Like a carrot, the green leafy bit is only the beginning.
She told me her grandfather was a decorated war hero in World War One, for the Germans, not for the allies. It wasn’t until the Second World War that these accomplishments really proved their worth. As Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, being a Jew living in Berlin, her grandfather was aware of the present possible need to vacate Germany. Perhaps it was that fervent desire to stay at home, or the political connections and respect he had gained as a war veteran, but the family decided to stay. When the raids started, they were fine, the political connections held, and the soldiers didn’t arrest them, they had a coded knock which cued the occupants to quiet-down, pretending no one lived there. There became a point during which it became harder and harder for this ruse to continue until a point at which the soldiers told them they should probably leave. This advice was taken, and they made their way to Florence, where they set out to find a country still accepting Jewish refugees. During the war, countries created a refugee quota system, only accepting a certain number of refugees from each European country. This has has been considered to be an extremely controversial policy, as few refugees were accepted, making some question the appropriateness of the allied response to the massacre that was taking place in Europe. (Though the extent of western knowledge of the holocaust is disputed, in that the goings on in the death-camps may or may not have been known, it was pretty clear that genocide was occurring, and that people needed to be saved). But I digress…
One of the few countries still letting in Jews was Israel, but upon attempting entry, the family was turned back at Suez. There was another country accepting refugees…China. In fact moving here was not the intense cultural experience it might have been at another time, as there was a growing community of Jewish people in Shanghai, the result of a world of closed doors.
In fact many such communities have impacted China. At the turn of the century, the town of Qingdao was ceded to Germany, after its strategic importance was deemed valuable to the European state. Physical occupation lasted until World War One, but with longer lasting effects. In 1903, German settlers founded the Tsingtao brewery, whose beer is probably the most famous of China. Equally, in Shanghai, there are still signs of the Jewish settlement in the form of Museums a thriving Jewish community and Synagogues.
She then told me how her grandfather, holding a PhD in Philosophy was always told that he had achieved a degree in nothing. (Though I must personally contest the importance of philosophy, I happen to hold it in very high regard, I must admit, especially at wartime; the demand for such trained individuals is not as high as for others with training in more practical applications). Coming to terms with this reality, he employed his skills as an orthopedic shoemaker instead. Something he was able to rely on throughout his 12 years in China.
It was her father that was in a tougher position. Having been too young to have achieved substantial schooling before the war, he had little to fall back on in their new home of Shanghai. After the Japanese invaded in 1937, however, he was given an opportunity. Her father was a boxer with some experience under his belt, and the Japanese, seeking entertainment for their troops, employed him. The Japanese, though, with propagandistic interests in mind, placed her father in bouts with boxers in much heavier weight classes. The result was quite punishing, not only in terms of temporary physical damage, but long-term memory effects as well.
While growing up, she told me how her family had developed the practice of constantly helping her father with his memory. This entailed exercises to help stimulate memory, such as remembering number sequences etc. In fact, her father was only able to remember certain things when written in list-form. Though this was targeted to help the dad, it also helped the children. She explained to me how IQ testing was still a general practice at that time. Though it doesn’t speak volumes for IQ tests, the at-home memory practice had paid off. To her mother’s dismay and contention, her teacher considered her a genius and brilliant student based on her off-the-chart scores. The teacher explained that she was capable of memorizing number sequences and reciting them forwards and backwards etc. Her mother’s response was simply “well, that’s what we do at home every day”. … “and that’s why I use tons of post-it notes”…explained my boss. I don’t really understand the connection, wouldn’t memorization abilities render post-its useless? I suppose she was emphasizing the writing of lists (to then be memorized), in any case, just another day at the office.