German life in Kobe & Shanghai 1934 -1940

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German life in Kobe & Shanghai 1934 -1940

I got two passports into my collection which, after some research, tell an exciting story of a German business owner and his sister, having a printing business in Kobe, Japan. The passports both issued to Emmi Willweber, sister of Herbert Willweber. Herbert was between arrested, tortured and sentenced by the Japanese authorities in Kobe and Sakai from 1943-1945.

German life in Kobe & Shanghai 1934 -1940I believe his sister returned to Germany with the later of the passports. There are two other postwar German passports of Emmi from 1955 and 1974 which are not in my possession yet. The 1974 passport state her occupation as a librarian.

Emmi Willweber's passport issued in Shanghai 14 August 1934
Emmi Willweber’s passport issued in Shanghai 14 August 1934
Visa. Bureau of public safety - City government of greater Shanghai
Visa. Bureau of public safety – City government of greater Shanghai
Stamp that she got the ballot paper to vote for the ANSCHLUSS in Osaka-Kobe, Japan
Stamp that she got the ballot paper to vote for the ANSCHLUSS in Osaka-Kobe, Japan

In several conversations in 1983 and 1986, Mr. Willweber shared the experiences described in the following letter in a similar, sometimes more detailed manner. W. had left Germany around 1933, according to his statements because of his prominent activity for the Social Democratic Party in Leipzig. After a stay in Shanghai, he went to Kobe, where he lived until his death around 1988 and ran a printing works. (During the war, among other things, writings of the German School Association were printed here).

Sender: Herbert Willweber, Japan, Hyogoken, Mukogun, …
Receiver: Mrs. Emmi Willweber, Germany, American Territory, Kr. Karlstadt/Mainfranken

Nigawa 9/3/1947
My dear Emmi, yesterday I got your Red Cross Postcard from Waka-chan, and I will try to get this letter off as soon as possible. I hope I can make you have it in record time through the proper office of a friend of mine. I expected from you mail for a long time because I have written to you already three times. And since I don’t know whether you received my letters, I think I have to tell you my story ones more. You know the endless arguments we had about the best way to be active in our fight against the Nazi gangsters. You were for a more subtle approach, and you went home into the lion’s den to do it. I was as you know for the straight and blunt form of battle, which suits my nature better, and finally, I landed in prison.

Kobe & Shanghai 1934 - 1940
Photo description on the back: This is how you travel in inner China. My travel companion is a young Russian woman. She studied history and economics at the university in Harbin and spoke fluently Mandarin. (1936)

In autumn 1942, I was blacklisted on the blackboard of all German ships. The crew was strictly forbidden to visit my house and have any conversations with me. Despite it, some of the boys came and told me their stories about the situation at home. The Ortsgruppenleiter, as well as General Consul Balser,  offer me repeatedly a place in a concentration camp in Germany. I expected to kidnap at any time. But my name and behavior were otherwise spotless, and so they couldn’t do much about it. On the 4th of February, 1943, I married Enko (to the greatest horror of Balser), and after that, they softened the attacks against me somewhat. But then came the loss of Stalingrad and not only the Nazis, but also the Japs got nervous, and the Gestapo went into action. They rounded up my closest friends and me.

Kobe & Shanghai 1934 - 1940
“Emmi as a Chinese student” Shanghai 1935
Kobe & Shanghai 1934 - 1940
Herbert und Emmi 1934

On the 15th September 1943, they arrested, by order of the Governor of Hyogo, me, Enko (in condition to give 2 months later birth to a child), Miss Rotraut Kissendorfer (Ulm), a German school teacher), Mr Conradi (a German engineer, who was slowly killed in prison), Mr Baronettz (an assistant of Conradi) and his Sister whom you know (she worked at my office). She was released from the police after two months because she became insane. The charge against us was espionage. German life in Kobe & Shanghai 1934 -1940

To go into details about what I went through would make you sleep bad for some nights so that I will leave that out. For three months, I was kept in a cellar, at the Kobe Water Police Station, below the sea level without light and practically no food. And every day I was “questioned” for 4-5 hours. After “questioning” I had to be carried into my cellar cell by two men. No bedding of any sort, on the bare floor I had to sleep till the end of December, when I was transferred to the Kobe district courthouse, awaiting a fake trial. Till March 1944, I never saw and spoke to anybody else than Jap police officials. At the day of the “trial” I saw and could talk to Vice consul Ernst Wohlfarth, (Gestapo). I was told that Enko was four weeks before childbirth released out of prison and ordered to remain under house arrest in Kyoto.

During all the following two years, the German consulate did nothing to help her. She was even refused the German food distribution. I was not allowed to see her or the little boy. At the trial, I was sentenced to 3½ years hard labor on account of “ lèse-majesté” (insulting of a monarch or other ruler; treason). Despite that, I never committed such foolishness, I had to admit that crime to come alive out of the hands of the police. Till 6th September 1945, I was kept in solitary confinement at the Osaka Sakai Prison. During the numerous air raids, we white prisoners were put in handcuffs. There the prisoner’s diet at the rate of 100 per month. I lost during these two years, 55 lbs. And came out with 110 lbs weight. You can imagine how I looked like, for a man of my size damn little.

It is still a wonder to me that I am still alive and didn’t contract any severe disease. It paid me well that I kept my body in good shape before that experience. Among the prisoners were quite several American P.O.W., and I was released together with them at the end of the war. Since then, I worked for the American armed forces and tried to repay them the saving of my life. I couldn’t have been able to stand another winter more in prison. …

Kobe & Shanghai 1934 - 1940
Emmi Willweber’s passport issued in Kobe, Japan 21 August 1939 – 2 weeks before WWII began
Kobe & Shanghai 1934 - 1940
Her Russian visa issued at the USSR legation in Japan 17 Oct 1940 to travel to Germany
Kobe & Shanghai 1934 - 1940
Japanese visa 30 Sep 1940

Willweber was also interrogated by the Allied Occupied Forces at the Osaka Branch office on 14 Jan 1947 by Arthur T. Neville, Investigator, Legal Section, GHQ, SCAP where he also described his torture by the Japanese and his experience in prison.

Kobe & Shanghai 1934 - 1940

Here, the full report with all details


What a fantastic document set and what a story!

German life in Kobe & Shanghai 1934 -1940

FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

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