Shanghai in 1939: International Enclave of Foreign Intrigue!
The “Shanghai Twelve”! That’s what I named a group of very talented European refugees who escaped from China only days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
But who were they? And how and why were they able to escape from Shanghai just before December 7, 1941?
As it turns out, I discovered them while researching my cousin Eva’s own narrow escape from that port in China just days before the Japanese shut it down. That was the next day-December 8, 1941.
But first a little back story:
When I began researching the incredible life of my cousin, Eva Baruch, I found out that she had escaped from the Nazis by fleeing to Shanghai in 1938, only to escape from them once again, just before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
But I needed to know more.
At that point I knew that when she arrived in Shanghai, she was able to continue her theatrical career there. A career that first began in Berlin when she was just 17. But then I found out that she also worked for a British radio station, which, for whatever reason, got her in trouble with the Nazis, forcing her to flee yet again.
Only this time she fled from China, on one of the last boats out of Shanghai.
But first let’s back up and set the stage for the incredible details I was about to find:
After the British won the Opium War from the Chinese in 1842, they acquired control of the village of Shanghai situated on the Huangpoo River. With worldwide commerce in mind, they fortified the riverbank and made it navigable. They also built docks for ocean going ships.
Geographically Shanghai was in a very favorable location, allowing ocean going cargo ships wide passage to and from the Pacific. This gave the Brits the ability to ensure the easy flow of industrial and agricultural trade in and out of China’s interior.
Now suddenly aware of the monetary value of trade with the Asian nation, other international merchants began carving out their own concessions for their homelands, which like the Brits, allowed them to have their own space in Shanghai, while being allowed to operate under their own laws, free from the Chinese.
The British were first, of course, followed in quick succession by the Americans, and then the French, with more to come later.
Then, after almost 100 years, by the late 1930’s, Shanghai had become both an international enclave, and the fifth largest city in the world. Now called “The Paris of the Orient”, it also included Russians, Germans, Dutch, Italians and Japanese.
And by then it had become the Commercial Banking Center for Eastern Asia.
But with all these international concessions, which allowed each country to live by its own laws, it also became a repository for tens of thousands of expatriates, international posers, scumbags, exiles and fugitives. As a result, by 1938 Shanghai was a boiling cauldron of espionage, political intrigue and murder.
Since it was one of the last places in the world that did NOT require passports, it also became a safe haven for thousands of European Jews who had fled their homelands, many of whom had their citizenship taken away by the Nazis, and were now STATELESS!
As a microcosm of the world outside, all the players were jockeying for a position of power, trying to expand their spheres of influence within the International Settlement, and beyond.
At the same time, the war in Europe was looming on the horizon.
It was in this melting pot that Eva and her parents found themselves early in 1939. You can read more about Eva’s life in my posts about her.
Sometime shortly after her arrival in Shanghai, she connected with the German Emigrant Theater. Meanwhile, her husband, Josef Schwarcz, quickly found work with the British Consulate. And through him, she also began working for the British radio station, XGDN, broadcasting scripted plays to the German speaking populace in a weekly show called “Free German Theater”.
Then in October, 1941, Eva produced two extremely anti-Nazi radio plays. One was called “Die Moor Soldaten” or Peatbog Soldier’s, about the treatment of political prisoners in one of the early Nazi concentration camps.
The second was called, “Wien Maerz 1938”, which was a strong indictment about the treatment of the Jews in Vienna at the time of the Nazi invasion of Austria – the Anschluss.
The next day, the reviews in the Shanghai Herald were superlative, though anonymous. One of them said, “This radio play, unlike any before it, may open the eyes of all those who did not want to believe the cruelties. For all of us who love freedom and human rights, the final words of the broadcast resound”:
“It is one enemy before whom all of us tremble. But one freedom (that) will make ALL of us FREE.”
The Nazis didn’t appreciate this kind of response and decided it was time do something about this Jewess who was stirring up trouble. Eva was barely 22 years old at the time.
By a stroke of good fortune, her husband was able secure passage on probably the last allied ship to leave Shanghai before the Japanese closed down the port. It was a U.S. troop transport named the SS Cape Fairweather.
Originally bound for Manila, it left Shanghai on Dec. 3, 1941, but it was later diverted to Singapore and ultimately Melbourne, Australia
When I contacted the Australian National Archives to get more information about Eva and Joseph’s arrival, I found the ship’s manifest. That’s when I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t just Eva and her husband who escaped on that ship. There were ten other escapees on board as well.
But who were they, and why were they there?
The who was simple because they were all listed on the manifest. But the WHY was much more difficult.
With more research I learned that they were all actors, writers, directors, producers and/or journalists, most having unique talents, and most, if not all with some connection to the British Ministry of Information.
At that time the prevailing attitude of the Jewish leaders was that you should be inconspicuous, lay low, don’t make waves. And above all, don’t get involved in any kind of anti-German or anti-Nazi propaganda.
But Eva and her shipmates were doing just the opposite.
As a group they were all politically leftist, and extremely anti-Fascist. And some already had the bitter experience of being prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. So, by teaming up with the British, they were given the perfect opportunities to do what they knew best, using the media to keep their world apprised of the horrors of the Nazi onslaught in Europe.
It was a perfect symbiotic relationship because it also gave the British a more direct way to communicate with the European refugees, while reaching their regular Shanghai audience as well, especially now that they were at war with Germany.
But now the Japanese were tightening their noose around Shanghai and could do much more harm.
And it looked like they were poised to do so.
Then in October 1941, Eva’s two anti-Nazi radio plays were the final straw. With the word out that the Shanghai Gestapo wanted to round up all of those involved, the Brits decided that the group must go. Their work was done. It was time to transport the twelve of them to a safer haven.
Records indicate that most of them had some connection with the British Ministry of Information. And many through the British radio station XGDN, and Eva’s weekly radio theater. For some the connection was obvious. But for others, we can only speculate, since NONE of them were CREDITED either on the air, or in print – for obvious security reasons.
While some of the group had already established their reputations before arriving in Shanghai, others only began to get noticed during their exile there, or later in Australia. Then there were the others who made barely a ripple at all.
But they all appear on the following list of the “Shanghai Twelve”, including what we know about them – starting with the least known first.
While I’ve indicated some of the possible connections with the BMI, I’ll leave the rest up to you.
- Roman Zieher – Born in Lemberg Poland, he is simply listed as a Doctor of Medicine with no published connection to the BMI. But we do know that he was born in Poland, then became an Austrian citizen before fleeing to Shanghai. Later, in Australia, he established a successful practice in North Melbourne connected with the Omeo Hospital there.
- Hans Karl Rosenberg – an actor, but again, with no published connection with BMI,. However, it’s quite possible that he was in some of Eva’s radio shows. Otherwise, he was only credited as having appeared with the Jewish Kulturbund in Shanghai. With no known theatrical activity in Australia, he returned to Germany in 1950 where he passed away a short time later.
- Ernst Platz – Born in Cologne, Germany, but was listed as “Stateless” when he arrived in Shanghai. Neither he nor his wife left much in the way of information other than his having been a journalist. However, when he applied for Australian citizenship in 1948, he listed his occupation in Melbourne as, “Researcher for the Office of Jewish Information to Combat Fascism and Nazism”. Again, no known connection with the BMI but it’s quite possible that he applied his ability as a researcher for Eva’s weekly radio plays.
- Frieda Platz –Ernst’ wife, simply listed herself as a housewife, with no other known activity.
- Egon Varro – Born in Berlin, he was a poet and journalist. Already imprisoned by the Nazis in Sachenhausen in 1938 for his anti-Nazi newspaper columns, he reached Shanghai in 1939, where he wrote for such Jewish weeklies as the “Shanghai Woche”. He was friends with A. J. Storfer and probably wrote for his Gelbe Post as well. In Australia he re-established himself as a poet and journalist, where he continued his editorials. He remained there until his death in 1976. Since his association with the BMI was known, it’s possible that he worked with Storfer at XGDN, helping to edit his scripts, and/or Eva’s.
- Eva Schwarcz – Born in Berlin, she was married to Josef Schwarcz until their divorce in 1946. When she arrived in Melbourne in 1941, she listed herself as married and a housewife. But before she fled to Shanghai, while still a teenager, in her two years in Berlin Theater, she had already acted in eight major productions, and then continued on stage in Shanghai, while adding radio and an unfinished motion picture to her resume.
- Josef Schwarcz – Born in Vienna, he listed himself simply as an artist in 1948. By then he was divorced from Eva, and also listed himself as Single. But before his exile, he had a successful career in German theater in Berlin as a Scenic Painter. We already know he was employed by the British Consulate, a euphemism for the BMI.
- Karl Bodan – Born in Vienna, by 1939 he could already look back on three decades’ worth of theatrical experience as an actor and director. Then at seven more productions in Shanghai, with at least three of them written by Mark Siegelberg. I also believe that Bodan and his wife were actors in Eva’s radio plays, and that Bodan may well have directed one or both of her anti-Nazi shows at XGDN.
- Olga Bodan – Born in Prague, and Bodan’s wife, she had previously sung on stage as a soprano in Austria, probably in the Vienna Opera. In Shanghai she appears to have performed in just about all of her husband’s stage productions, plus Eva’s radio shows. In 1948, when trying to get a fresh start in Australia, Karl was working as a hairdresser, while Olga listed her occupation as a “tobacconist”. There they remained for many years and became celebrated in the mid 1950s, together as Directors of the popular “Little Theater”.
- Mark Siegelberg – Born in Luck, Russia, he was a true scholar. He studied in Bern, Switzerland, and Vienna, and received his doctorate in both political science and law.
Already a prolific writer and later a play-write, in the 1920s and 30’s he wrote for various Austrian newspapers. Between 1934-38 he was the editor for the Viennese paper, Die Stunde. But in 1938-39, he was imprisoned by the Nazis in Dachau and then Buchenwald for being outspoken against the regime. Probably given the choice of remaining in a concentration camp, or getting out of the country, he chose Shanghai, arriving STATELESS in 1939. But on the way, he wrote a novel, “A Jew #13877 In Protective Custody”. And then he began working for the British Ministry of Information. The perfect opportunity because between 1939 and 1941, he wrote at least six plays for the theater. One, “Die Masken Fallen” (the Fallen Mask), based on his treatment by the Nazis, premiered at the British Consulate in Shanghai in 1940, to critical acclaim. A year later, a radio play was performed by Eva’s group, but written anonymously. It was called “Wien Marz 1938”, and received similar critical acclaim, comparing the two. Undoubtedly this was Siegelberg’s radio version of his stage play. When he reached Australia in 1942, to make ends meet, he worked as a furniture salesman while working part time as an actor. As his reputation grew, the rest of his plays reached the stage. In 1954 he became the editor of “Neue Welt”, which was published for Jewish immigrants. He returned to Vienna in 1968, where he lived until his death in 1986.
- Amalie Siegelberg – Born in Brunn, Czechoslovakia. Mark’s wife, who simply said she was a housewife. Otherwise, no more information
- Adolf Joseph Storfer – Born in Botoshani, Romania. Like Siegelberg, Storfer studied both political science and law and later became a journalist for a newspaper in Frankfurt. But even before WWI, he had become enamored with the works and philosophy of Sigmund Freud. By 1925 he was publishing the works of Freud and other psychoanalytical writers. Then in 1932 he went bankrupt and became a self-employed journalist. In Vienna, he was well known among the leftist, liberal, intellectual elite. But fearing the Nazi invasion (Anschluss) in 1938, he fled to Shanghai were he established what was considered by many to be the best German-language newspapers for exiles, Die Gelbe Post. But according to my friend and Shanghai historian, Ralph Hirsch, “…after fifteen months, his health ruined by continuous overwork and two ferociously humid Shanghai summers, Storfer had to sell his journal and its assets.” To make ends meet, he took a part-time job as a newscaster at the BMI’s radio station, XGDN, which by July 1941 became full time. He had hoped that once he was in Australia, the British would continue to help support him. But tragically and ironically, they no longer needed his services, nor the rest of the Shanghai Twelve for that matter. Unable to find work, he became destitute and could only find a job in a sawmill. He died of lymphoma in 1944.
After such an incredible life, this terse obit appeared in the classified section of the Canberra Times on Wed. Jan. 17, 1945. It was all that was said about him after his death:
And so ends the saga of the “Shanghai Twelve”.