A Chinese Jew's tale of adversity and triumph
SHANGHAI: Leiwi Imas chose to stay in China when most other Jewish refugees left after World War II.
By doing so, he began a legacy that continues to this day, in a remarkable tale of one Jewish family's connection to China's business hub that spans seven decades.
The businessman, customs officer and ex-president of the Jewish Club in Shanghai died peacefully in a downtown villa in 1962.
His daughter, Sara Imas, grew up among her Chinese peers without a Chinese passport, speaking only Mandarin with a local accent.
After living through upheavals in Chinese history, including the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), and failing to find love despite three failed marriages to local men, she migrated to Israel in 1991 at the age of 41 and made a living selling spring rolls.
Once there, the Jewish woman, who lacks a college degree, demonstrated an amazing ability to provide for herself and family:
She learned to speak fluent English and Hebrew, found a job in an Israeli court, sent her three children to Israeli colleges, returned to Shanghai 10 years later as the chief representative of a diamond firm to the Greater China area, and married a local government official.
"Don't ask me how it all began," Sara Imas quoted her father as saying every time she asked him where they were from.
Neither Sara nor Leiwi's Chinese wife know much about the first four decades of his life in Germany.
But a long scar on his thigh told the story of the end of Leiwi's time in Europe. He got it crossing a border fence between Germany and Poland in 1939, at the age of 43.
He arrived in Shanghai the same year, among the more than 20,000 other displaced Jews that floated into the city between 1937 and 1939 escaping Adolf Hitler's Holocaust. He sold his gold watch and opened a small bakery on the city's Fuxing Road.
Despite finding a job with the local customs office in the early 1940s, the bakery continued to do business.
By the 1940s his situation had improved markedly, as he owned a dozen businesses, including two bakeries, three wine shops, a carpet shop and a truck-rental firm, according to his daughter.
He also built a family in Shanghai, by marrying in the late 1940s his ayi, a house cleaner named Xia Guiying who hailed from a village in the north of East China's Jiangsu Province. He adopted Xia's son and together they had a daughter Sara.
"The moment you step in a land, you see it as your home," Leiwi often told his daughter.
But the life of the family Imas retained a definite Jewish flavour.
In old Shanghai, even in the large international settlements, Jews stood out as a distinct community with their own synagogues, schools, theatres, hospitals, clubs, cemeteries and publishing houses.
Their vibrant community, which stood on the banks of the Huangpu River for a brief moment in history, was described by American writer Ron Gluckman in his "The Ghosts of Shanghai":
"Viennese gentlemen sip coffee outside Austrian bakeries, so authentic that the Hongkou (Jewish) ghetto is called Little Vienna. Jewish diners read papers printed in German, Polish and even Yiddish. Students are learning books under the guidance of the rabbi and tango is danced every night at Silk Hat in the French Concession"
Life was not always so jolly, of course. Food was scarce and disease rampant in the community in the early 1940s during the Japanese occupation.
But in Shanghai, unlike the cities of a burning Europe, nearly all the Jews survived the war.
Leiwi Imas more than survived he prospered.
Since the mid-1940s, he and his family had lived on the third floor of the three-storey house belonging to the Jewish Club, which has been well preserved at No 642 Fuxing Lu together with its extravagantly large garden.
As president of the little-documented club, he had the privilege of living in the house.
"There was a lobby on the first floor where Jews met regularly, and offices of the club on the second floor," his daughter said.
Until his death in 1962, Imas lived comfortably in the house. Though his businesses became State-owned in the 1950s, he received in his last years a monthly subsidy from the local government as well as from the Israeli Government.
His daughter Sara grew up happily and felt no different from her Chinese schoolmates and friends.
"If there was any, it was that I was much richer and quite eye-catching with my exotic appearance," she said jokingly.
As her father's heiress, she continued to live in the downtown villa and received the same monthly subsidy from the Israeli Government, which was then deemed a fortune.
She met with frustration only in the late 1960s, when she was told that, being a foreigner, she couldn't "reform oneself in the vast rural areas" by choosing to become a farmer in poverty-stricken areas, as many of her peers did passionately at the call of then Chairman Mao Zedong.
She was compensated in 1971 with a job at a local copper factory one that was envied by many at a time workers were the most respected members of society.
The picture became less rosy as the "cultural revolution" developed. In 1973 a group of teenage Red Guards drove Sara Imas and her family out of the villa.
Sara was wrongly accused of being an Israeli spy, and was put into prison for three years until the "cultural revolution" came to an end in 1976.
Upon release from prison, Sara Imas went back to her job at the factory and was married in 1974 to one of her colleagues. The couple had a son the following year and remained happily married until the 1980s.
Many in China at the time were looking to set up home abroad after the country opened its doors to the outside world, and Sara's husband was no exception. He emigrated to New Zealand and married a local woman.
Sara Imas married twice more, but neither husband lasted more than two years. It was after the break up of her third marriage that she applied to immigrate to Israel.
In 1991, at the age of 41, she was received by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as the first Jewish immigrant from China to Israel after the two countries established diplomatic relations.
Because she had fluent Mandarin, Imas soon found jobs in Chinese restaurants and shops.
With a small sum she managed to save, she opened a spring roll shop in her second year in Israel, selling the same Shanghai food she had eaten most of her life but had never made.
"I bought flour, vegetables and a wok and tried to memorize how spring rolls were made in Shanghai," she said.
"It was really difficult at first, but I quickly invented something looking somewhat like a spring roll they sold like hot cakes, as few Israelis had seen a real spring roll at the time."
With the money earned from her new business, Imas brought her three children to Israel and sent them to local schools.
"But I didn't want to be a Chinese immigrant selling spring rolls all my life. I wanted to be a member of mainstream society wherever I was," she said.
She learnt English and Hebrew, the former from the ABC, and both from the supermarket, where she spent hours. She would point at something on the shelf and ask a customer, "What's that?"
Housewives at supermarkets were often more than willing to teach her languages, and so were senior citizens sitting in cafes and parks.
"I learned more than languages in this way. I got to know a small club of about 50 elderly Jews, mostly in their 70s and 80s, who sheltered in Shanghai during World War II. They were very helpful," she said.
"Being with them, I came to understand more of my father. They were as unwilling to speak of their days before Shanghai as my father, and they felt sick every time they did."
Imas' efforts paid off when an Israeli court advertised for a Chinese-Hebrew translator. She was chosen from a field of 100 Chinese immigrants.
"The other candidates were all young women who learned Hebrew from their Israeli husbands. How can a husband be as patient as an old man in teaching a language?" she said laughing.
In 2002, Imas grabbed hold of another opportunity and became the chief representative of Israel-based Lustig Brothers Diamond Co Ltd to the Greater China area. She was back in Shanghai with an office in the landmark Jinmao Tower.
The following year she bought an apartment in the city and married Chen Kai, a mild-mannered official with the Municipal Education Commission.
She now spends three afternoons a week volunteering at Pudong Gongli Hospital, chatting with elderly patients.
"I don't belong to the group of good-hearted middle-aged women volunteers. By comforting patients I mean to get comfort from them," she said.
"But I believe myself to be marvellous I dare to start new lives regardless of age and can thrive wherever I am thrown."
(China Daily 07/27/2005 page14)