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A German writer's perspective on China's soul-touching stories

Xinhua | Updated: 2017-10-21 07:52
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In the 1930s and 40s, thousands of Jews escaping Nazi Germany arrived in Shanghai, a place they could enter without a visa. Vision Shanghai /

Stefan Schomann attempts to stitch together a real-life impression of China

With its long history, China has always been a treasure trove of soul-touching sagas of epic proportions. The intercultural love story of a Jewish young man and a Chinese woman in war-torn Shanghai during World War II is one of them.

It was discovered by German writer and freelance journalist Stefan Schomann and became the subject of his book Last Refuge in Shanghai. Schomann calls it "a crazy story that happened in a crazy time" in an "exotic location".

Cross-border lovers during WWII

In 1939, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, Robert Reuven Sokal fled his country with his family, joining the band of less than 20,000 Jews who embarked on an odyssey from central and eastern Europe to the foreign concessions in Shanghai, one of the few places that didn't require Jewish refugees seeking sanctuary to have a visa.

In Shanghai, while studying at St. John's University, Sokal, the son of a Viennese paint factory owner, met Julie Chenchu Yang, who was born in a wealthy Chinese family. By then, Shanghai was experiencing the pain of Japanese invasion and Shanghai's Chinese and Jewish communities shared a common sorrow.

"I was looking for a story that tells more than just this epic story of Jewish immigration to China, to Shanghai. I wanted to tell how China experienced the war ... what happened in China," Schomann said.

To combine a Eurocentric perspective with a Chinese one, which is rarely seen in earlier books on the Jewish community in Shanghai, Schomann talked to the Chinese neighbors of the refugees aside from Jewish survivors.

Since very few people know what really happened in Shanghai in 1937, he thinks Last Refuge in Shanghai may serve to fill in gaps in history. "It was ... important to me to tell this (story)," he explained.

The young lovers supported each other through countless challenges, including turmoil and the cruelty of war, opposition from Yang's family, and other obstacles in their intercultural marriage, eventually embracing a happy ending.

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