77-year-old Jew reflects on migrant crisis in Europe

By Yin Lu in Berlin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/23 21:42:38 Last Updated: 2017/3/25 7:50:21

Sonja Muhlberger in her living room in Berlin Photo: Yin Lu/GT

Born on 26 October 1939 in Shanghai into a Jewish family, Sonja Muhlberger is what she would call an "ex-Shanghailander."  

To escape Nazi persecution during the Second World War (1939-45), Jews from Germany and Austria fled overseas. During that time, Japanese-occupied Shanghai was the last safe haven for many, since they didn't require visas to get there.

Muhlberger's parents, who were expecting her at the time, were among the many Jewish refugees who arrived at Shanghai's port for a chance at a new life. After the war, most people went to the US, Canada or Australia, and some returned to Europe. Only about 500 to 600 chose to return to Germany. 

At her home in a quiet neighborhood in Koepenick, in the southeast of Berlin, Muhlberger showed the Global Times an album filled with pictures of her in China, and also shared her life story as a Shanghai-born Jewish refugee. It's clear from the photos of old Shanghai streets that China makes up an important part of her life.

The ex-Shanghailanders

During their occupation of Shanghai, Japanese forces made the Jewish refugees live in the poorest area of the city, which would come to be known as the "Shanghai Ghetto."

Life there was difficult, but it made her and others stronger. "I would like to say that in the 1940s, those people lived in that place peacefully and in harmony with all those who were around us," she said. "I think it's meaningful."  

"Sometimes I like to cook in the Chinese way. And then when I visited Shanghai, I felt at home," she said.

In 1998, she was invited by a Chinese artist back to Shanghai to make a documentary, and was able to visit a couple more times after that.

Over the years, Muhlberger has received letters and e-mails from many "ex-Shanghailanders" and their families.

"People count their family members who were born after that," she said. "For me, I have two children and four grandchildren. You have to count how many people are on the way because we could survive."

Muhlberger and many other "ex-Shanghailanders" want to make sure that their history continues to be written today.

At the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, which was built on the grounds of the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Hongkou district, stands a memorial wall of names dedicated to the more than 13,000 Jewish refugees.

Over the years, Muhlberger has conducted research into their history, written articles, and worked as a publisher and producer for articles and documentaries.

Her most recent project involved the correction of names on a list, on which the wall of names was based.

Compiled in 1944 by three young girls employed by the Japanese authorities in Shanghai, the list consisted of demographic data relating to the Hongkou refugee population. There are mistakes in the list, as well as non-Jewish people, mostly family members of the Jewish refugees.

"By correcting the names in the list, I think I gave those people their names back," she said. 

The arrival of Sonja Muhlberger (right) and her family in Germany from Shanghai in 1947 Photo: Courtesy of Sonja Muhlberger

Hard road home

Over the past century, China has been home to a succession of Jews from various background, including those seeking business opportunities and those fleeing pogroms. People can find their footprints not only in Shanghai, but also other places including Harbin in Heilongjiang Province and Kaifeng in He'nan Province.

Of those who left, most sought to move to the US, Canada and Australia, where they thought they could have a better life.

On August 21, 1947, about 500 Jews who fled to Shanghai returned to Germany.

For them, it was more than longing for their homeland. "My father wanted to build a new democratic Germany. And others went to Germany to look for families they had left behind."

Muhlberger could feel that her parents had concerns about returning to Germany.

"Sometimes when I was on the street or in a shop, when I saw people the same age as my parents or grandparents, I thought maybe they have done terrible things," she said. Later, she grew up and worked as a teacher, giving her more chances to talk to more people who had also seen terrible things during the war.

"War, wherever it is, is just terrible."

Comparing the past

Germany is currently at the heart of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. The country took in more than a million refugees in 2015 alone, sparking controversy both inside and outside the country.

Muhlberger, a former refugee herself, has been asked many times about her thoughts on the topic, and if comparisons can be made between the current and historical situation.

"We can't compare them. I believe I can't," she said.

"I can relate to it and understand [how terrible it is] if a group of people is treated horribly because of their traditions, their looks, or their thinking, or because they wanted to pray for another God," she said.

"But the world is changing. We fled because they wanted to kill us. Some [among the refugees of today] wanted better jobs."

As ethnic troubles and economic problems are entangled in the crisis, she believes that measures should be taken to better manage the situation. She said that there have been crimes committed by some refugees and law enforcement should crack down on them.

"I think it's because Germans are still trying to apologize. Now it's a real crisis, and they try to go back to the law, and be strict at the borders, and to those refugees here who are criminals," she said.

She recalled once on the subway when a Syrian man and his daughter sat next to her. They started chatting and she learnt that the man had two wives and many children, all of whom receive money from the government.

"It's of course unfair for them because their countries suffer from a war," she said. "But then it's not fair for the Germans or those in Sweden and Denmark too where there are also poor people."

For the Jewish refugees of the past, China was also in a state of war when they arrived and they lived in ghettos and under horrible conditions, she added.

"It's different," she said.

Meanwhile, she believes China plays an important role in the current crisis. "[China can] bring the countries together, because if you talk to somebody, you don't shoot them. If you talk, you have no time to shoot."

Newspaper headline: A refugee remembers

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