My German Third Reich passport found in Shanghai

(by PETER NASH, Sydney)

Sitting at the computer my wife Rieke knew something special had come into the ‘inbox’ and called me immediately. The unknown sender titled the Subject: “Lost Passport in Shanghai” – a topic with which I was familiar as I had initiated connections to owners of two German Passports a few years earlier.

However, this time there was an attachment labeled Ingeborg Nachemstein – my mother’s unmistakable name. This was a scan of a section inside a passport, showing the name (Ingeborg Sara Nachemstein), date and place of birth and some other personal details as well as a photo. But it also revealed that the passport holder had a child listing date of birth and name: Peter – ME!

I was absolutely amazed if not completely surprised. Three years ago the Rickshaw website had an article seeking the owners of two German passports that turned up at a Shanghai ‘flea market’. Ever since I thought – “so how many others are there to be found?”

The sender of the message was Thomas Dorn, a German citizen, living and working in Shanghai already for six years, having worked in various parts of Asia for many years. In his leisure time, Thomas’s hobby is to roam around Shanghai looking for historical posters and other curios from China’s evolution in recent decades. On that particular weekend, he had ended up at a shop cum museum of Chinese propaganda posters. A fluent Chinese speaker, Thomas engaged in conversation with the museum owner/collector.

After a short while of getting to know each other better and realizing Thomas’ origins, the owner, Mr. Yang Pei Ming, produced a box containing 19 German passports. From the Eagle and Swastika (Hakenkreuz) on the cover, and the “J” inside, Thomas immediately knew their significance and, having lived in Shanghai for a number of years, was also aware of the story of the thousands of German, Austrian and other European Jews who fled the Nazi era and found a haven in Shanghai. As he slowly turned the pages of several passports, his “hair stood on end,” realizing the pain, blood, and tears that these passport holders had endured through their long journey to Shanghai, the displacement and loss of family as well as the hardships of refugee life.

German passports
My German Third Reich passport found in Shanghai

Instinctively drawn to the need to find the owners or a descendant, Thomas was galvanized into action. Gathering his thoughts, he used his mobile phone to take photos of those passports listing children, hoping some might still be alive and that he could trace them. The first passport he photographed and subsequently did searches on was that of my mother and me. On returning to his computer he ‘Googled’ my name – my birth name – and, within 0.16 seconds, found more than ten ‘hits’ for me, resulting from my previous publications and lectures I have held on the Jews of Shanghai. Not only did the first link he opened list my adopted name in addition to my birth name, but it also gave an email address.

Within 60 seconds of receiving Thomas’ email, I called him in Shanghai, taking advantage of the relatively small time difference. It was my turn to startle him! Not expecting such a quick response, he thought it was his boss calling from Germany. Although his English is fluent, we spoke mostly in German in which I am also still fluent. I was naturally curious about how Mr. Yang came into possession of such a large number of passports. According to Mr. Yang, there are around 100 passports of German-Jewish refugees to China circulating at the moment – another known lot of 5 passports, plus Mr. Yang’s 19, mean there may be another 75 still waiting to be discovered.

We received an eviction notice from the owners of our apartment block, dated November 25, 1938, that is, two weeks after Kristallnacht, quoting a recently enacted law required that Jews could no longer live under the same roof as Aryans and that we had to vacate our apartment in Charlottenburg, Berlin, by no later than December 31, 1938. As entry to countries such as United States, Australia, and elsewhere was severely restricted or unaffordable, this forced us to take the only viable option, the “open port” of Shanghai – also coined “Port of Last Resort.” Tickets for sailing on the Norddeutscher Lloyd’s “SS Scharnhorst” were purchased in Berlin helped by an ‘under-the-table’ sum to the shipping clerk. Boarding was in Genoa, Italy. With my parents, my mother’s parents and her brother, we finally left Berlin in April 1939.

The route and dates can be tracked by the rubber stamps in the Passport:

April 24 through the Brenner Pass, Austria, into Italy,

April 24 is also verified by a Train Ticket from München to Ventimiglia

April 26 we sailed from Genoa and headed to the Suez Canal (Enjoying First Class amenities aboard the SS Scharnhorst)

May 7 we arrived at Colombo

May 17 we arrived at Hongkong

and finally two days later on May 19 sailing along the Whangpoo River, we arrived at Shanghai. Before leaving Berlin my grandfather Isidor Lewin was devastated to leave his beloved Germany, and suffered a heart attack. He died soon after our arrival on June 19, 1939, and was buried in the Baikal Road Cemetery one of the first refugees buried in Shanghai. The 24-day voyage from Genoa to Shanghai was a very welcome relief and nourishing holiday for my family after the previous traumatic months and years under Nazi German rule. But it was immediately erased by the harsh realities of the appalling conditions and tough life nearly all the other refugees, and we had to endure directly after arrival.

My German Third Reich passport found in Shanghai

How these passports came to be left behind in Shanghai has so far not been uncovered. The Nazi-issued passports did not serve any further purpose when World War 2 ended, but many of the refugees came away with their original passports. Indeed I have in my possession the passport of my mother’s sister and her husband and I know the one belonging to my uncle’s wife exists. One theory is that the passports may have been collected from certain groups of stateless refugees during their post-war emigration and replaced by other qualifying identity documents for entry to the country of migration.

As to how these documents have survived and under what circumstances they recently surfaced, there is as yet no definitive answer. In the late 1950s, not long before the start of the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao, there was mass ‘dumping’ of records and paraphernalia relating to Shanghai’s Western population. It appears that peddlers, sorting through the rubbish for recyclables and items of value, picked out these documents and sold them to curio-stall owners rather than as waste paper to be pulped. Thus the passports may well have spent many years in a dusty corner in some of Shanghai’s many flea market stalls.

Other items have surfaced similarly. An example is the recently found Jewish tombstones, some complete, some partial, so far numbering over 80 – including that of the father of our well-known Rickshaw website contributor, Ralph Harpuder (see his article). It is known that the tombstones of the four Jewish cemeteries in Shanghai, numbering about 3500, were pulled up and re-interred outside of Shanghai in 1958. Later they were again pulled out and many broken up or used as paving stones or for other building works.

My German Third Reich passport found in Shanghai

What the Chinese holders will do with these passports is uncertain. Apparently, some have been sold. In fact in 2001, while leading a tour of German medical students, Prof. Paul Unschuld came across a stallholder outside of Shanghai who possessed two passports. He bought them and later proceeded to find the owners and their families.

Both Thomas and I agreed that money should not change hands for the return of my mother’s passport. We explored the possibilities of having it returned and I decided to contact Mr. Yang directly. His response gave me hope that I may get it from him. Thomas has since visited Sydney and brought our passport with him. He handed the passport over to me – ‘on loan’ from Mr. Yang, at the Sydney Jewish Museum. This again gave me the feeling of trust that Mr. Yang will do the ‘right thing’ and return our passport. A planned Reunion of ex-Shanghailanders in June 2008 in Shanghai may be the right forum for the handover of some of the passports to their owners, surviving family members of the Shanghai Jewish refugee museum. In any case, this is an extraordinary instance in a chapter of Holocaust survivor history that had a fortunate ending.

Peter Nash has spent more than 20 years actively researching his family history and has helped many in their search for a family who also found a haven in Shanghai. He has lectured and authored articles on the Jews of China. He is a volunteer guide at the Holocaust orientated Sydney Jewish Museum.

First published in 2010

My German Third Reich passport found in Shanghai

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