All weddings are poignant occasions, but that of Bryan Fine and Lindsey White last month was especially meaningful, as it was also a celebration of the groom’s family history.
The couple, both teachers at the Cambridge International Center of Shanghai Normal University, tied the knot in the courtyard of the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue, now the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
But the story starts back in 1938 and Nazi Germany, when Fine’s great-grandfather was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp. He was released three months later and ordered to leave Germany right away.
He went ahead to Shanghai, which was an ‘open city,’ and the only port in the world to accept Jews fleeing Europe without an entry visa or documentation. His family were to follow him.
“My grandmother escaped to Shanghai with her mum, sister and two brothers on one of the last trains out of Germany in August 1939,” says Fine. His great-aunt Lilly, now 94 years old and living in the US, told him about their tense wait to leave:
“They mislaid our passports and the first visa expired, so we applied for a second visa. In the meantime we had made it to Berlin, and we were the only ones that got a visa. We had to leave the same day, and take the train for Moscow.”
A train journey of over 8,400 km took them through Lithuania, onto Minsk and Moscow, across the steppes of Siberia to Harbin and then down to Shanghai.
There had been a Jewish community in Shanghai since the 1840s, and the numbers began to grow in the 20th century with the arrival of Russian Jews, first fleeing pogroms, then the Revolution. Then in the 1930s the tide of those fleeing Nazi persecution began to swell. Some 20,000 Jews arrived in Shanghai between 1937 and 1941, taking the population to an estimated 36,000.
When Japan invaded Shanghai in 1937 they kept the open port policy, at least until 1939, and repeatedly refused their Nazi allies’ demands to expel or hand over the Jewish refugees.
But in 1943, life changed dramatically for many of the new arrivals. The Japanese army designated less than one square mile in Hongkou as a ‘Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees,’ forcing an estimated 14,000 ‘stateless Jews’ into what became known as the Shanghai Ghetto.
Conditions in the ghetto were appalling, as thousands of poor Chinese and ‘stateless Jews’ – Fine’s grandmother Nelly Brandt and her family among them — crowded into cramped accommodations where disease and hunger were rife.
“Even though they had escaped Germany, there was still a lot of strife in their lives,” says Fine. According to his great-aunt, her brothers, Max and Heinz, were made to work on government sewage projects, where 18-yearold Heinz got a foot infection that spread to his blood stream and killed him.
However, it was there in the Shanghai Ghetto in 1945, six years after her arrival in Shanghai, that Nelly Brandt married a GI called Max Fine.
“One of the things the US army did was to provide relief to Jews in the Hongkou Ghetto, and my grandfather was one of those soldiers,” says Fine. “He fell in love with my grandmother and decided to help her find a job and save up some money to start sending her family to the States.”
The couple were married in the Astor Hotel, the young bride wearing a silk wedding dress made from a Japanese army parachute.
Fine’s grandparents eventually set up home in Rhode Island, and went on to have five children. Now the wedding of their grandson has brought this family story of love and survival back to where it all began.