China's Shtetl

Jews and China. Aside from some Jews' propensity toward Chinese food as their ethnic cuisine of choice, it seems like there's more of a connection than most would suspect. Between the years 1939 and 1945, 30,000 European Jews lived in China. Trying to escape the horrors of World War II, Jews had doors closed in their faces internationally. China was the only country in the world they could enter without a visa.

"The sad part of it was that you could only go if you had money because you had to buy your passage," says Maxine Kronick, who last year wrote, produced, and narrated Passport to Life: Destination Shanghai, a documentary about China's Jewish enclave, which screens this Wednesday. "That eliminated any people having financial difficulties. It was mostly wealthy people who were able to come to Shanghai."

They ended up in a city occupied by the Japanese, alive but not so well, relegated to a place called the Designated Area for Stateless Refugees, more familiar as the dilapidated Shanghai Ghetto or Hong Kew. According to Kronick, her film presents "a walking tour of what is left." What remains are buildings, including an abandoned synagogue, but no Jews. Following the war, they scattered across the world.

An actress (she had a brief speaking role in Michael Moore's movie Roger & Me), activist, and former special-events coordinator for the city of Flint, Michigan, Kronick (who has lived in Flagler Beach, near St. Augustine for the past five years) specializes in what she calls "documentaries of Jewish communities that no longer exist." In 1982 she made the documentary From the Shtetl with Love, which examined how the lives of Eastern European Jews played out after Hitler. While living in Tel Aviv during the early Nineties, she learned about the Jews in China from a man she met who had spent part of his childhood in the Shanghai Ghetto. The stories he told her inspired her to document the place. He appears in the film.

"Many, many people have no conception that it has even occurred," Kronick says about the short tenure of Jews in China. About her need to tell their story and those of so many other Jews, she claims: "I learned very early in life that if you don't have dreams, you have nightmares, so you might as well have dreams. I'm very interested in the perpetuation of the Jewish people and this is my way of helping that. This is my thing, my small contribution to my people."

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Nina Korman
Contact: Nina Korman