Was Sara”. We were prohibited from using State hospitals, parks, libraries and swimming pools. I remember walking on Berlin streets being pushed off the sidewalk and having stones thrown at me. Aryan children in their Hitler Youth uniforms who used to be my friends were spitting on me and calling me a dirty Jew. I asked my mother what had I done to them that they would be so mean to me and that their parents shut their doors in my face when I wanted to play with their children. My mother answered “ Hush, we are Jews and we must be very careful”. That was the first time I found out what hate and prejudice was all about.
After Crystal Night, also known as the Night of Broken Glass, in November of 1938, when 195 synagogues burned, Jewish shops destroyed and plundered, and thousands of Jews beaten up and killed, the Jewish community realized that the Nazis meant business and our days of safety were numbered. We looked for ways to leave Germany but had no papers or relatives in friendly countries. Thousands of Jewish children were sent out to Palestine, England and Switzerland for safety. They went alone,
hoping to see their parents again when the parents could join them. A large percentage of these children never saw their families again as the parents could not get out of Germany. They were murdered in what became known as the Holocaust.
My father repeatedly tried to get our family out of Germany but was unsuccessful until we found out that we could possibly emigrate to Shanghai, China, which at that time had an open door policy for people entering China. After using bribery to obtain tickets on a Japanese ship, the Kashima Maru, we escaped from Germany in May of 1939. My father had received a summons from the Gestapo to appear before them on May 21, 1939. We left Berlin two days before that date. Had my father not slipped a large amount of money to the shipping agent we would not have had ship tickets on time and I definitely would not be here today. We left behind nearly all of our relatives, our home, our belongings and our whole way of life. That open door policy in Shanghai enabled almost 20,000 Jewish refugees to find a haven in far off China.
Most of the European refugees settled in Hongkew, the area where the ships docked. It was one of the poorer areas in Shanghai where remnants of of bombed buildings and rubble originating from the Sino-Japanese war of 1937 were still visible. The crowded streets, constant noise, oppressive heat and humidity, the many beggars, Chinese people living right out on the streets, were all new experiences to our European eyes. For many of the newcomers who could not afford rooms American and local philanthropic organizations had set up settlement camps, known by the German word “Heime”. As well there were soup kitchens, a school, and a hospital staffed with refugee doctors and nurses available for the new arrivals. Fortunately a friend of my father’s found us a room to rent so we did not have to live in the crowded camps. At first we ate all our meals in the Ward Road Heim, one of the largest settlement camps, since we had no access to a kitchen of our own.
It was time for my sister and me to go back to school. Foreign children did not go to Chinese schools, so we were enrolled in a school called Shanghai Jewish Youth Association built by our benefactor, Sir Horace Kadoorie, which employed English speaking teachers. At that time we only spoke German. I remember trying to follow the teacher singing old English songs like “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean” or “You Take The High Road And I’ll Take The Low Road”. We had no idea what we were singing but we learned to speak, read and write English very quickly. We had no other choice after all.
We tried to make a life in a new country. My father found a job as bookkeeper in the city of Shanghai. My mother tried to keep house in our ever changing rooms, each new place a slight improvement on the old one. Sometimes we even had a real bathroom instead of the Chinese style toilets, their contents picked up each morning by a collector who then distributed them in the fields as fertilizer. Needless to say we never ate anything raw. All vegetables were thoroughly washed prior to cooking. Even so illnesses were common in spite of everything we ate being disinfected. Due to the close quarters and humid summer heat, plus freezing winters with scarce or nonexistent heating compounded by limited bathing facilities, we all had skin infections and various other tropical ailments including malaria, all formerly unknown to us in Germany.
The refugees who came in from Europe had to adjust to a life under difficult conditions. Those who managed to bring some money with them quickly moved over to the city of Shanghai where living conditions were much better and often comparable to European standards. Most of us, however, stayed in Hongkew where little restaurants had opened up, there was also a local radio station, newspapers in German and English. Little shops selling varied merchandise were situated alongside Chinese shops who did not seem to mind the competition. We also had synagogue services conducted by Rabbis and Cantors from Germany.
At the same time my father tried to bring over our extended families from Berlin and Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately he was unsuccessful as emigration to Shanghai became impossible. We lost almost all of our relatives in the ghettos and concentration camps of Europe. We only found that out after World War II ended.
Then came Pearl Harbor and our lives changed drastically again. The Japanese Military took over Shanghai. They interned all American, British and Dutch residents in internment camps outside the city. Life was exceedingly difficult in those camps with malnutrition, illnesses and mistreatment by their captors. Then the Japanese turned their attention to the nearly 20,000 Jewish refugees living in their midst. Ever resourceful the German government sent over a Colonel Meisinger to help them with their decision. “Put them on leaky ships, send them out into the Whangpoo River and drown them all”. Or, while showing the Japanese a Zyklon B Gas container, he shared the information that “This gas proved effective in the camps of Europe and they should use it on the refugees”. Thankfully for us neither solution appealed to the Japanese. Instead they decided to put us in a ghetto, also known as the segregated district.
“Stateless Refugees are Prohibited To Pass Here Without Permission” Suddenly the signs appeared; prominently posted in Hongkew by the Japanese army all along the boundaries of the segregated area. Already we were required, at all times, to carry our Resident Certificate with us. These certificates with our pictures on it also had a yellow line across the top that plainly identified us as Jewish refugees. In addition, we now had to obtain permission from the Japanese to travel in and out of the designated area. As of May 1943, Jewish refugees who had arrived after 1937, wishing to leave the district to go to school or to work in the city of Shanghai across the river, were required to obtain a special pass from the Japanese commander, Mr. Ghoya. We then had to wear a little metal badge in a visible spot on our clothing, on which the words “May Pass” were printed in Chinese. This Mr. Ghoya was a short little man who did not
like tall people. He used to climb on his desk and declare that he was King of the Jews. If he did not like you he refused to give out a pass which resulted in hardship for people working outside the ghetto. He sometimes sent people to jail which was situated right behind him. He definitely had mental problems and we were all afraid of him. Whenever my sister and I went to get our passes, my father always accompanied us and made us feel somewhat safer. Years later when I asked my father whether he was also afraid of this man, he said that he definitely was. He never showed it to us at the time however.
Looking back I was really fortunate to have my parents and my sister with me. They gave me a sense of safety and security which was actually lacking at that time. People who came alone to Shanghai often did not make it due to loneliness, malnutrition and disease. Suicides were common. The ghetto which measured about one mile by two and a half miles was situated right by the Whangpoo River. The area was already crowded with European refugees and mostly poorer Chinese living side by side.
I must point out that the Chinese around us never called us dirty Jews or made anti-semitic remarks. They just accepted us without question. We children played with other Chinese children and sometimes exchanged small gifts, my father worked in a Chinese office. The Chinese had their own problems with the Japanese whom they hated, and with good reason. The Japanese were very cruel to the Chinese, forced them to bow down in front of their soldiers who often beat them and humiliated them. The Japanese soldiers were nasty to us also, but not to the extent of their treatment of the Chinese.
We considered ourselves lucky to rent one room on 51 Chusan Road. We were right in the middle of the designated area. Our new home was on the second floor of a three story house with about four or five rooms on each floor. Each room contained an entire family and their belongings. We used
one corner of our room as a tiny kitchen. It had a small sink with cold water and a two ring gas burner which we rarely used as gas was strictly rationed. My mother learned to cook our meals on a native charcoal burner set on the windowsill. This not only gave off lots of smoke but also kept going out. We took turns fanning the flame with a bamboo fan.
When food was unavailable in the shops my parents bought staples like rice, sugar and flour on the black market when they could obtain it. My mother went to the nearby market to buy whatever was available that day. Our communal bathroom was at the end of a dark corridor. It served the sixteen people who lived on our floor. There was also a large number of insects of all kinds. They had established residence long before the refugees moved in. I was especially frightened of the large flying cockroaches who inhabited the bathroom and dive-bombed us at the most inopportune times. There were also mosquitoes with free access through our unscreened windows, and always bedbugs in our beds. Personal hygiene was a constant challenge, my mother taught us to sponge bathe ourselves at our small kitchen sink instead of using the dirty communal bathroom. We had lots of German and English books in the room and one old radio. Occasionally we managed to tune in to the Voice of America which was often jammed. It was on the list of forbidden things as far as the Japanese were concerned so we did not take too many chances of getting caught by them. The soldiers used to storm through the house and check things out, often shooting out light bulbs during blackouts and making a lot of noise.
Our lives became more difficult as the war went on. Medications were almost impossible to obtain. Food was scarce. People were selling what was left of their clothes and jewelry outside on the street to get some money. Plus there was the constant worry about the fate of our relatives left behind in Europe. We only received one short postcard from my Berlin grandmother informing us that my grandfather had died in Theresienstadt where she also was at the time. We had no idea that they had been relocated or what had happened to them. We never heard another word.
Some years later I found out that my grandmother and at least one my aunts and her husband were murdered in Auschwitz.
There were numerous air raids by American bombers in Shanghai. As there were no bomb shelters in Hongkew our landlord who ran a small restaurant on the first floor pushed tables together, then mattresses were piled on top of them. We all crawled underneath the tables for some semblance of safety. I often wondered whether a bomb would actually stop on a mattress, but I never asked that question out loud. Some people underneath the tables would pray, others were crying, some were singing and trying to keep their spirits up. We all wondered whether the American Airforce knew that there were thousands of refugees down here who were rooting for the Americans. We were lucky not to get hit although shrapnel blew all over, one red hot piece actually landing in our room on my sister’s pillow while we were downstairs huddling under the tables. However, toward the end of the war the ghetto did take a direct hit and over thirty of our people died as well as many Chinese. We all helped each other carrying water buckets and bandages for the wounded. It was a scary time and most of us tried to make the best of it but that became more difficult as time went on.
Finally in August of 1945 the war was over. We were liberated by American Military Forces. Japanese soldiers, including our nemesis, Mr. Ghoya, suddenly were nowhere to be seen. That’s the time when the lists of people killed in European camps were gradually released by the Red Cross. We only found some of our families names documented but eventually realized that we had lost nearly all of them. Six million Jews were murdered during Hitler’s time, as well as another five to six million others such as Romas, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, the handicapped, priests and nuns, plus ordinary decent people who became upstanders and in many cases helped Jews, only to be killed themselves, along with their families.
In 1948 I married a young Russian emigre who had lived in Shanghai for twenty five years. By 1950 our lives again began to unravel. Foreigners were beginning to leave China actively encouraged by the new Chinese government that had taken over. Having found refuge in China eleven years earlier, again I had no place to go. After many difficulties we managed to relocate in Sydney, Australia just barely in time for my first child to be born there. Three years later we were finally able to realize our dream to emigrate to America along with our two little daughters. I had three more children in the United States and now have seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. I am truly blessed.
During one of my trips back to Shanghai I donated my wedding dress, made in Shanghai and worn there by me, to the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum on Changyang Lu (formerly Ward Road). Along with some of my artifacts it is now displayed there as part of their collection.
Each time it feels like coming home again. I will always be grateful to the Chinese for their open door policy which helped save nearly twenty thousand Jewish refugees during that terrible time. I am, along with a few other ex-refugees, featured in two documentary films. The first was “Shanghai Ghetto” and the second is“Survival in Shanghai” produced by The Shanghai Media Group. I often give talks to schoolchildren and numerous audiences all over the country about my life, and how anti-semitism, prejudice and hate can, and did, bloom into wholesale slaughter of innocent people. I hope I can make a difference and pay back something to this country, the United States of America, that has given me so much.