Special Tributes

Author of "Shanghai Refuge: A Memoir of the
World War II Jewish Ghetto."
Published here with the permission of the author.

Died, at the age of 93, on September 9, 1997.

Born in Istanbul, where her father was a doctor to the Sultan of Turkey. Ms. Margolis came to the United States with her family in 1907. She worked with Settlement House helping immigrants in Buffalo, N.Y. and for Jewish Social Services in Cleveland before becoming the first female field agent of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in 1937.

The JDC first sent her to Cuba to help refugees fleeing Europe who were not being permitted to come directly to the USA. She tried to find a port of entry for a ship, the St. Louis, carrying Jews, but it was forced to return to Europe. In 1939, she was sent to Shanghai, where tens of thousands of fleeing Jews found refuge.

Ms. Margolis, at considerable personal risk to herself, saved the lives of some 4,000 Jewish refugees who, close to starvation, precariously survived in the Heime (camps) in the Shanghai ghetto.

When I talked about Ms. Margolis at the 1993 reunion in Chicago I realized how few of the attendees had heard of her and were aware of her heroism. I had brought with me from Indianapolis a scroll, done by a calligrapher in her honour, which was signed by some of the attendees and it was presented to her at her 90th birthday.

Briefly, in May 1941, at the request of the U.S. State Department, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) sent Ms. Margolis to assist the American Consulate in an attempt to speed up the processing of applications for emigration to the United States. While there, she also was charged with investigating the numerous complaints of the refugees.

She arrived about three years after the first refugees had come to Shanghai and immediately realized that it was imperative for her to try to make order out chaos. Most importantly, she needed to check the disbursement of funds previously transmitted by the JDC. However, the JDC office in New York first denied her repeated requests for permission to set up a temporary office and to assume the responsibility to coordinate the relief effort. Finally, after sending repeated reports and ultimatums to the JDC, permission was granted. It was a hopeless task for one person, no matter how skilled, to sort out the mess caused by the local relief organizations. It was an uphill battle against the Shanghai Jewish leaders who wanted to retain control of the funds. Her attempt to reorganize the committee structure and to streamline operations were resented.

One day, in the summer of 1941 my mother came home and told me about an extraordinary woman she had met and whom she admiringly called "the American Lady". She readily recognized Ms. Margolis' skills and talked to me about her sensitivity to the refugees' plight. My mother decided to leave the Speelman committee, as the CFA was called, and go to work as a case worker for the JDC. My mother considered it a great tragedy that Ms. Margolis had not been on the scene in 1939. With her insight and experience the JDC surely would have assisted more refugees to become productive rather than existing on handouts for many years.

Upon Ms. Margolis' insistence, the JDC dispatched an assistant, Manuel Siegel, who arrived the end of November, 1941. Despite her wealth of experience in dealing with refugee problems in other parts of the world, she had never encountered conditions as chaotic as she found in Shanghai. She declared that the struggle to earn a living , which confronted the refugees, was probably unparalleled in the world. There was not a single professional social worker to direct her suggestions, namely to pool their resources. She was faced with groups of hostile and frightened Heim inmates.

The refugees were not only malnourished but also humiliated and deprived of self-respect by the methods employed by the CFA. Ms. Margolis was quite outspoken about Capt. Herzberg who was employed by Michael Speelman to run the CFA. Herzberg was accustomed to working with Chinese coolies and in one of Siegel's reports he states that the refugees had been treated worse than coolies.

After Pearl Harbour, as an enemy alien, Ms. Margolis had to register with the Japanese occupation forces. She recognized the need to get to know the Japanese mentality and accepted the fact that she would have to work within this framework. She established an excellent working relationship with Captain Inuzuka, chief of the Japanese Naval Landing Party in charge of the Bureau for Jewish affairs. Inuzuka offered his full cooperation and help in her efforts to aid the Jewish refugees. Indeed, Ms. Margolis once remarked that her main problem was no the Japanese, it was trying to deal with the leaders of the Shanghai Jewish Community.

Until the outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific, the JDC had on a regular schedule cabled funds to Speelman of the CFA. Fortunately, anticipating the possibility of a war, Ms. Margolis had made it one her priorities to "sell" the financial power of the JDC to the local Jewish leadership. Repeatedly she attempted to persuade this group of local leaders to advance funds in order to provide a cushion until the arrivals of cables, personally guaranteeing the resources of the JDC. Her foresight paid off, for a short while at least. When cables ceased to arrive from the JDC, some money was advanced by some of the wealthy members of the Shanghai Jewish community. Incredibly, it appeared that the New York office had made only vague contingency plans for the impending war.

By that time Ms. Margolis was faced with the fact that the money had completely run out and she encountered constant resistance to her attempts to borrow money against future payment by the JDC. Since most members of the wealthy Sephardic community were British and therefore enemy aliens, their bank account were frozen. Ms. Margolis was unable to get any more help from them. On one occasion, one of the leaders of the Sephardic community stated that "since the Japanese took Shanghai they should also worry about the refugees."

In January 1942, Ms. Margolis called an emergency conference at the Juedische Gemeinde and told the refugee leadership that there was only enough food to feed 8,000 persons on relief for four more days or feed 4,000 people for eight days. The refugees, she said, should make this decision themselves. The refugee leadership agreed and on January 10, 1942, 4,000 refugees were categorically cut from the relief rolls.

The people in the Heime grew increasingly restless and the situation became extremely serious. It was pointed out to Ms. Margolis that should the situation get out hand in Hongkew , the Kempetai, the federal military secret police, an especially brutal lot who were responsible for the security of Hongkew, would be called in to subdue any riots. Inuzuka expressed his concern to Margolis and hoped that the Jewish people would help her feed the refugees. He promised cooperation to Ms. Margolis and released some of the previously frozen JDC funds. He also took an unusual step and released 5,000 sacks of cracked wheat, which previously had been requested by Ms. Margolis from the Red Cross. Ms. Margolis stated that by taking this action the Japanese had done more for the refugees than for any other group in need of help.

Of course they were not willing to take any special responsibility for the Jewish refugees at this point since Shanghai was filled with hundreds of thousands of poor of all nationalities. But the Japanese were most anxious to avoid any trouble at a time they were responsible for controlling the whole of Shanghai.

Ms. Margolis realized that something very dramatic would have to occur to stir the Sephardic and the Ashkenazi Jews out of lethargy. Up to this point she and her associate, Siegel, had avoided any publicity, realizing that the Japanese military would be embarrassed and frown on it. Despite the risks to their own safety, the two JDC representatives decided to break the story and on January 16th, 1942 the Shanghai Times ran the full story on the HUNGRY STARVING REFUGEES IN HONGKEW."

The Kempetai was outraged and issued and order for the arrest of Ms. Margolis and Siegel. Even Inuzuka phoned Ms. Margolis and expressed his anger that any news about "disorder" in Shanghai had been published. Ms. Margolis and Siegel were called to explain the actions at the Japanese Consulate. Only through the intervention of an influential Japanese friend, a Miss Nogami, was the order of their arrest rescinded.

During this critical time Ms. Margolis had earned the respect of the Japanese authorities and when many enemy aliens were arrested and sent to a POW camp her internment was delayed until February 25, 1943. The following July, Ms. Margolis feigned illness and she was sent to Shanghai General Hospital. Although the hospital was under Japanese supervision she managed to stay in touch not only with the refugee committee, but also was able by phone to raise additional funds.

In the short time she was in Shanghai, she accomplished what she had set out to do. She finally was repatriated to the U.S. in September 1943. In her detailed report to the JDC she reported not only on the grave situation in Shanghai but also that she had guaranteed half a million US Dollars of the JDC's money to the Shanghai Jewish leadership to repay them for moneys they advanced until communication was reopened.

There is no doubt that without the professionalism, the dedication, the persistence and the sheer Chutzpah displayed by Ms. Margolis at least four thousands of refugees would have slowly starved to death.

If there is one deserving hero in the whole Shanghai episode it certainly is Laura Jarblum Margolis.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.