You and your friend are walking down two sides of the same street. Suddenly you are both overcome by hoods. They rough you up. But your friend gets it worse—he is killed. Who wants to hear your story when you got off so easy? Why do you deserve to talk? Moshe Pick
I did not agree with the final words (excerpted above) of Mr. Pick’s public remarks at Shabbat lunch. But everything he said until that point had seized my attention to the point I was not going to vocally disagree. Mr. Pick was in China for the first time in sixty years. He had returned with his wife, both of whom had said farewell to the Far East from the deck of a steamer departing Shanghai after World War II. Like thousands of European Jews, the Picks escaped the Holocaust through the selfless actions of the otherwise anonymous Chinese counsel in Vienna. After Kristanacht, the Chinese counsel was one of the only diplomats in Greater Germany willing to provide Jews with the paperwork necessary to escape the county. The Western countries told the desperate immigrants that at best only those with blue collar skills, like plumbers, electricians and mechanics, would be granted immigrant visas. As Mr. Pick recalled, “there was not a Jewish plumber or mechanic in all of Vienna.” With the West locked, the only open door lay to the east—an understatement if there ever was one, as the recently bar mitzved Moshe and his family fled to Far East, to the distant port of Shanghai.
Like the rest of the newly arrived Jewish immigrants, Moshe and his family had little idea that the land they had fled to was engulfed in a devastating series of wars, with Nationalists fighting Communists as both sides alike faced off against encroaching fascist Japanese armies. To the extent that anything like a sovereign Chinese government could be identified during these years, it had little claim to Shanghai. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, Shanghai was an international enclave, jointly ruled by a consortium of European powers. Or as Mr. Pick described it, Shanghai was the only place in the world that in the midst of WWII, the Union Jack and the Nazi flag stood side by side.
Mr. Pick’s recollection was fascinating but even more remarkable was what he revealed to me and Richard over Shabbat lunch when we approached him and his wife. After he shared more details about his teenage years in the bustling wartime international port, we asked the two old China veterans what they thought of the return of a Jewish presence—at present, largely limited to Chabad, businessmen, students and travelers—to China. Mrs. Pick insisted that the only eastern locale she held out hope for was Israel but Mr. Pick was somewhat more generous, granting that in ways his wartime colleagues might never have appreciated, they helped pull back the lid on what can still only be called a tepid field of Sino-Judaic relations and understanding. His words reminded me of what China’s leading scholar on Israel and the Jewish community had replied to my asking him a year before in Washington D.C. why he first became interested in the Jewish people. His answer was classic: Growing up in wartime Shanghai, he had served as the shabbos goy for his neighbors, and the lights he lit for them as a child haunted his imagination years later as an accomplished academic.