Minnesotans recall fleeing Holocaust to relative safety in Shanghai's camps

Curt Hort flipped through a history book.
Curt Hort flipped through a book filled with details about Jewish refugees in Shanghai as he discussed his memories of the events at his Minnetonka home on March 16, 2015.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

People fleeing the Holocaust found few places that would give them sanctuary. Shanghai accepted thousands of Jewish refugees and some Minnesotans are recalling their experiences there during that turbulent time.

Curt Hort, 93, of Minnetonka, was 17 years old when he and his parents sought refuge in Shanghai, which allowed Jews entry without passports or immigration papers.

Hort and three other Minnesotans will be featured in the traveling exhibit "Jewish Refugees in Shanghai" when it opens Thursday at the Jewish Community Center of the Greater St. Paul Area and Sabes Jewish Community Center in Minneapolis. The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in China created the exhibit that started 10 months ago in Washington, D.C.

"Shanghai was an open city that accepted people with no questions asked," said Susie Greenberg of the Jewish Community Relations Council, an organizer of the event. "It's a little piece of history that is not widely known (or) understood."

About 18,000 European Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai from 1933-1941, according to the University of Minnesota Confucius Institute, an organizer of the exhibit. Hort and his parents settled in the Choufoong Hou Heim refugee camp in the Hongkew District of Shanghai.

"Had we not gone to Shanghai, my family and I would have been in one of the infamous gas camps," Hort said, "like Auschwitz and Dachau ... it was unbelievable how many Jews were arrested and never heard from again."

The teenager and his family slept on straw mats, boiled water before drinking it and shared two toilets with 100 other people.

People got sick from the food and lack of medicine. At 18 years old, Hort weighed 95 pounds.

The bad conditions grew more dire when Japanese troops occupied much of China as part of the Tripartite Pact in 1940. Jewish refugees from Europe eventually were confined to an area measuring three-quarters of a square mile.

Hort and his parents lived in the barbed wire-surrounded camp with a brutal commandant.

"If you were taller than he, he was short, he would step on his desk and knock you on the floor," Hort said.

Manny Gabler of Minneapolis,
Manny Gabler of Minneapolis, talked about his experience fleeing to Shanghai during WWII at the University of Minnesota's Confucius Institute March 16, 2015.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

For Manny Gabler, 77, of Minneapolis, fleeing to Shanghai was a different experience.

Gabler was a toddler when his family entered China and 10 years old when they left.

During the war, Gabler also lived under horrible conditions — in a hot and humid 8-by-12 room with blankets for walls with 18 other families.

"As a child, you live in the moment," he said. "I don't have ugly memories of it."

Ellen Wiss is another Minnesotan from Duluth to be featured in the exhibit. She was born right at the end of the war in 1945.

She knew she lost many aunts and uncles back in Germany, but she said her parents didn't let that part of history define their lives.

"They didn't dwell much about their survival," she said. "They just went about their business and did what they had to do to survive."

If you go

What: "Jewish Refugees in Shanghai" exhibit
Who: U of M Confucius Institute and local Jewish community organizations
When: March 19 to May 7
Click here for more information.

Where: Jewish Community Center of the Greater St. Paul Area, 1375 St. Paul Ave., St. Paul, MN 55116
Mon-Thu: 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Fri: 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sat: Noon to 9 p.m.
Sun: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Where: Sabes Jewish Community Center, 4330 S. Cedar Lake Road, Minneapolis, MN 55416
Mon-Thu: 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Fri: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sat: Closed
Sun: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Manny Gabler was born in China.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.