Former Shanghai Residents Reunited in Sun City

By: Stephanie Dumm News Messenger Reporter
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Eleven Sun City residents recently celebrated an unlikely reunion with others. They either were born in, or grew up, in Shanghai, China. However, none of them are Chinese but are of “European-descent,” according to Grant. The former Shanghai residents were either reunited with childhood friends or made new friends at a recent get-together hosted by Margarita Grant at her Lincoln Hills home. Grant was born in Shanghai and lived there from 1945 until 1953. She learned about the others through occasional news stories written about former Shanghai residents and even at the yearly Sun City flea market, where the woman manning a booth next to her noticed that Grant was selling Chinese items. The woman had also been born in Shanghai. “It’s really such a coincidence,” said Grant, about finding other residents here previously from Shanghai. “It’s amazing because every one of these people has a hair-raising story about what (they and their) parents went through, what a success story we all are,” Grant said. Grant said the reunion was fun. “Each one of us told our story about how our parents and we got to be in Shanghai,” Grant said. “Some of the people (at the get-together) had actually known each other in Shanghai.” Kurt Wolff was one of those at the reunion who knew some of the others. “It was fantastic. It was nice meeting completely new people,” Wolff said. “Two of my friends were there that I haven’t seen in 30 years.” Harry Loew was one of the friends Wolff hadn’t seen in three decades. Born in Vienna, Austria, Loew left for Shanghai on Christmas Eve 1940 at the age of 13, living there for seven years. Loew described living in Shanghai as tough. He said the climate was terrible and there was never enough to eat. “You get by on anything,” Loew said about living in Shanghai. “When you’re young, things are a lot easier.” He said it was very interesting and “very nice” getting together at the Lincoln Hills reunion, several decades later. “We remember us when we were young kids,” Loew said about seeing some of the others, including Wolff. “We all have changed a great deal.” The News Messenger had previously run an article in June 2008 about Grant’s upbringing and life since leaving Shanghai. Grant is of Russian descent and was born in Shanghai in 1945. She left Shanghai with her mother and grandmother in 1953 and moved to Brazil, where she lived for seven years. She moved to San Francisco in 1960 at the age of 15 and lived in the Bay Area until Grant and her husband, Gerry, moved to Lincoln Hills. Grant said the June 2008 News Messenger article helped her find other residents with a similar background. “In the last year, I have heard of several other Sun City residents who, like me, either were born or lived in Shanghai during their youth,” Grant said. Wolff was born in Berlin, Germany, and said that his family had made three attempts to “escape to Holland” in 1938, but failed because of weather problems. “We finally decided we had to leave,” Wolff said, because Germany “for Jews (was) very dangerous.” He said one event that helped them realize they needed to leave was Kristallnacht, which took place on Nov. 10, 1938, a night that Wolff said “many Jews were arrested and taken to concentration camps, and synagogues and (Jewish) businesses were burned.” Wolff, along with his mother and father, left for Shanghai in May of 1939. “The only place for us to go without any visa was Shanghai,” he said. “If you had a place to go, they (the Nazi’s) let you go.” When they arrived in Shanghai, the family was “taken by pick-up-truck to a school,” which is where Wolff said they lived for a brief time. “We stayed there for a couple of months until we got money from Holland and then were able to buy a small house with another family,” Wolff said. He said several Jewish restaurants had opened up in Shanghai by then and some needed pastries. His mother decided to start baking pastries such as pies and pound cakes. “That’s how we made a living,” Wolff said. “We supplied restaurants with pastries.” In 1943, he said “Jews had to move into a ghetto” so he lived in one room with his mother and father without gas, electricity and hot water. “We bought hot water across the street,” Wolff said. “We used a hibachi to do our meals.” He also said that Shanghai is below sea level so “when it rained, the streets flooded.” Wolff and his family moved to San Francisco in 1947. He remained in the Bay Area until five years ago, when he and his wife moved to Lincoln. “(The reunion) was very interesting. Everybody told their story,” Wolff said of the get-together. Shelagh Henderson also enjoying hearing about the past. “It was so astounding that we had so many stories. You don’t hear about those tales,” Henderson said. Born in Shanghai in 1928 to an English father and an Irish mother, Henderson lived in Shanghai until 1948, when she moved to Canada. Although “it was a fascinating place to grow up,” Henderson said about living in Shanghai, she added there were “a lot of problems with the Japanese war.” She was interned by the Japanese for two years in a concentration camp from 1943 to 1945 because she was British, Henderson said, and the Japanese “were afraid we would be spies” since the British were “allies against the Japanese” during World War II. “We were behind bars, the food was terrible, we were all malnourished,” Henderson said. “It was scary.” Despite the hard times, Henderson said, “we lived a very nice life, even though we were not wealthy.” “I loved living there. We had so many different nationalities and so much to do,” she said. “We had theater when I was a teen after the war. We had dancing.” Henderson has lived in Lincoln for about three years, and previous to that, “lived all over the western United States.” Meeting up with her newfound friends is something Grant hopes to do. “It would be nice because we sort of connected and shared some nice and scary memories,” Grant said. “We’ll start getting together on a social basis.”