Our last year or so in Shanghai – & the Americans

Our four-to-five-year stay in Shanghai ended with our departure for Hong Kong some time in the summer of 1946, together with a few hundred other Jewish refugees who had been granted permits to immigrate to Australia. Before this, my mother had to attend meetings, personal interviews, etc. The photograph below is of her sitting with a number of other prospective migrants waiting to be interviewed in the yard between the Shanghai Jewish School & the great & monumental Sephardi synagogue. She is the second from the left in the front row. I love this photograph of her, it is one of the few I have of her with that particular smile I especially connect with. I recognize only two of the other people in the photograph: the lady to the right of her, who was a particularly close friend of hers, & a man in the back row who I think was the father of one of my two closest friends during the Hong Kong period.

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But what made our last year in Shanghai so different & exciting, for me at least, was the arrival of the Americans. The Americans liked kids. Sometimes in the street they’d stop and give you a stick or sometimes a pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint or Juicy Fruit or Doublemint or a chocolate bar. Or you’d call Hey GI or Hey Yank and as you got more advanced Hey GI Joe whaddaya know and they’d throw you something. Or they would stop & have a conversation with you, ask you about your life during the war, answer questions you asked them, so I quickly learned the meaning of the different insignia of rank and the different badges and patches they wore on their uniforms. Most of them were army men, but there were also quite a few navy men, & marines, & fewer air force men.

My mother somehow managed to get a job serving at a PX canteen and store in the large encampment the Americans had set up for their servicemen in what used to be the French sports compound opposite the Cathay Theatre. This was very fortunate for us, because by this time we had no savings left & no other source of income. She worked there for quite some time, & I also have a set of three photographs of her that were taken one day with three different GIs. I think that from the first time I saw these photos I didn’t like them, especially the first two from the left, for the suggestions of some kind of intimacy between these soldiers & her…

It was also especially fortunate for me because it gained me entrance almost whenever I wanted into the encampment, where (perhaps because I could speak English, in an American accent because my first teachers of English were American, & maybe somehow reminded them of their children or younger brothers at home) I was treated like a little prince.

Very soon I was going there almost every afternoon after school, and sometimes on weekends. The encampment was very close to home, as you can see on the map here, a few minutes walk from the red dot to the green patch marked CERCLE SPORTIF FRANCAIS. shnghai toUSc map
One GI in particular befriended me, & i would often visit him in his barracks room when he was off duty, & found that most of the other soldiers who shared the large room full of double bunks where he was quartered were very friendly to me. PFC (Private First Class, on his sleeve he wore a single chevron; his rank, I soon learned, was equivalent to the British lance-corporal, but the British wore their chevrons apex-down). Rolland Cattano was dark-haired with a fairly dark complexion, tall and lithe and warm-hearted, and he had a lot of time for me. He came from Ohio, and he had a lot of comic books and pocket books. I read the comic books with delight, and was filled with desire and envy when I saw the advertisements at the back, all the things kids in the U.S.A. could get by mail order, like air-guns, and radio sets and roller skates, and more and more I found myself longing to be able to live in America when we moved from Shanghai, as we would have to some time in the not too distant future. I kept telling my mother that I wanted us to go to America, but she kept saying that she didn’t see any way for us to do that.

Other times I would start talking to an American serviceman in the street, & almost always was met with generosity and warmth. Some would tell me about their homes and about baseball and football and the war, where they’d been and fought, and what they’d done, and some even toook me for rides in their jeeps. A sailor drove me to the port by the Bund and gave me a tour of a destroyer; and more than once I was given a ride in a jeep to the US military airport, and was shown the planes, once even right up to the big B29s, the biggest bomber-planes at that time. I was all eyes, all ears, absorbing so much that I was finding exciting. I even thought I’d learned to drive a jeep by watching them, and once near the airfield I got into a parked empty jeep and started it and started driving it, turned it into the middle of the road but panicked and landed hard on the brake and the jeep stalled. I left it there in the middle of the road and ran.

When I got my autograph book I collected many autographs of American servicemen, including that of my friend Roland Cattano (I think that I added the PfC above his name), as well as autographs of most of the de San Lazaro family.
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Joboy had already told me that at the end of November the San Lazaro family would be leaving their mansion and garden and the city of Shanghai for ever. I took my autograph book over to their house, and apart from the many autographs also got three pages that I have cherished over the years: a beautiful from one of Joboy’s older sisters, Marian, who I think was the one who had given me my first instructions in Christian belief & also the rosary I had been caught with; one from Joboy; and one, written just before their departure, from Jessie.

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“Blue skies, smiling at me, Nothing but blue skies / Do I see” was one song GIs in Shanghai were singing, & so was “I’m gona take a sentimental journey,/ Gona set my heart at ease…”.

I started saving U.S. cents, and Chinese money which was in rapid inflation. I had a grey cardboard box, embossed with the word Velveteen Samples on it, in which I kept the money and wrote down what I had. For September that year I wrote 500 C.R.B (Chinese Reserve Bank) dollars and 5 U.S. cents.

Through one of the many family search projects that different organizations set up after the war, my mother & her brother had found each other. My uncle Bronek (he had the same name as my father) had ended up in South Africa, after serving in the British army (I have some photographs of him in Palestine & in Durban) & he tried to get us a permit to immigrate to there. When I heard the news that his application had been rejected, I was glad, it meant there might still be a chance of getting to America.

Then one day my mother told me, very happily, that we had received a permit to immigrate to Australia. I was miserable. Many of my friends were going to America. Why couldn’t we? And Australia? The only thing I knew in Australia’s favor was that they spoke English there. No-one I knew was going to Australia. When I told my friends they all commiserated, and told me I should take a trunk full of balls because there’s no rubber there.

I remember too that there were the meetings of the prospective emigrants to Australia at the Sephardi synagogue next to my school. Lots of Jewish GIs appeared at the synagogue during these meetings, and other assemblies.

According to the plan, as my mother recorded it in her memoirs, “An American warship was provided to take a few hundred refugees to Hong Kong, and two days later to go on to Australia on board the Australian ship ‘Duntroon'”.

Leaving Shanghai, one of my last backward thoughts was that it had snowed only once during all the time I had been there, maybe my third winter there, but the snow had turned into slush as soon as it hit the ground and I was very disappointed because I had been waiting for it a long time. I looked for a long time at the Bund and the rest of the buildings becoming smaller and smaller, and then at the Whangpoo, which was brown and dirty and wide, much much wider than I remembered, and went on for much much longer until we reached the amazingly rich blue of the sea…

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