April 23, 1939

Author(s) / Origin of Letter
Recipient(s) / Relationship to Author(s) / Destination of Letter
Max Jellinek
[Shanghai, China]

Siegmund and Berta S Jellinek (his parents)
Gisela Jellinek Schlesinger (his sister)
Leopold (Poldi) Schlesinger (brother-in-law)
Siegfried Jellinek (brother)
Martha Hirschensohn Jellinek(sister-in-law)
[Vienna, Austria] Karl Jellinek (brother)
[New York City, USA]

Max writes of his struggle and angst regarding many issues. These include: his separation from his wife, Stella, getting out of Shanghai and to Mandate Palestine, his poor health, earning a living, the increasingly deteriorating living conditions in Shanghai, as well as his disorientiation and that of many other Viennese refugees. Towards the end, Max describes how much he misses his parents and wants their forgiveness and approval.



Shang[h]ai April 23, 1939

My dearest loved ones!

I received the letter describing Karl’s ship and Purim address1 and the letter with the beautiful “photo” of Gisl.2 Thank you very much and can you send me pictures more often, but not in large letters that might catch the attention of the authorities. Today, this is my 4th letter to you. and hopefully, none [of the others] have gotten lost. Happy birthday to my dear father and Gisl. You have to address all future letters as follows: In large printed letters above the address: “Via Siberia.” Under that: Max Jellinek, Esqu.3 159/15 Avenue Haig, Shang[h]ai. East Asia. That is enough. And now to your letter.4 I completely know that my course of action, in accordance with my view of myself and my familiarity with my matrimonial circumstances, or rather, with Stella’s character, and not least of all, my admittedly adventurous inclination, found rejection, or partial consent. Whoever knows me, knows exactly, that nothing is capable of preventing me from what I intend to do and what my instinct tells me is best. Neither criticism nor ranting bothers me. What I’m doing now was my intention for a decade. Only the lethargy of existence prevented me from doing this sooner. It was the second biggest mistake of my life. Stella’s noble disposition reveals itself most clearly in a letter to Erna, which “dearest” Mimi Gerstl5 sent to me. How badly can one know me? Sending this letter had the totally different effect than what Mimi and Erna hoped. Since Stella’s letter, with her reproaches and scoldings are the exact proof of how correct my course of action is. If I may have felt like I had wronged Stella a few days ago, this letter completely cleared my conscience. It was so absurd, I could now breathe freely. An excerpt of some selected sentences:

“To leave a woman after 11 years in such times, that can’t bring good fortune and it also should not be [happening]. I can’t curse him, although I would like to, I will not bring [these thoughts] together. I don’t wish him ill, but I don’t wish him well either. He got me into a terrible situation.”

Then she forbids sending me money, so I can’t keep my head above water and am compelled to go to Erez.6 She leaves it to Erna to show everyone the letter that smells like a damn horror story. What can I do, that this transport got stuck and everyone found themselves in the same situation. I wanted the best for her, by God, I wish her the best and regret from deep within my heart that I can’t help her and send her the necessary 13 pounds. It is also not correct that I left her behind without money. According to my calculations, she must have had over 1000 Marks, and if she sold the bicycles, as I tried to convince her to do many times, she must have had 1400 Marks. What has she spent for the transport and expenses of going to Erez? She probably didn’t follow my instructions, packed too much, and also sent the tires. I have a lot less, and arrived here without cash and haven’t gotten as much as I hoped from selling my few valuables. I would have fetched a lot more for her diamond ring than for all of my things combined. Now for the tragic-comedy: I haven’t given up the hope of going to Erez. The half ship [?7] is witness to what happens to ships in Port Said.8 Stella herself, made me promise not to make any dangerous attempts. Otherwise, I would have already done it and left my luggage behind. Zimmermann from Graz, already had my order to send my luggage from Shanghai to Erez. I promised her [Stella] I would go to Erez, and I don’t have the least intention not to stick to this promise. I will get to Erez, but with other methods and with more determination than Stella could ever think of. When, by God, I don’t know. Two weeks after my arrival, I got in contact with the local Betar9 and tried to arrange for a transport to Erez. Out of this initial hint of a plan, a definite plan has already formed and I am closer to getting the necessary money. We are going to go there backwards through Japan and America, which won’t even last longer and is safer and won’t become so quickly known about, except to the British. Please keep this plan secret, so as not to disrupt the plan.10 It can take months, but I don’t want to stay here, not so much for my livelihood, since until my illness, I always earned whatever I needed to live. Unfortunately, I am still not well.

Just before my illness, I earned 11 27 [$1,127?] dollars from a contact. I am a middleman for everything: jewels, gold, cameras, etc. We work two or three together. On both [Passover] Seder evenings, I was doing very badly. Despite the [medical] consultations, I am still alive and it went quickly past. One has to be smeared with every ointment here, and I got really sick, but it could have been worse. I couldn’t sleep the whole night, which means a lot for me, because until my illness, I lived it up, gained five kilograms, no more worries and slept wonderfully. The situation here is anything but rosy. With every newly arrived ship, the situation gets worse. The local Committee11 is no longer in the position to raise the necessary money. The necessity increases and the opportunities sink. This discrepancy will have a terrible effect over a short or long period. I haven’t had any support, nor asked for support. I hope it is never my fate to have to rely on the Committee. Despite Stella’s imploring pleas to God, I hope to survive on my own, and maybe even make a good living. Some people have succeeded in getting a good foothold. No one can say whether this will be long-term.

The situation is tenuous because a lot depends on the result of the war between Japan and China and on the situation in Europe and other elements. A market has bloomed here on the speculation that the Chinese will win. Because one cannot count on that, I believe that Shanghai is only a temporary solution. Even if a few thousand people gain a foothold here, for me, that is still not proof that Shanghai is the [only or best] option. Only special workers find work. People with money can start different things. There are now 11,000 migrants here; by the end of the year there will be 25,000. One can imagine the consequences.

I also know that it serves no purpose to warn others about coming to Shanghai. Nobody can be scared off, and moreover, for a lot of people it’s the last way. [to escape Nazi persecution]. The reports from all of the emigration countries sound similar. Anny and Miron’s report from Sydney12 sadly agrees with what I said, and I can only regret that Miron didn’t come here. 20,000 Russians live here,13 of whom 600 are mostly wealthy Jews, who stick very closely together. Miron would have built a brilliant business here and wouldn’t have had to struggle with language difficulties.14 I would still advise him to come here, before everything is gobbled up.15 It would also be the best solution for Hugo. I will receive the so-called Guarantee Declaration for Hugo next week and I will send it to him.16 I will also send it to Schuschny.17 The most difficult thing would be to procure the ship tickets. It should even be better to ride with German ships than with Italian ships.[?] I received a postcard from Hugo with four short sentences. It is so unlike him not to use all the space on a valuable postcard, that it puzzles and worries me. What about Maxl Schafer, the sleeper?18 It is not hard for a soap manufacturer to make money here. If there is any possibility, he should bring the machines here. Please send me immediately, a German-English grammar book and a dictionary. Max Schafer should bring 2 games of new tarot cards when he comes soon.

Every now and then I go to the Jewish club, which has one similarity with the English clubs, namely the boredom. Despite that, one visits the clubs, one meets all the Viennese, makes plans, forges fantastic projects, and gives them up again, etc. It is the game of unhappy people who have been thrown from their accustomed train, and are so far away, that they see a glimmer of hope with every project.

Why aren’t you writing, my dear parents? Are you angry with me? Please don’t be. I am already suffering from the separation, and I am not ashamed to admit, that I often start to cry like a small child whenever I am all alone. The thought of the great distance that separates us is overwhelming and paralyzing. My thoughts are always with you and I kiss your good hands. Forgive me if I have hurt you and don’t think badly of me. The hope to soon be reunited with you is very real for me and gives me strength and joy. Believe me, that I am all torn up inside, and that I struggled hard with the decision to go this way. When I look back at my 40 years, I must say that there have been very few bright spots during this time. You, my dear father, are so understanding and forgiving, that you cannot honestly be so angry with me. That would be unbearable for me. Please write a few lines to your wayward Benjamin.19

Just now, the doctor came to me and scolded me. I laughed and cried and he didn’t know why. Afterwards, I received my daily injection. After six more, I will be cured of my pains, he said. There are already so many doctors here from Vienna that most just scrape by. The specialists do relatively well. Dentists and technicians can also find work. Hermann Adler is driving a freight truck, but he does not enjoy a good reputation. Franz Adler has a bar with the brother-in-law of Hermann Skutezsky20 that is going very well. No one is suffering, since the penniless are accommodated in communal housing and are reasonably well fed. Most of them have something to improve21 and many are waiting for their affidavits [to go to another country] from here. Please still write about what is new in Vienna. Is Gerstl still in Vienna? If so, Mimi should read this letter and reflect. But Stella shouldn’t. I have already written Anna and Karl twice, to Rubin Eckstein’s address.22 Still no answer. Is golden Mama completely well? Many greetings to Poldi, Sigl, Martha, Erich.23 What is happening with Gustl?24 Has he already gone away? What’s going on with Erna’s affidavits?

I kiss you 1000 times and I beg God to keep you well. Your devoted son and brother Maxl.


This letter was translated by Leo Baeck Institute volunteers; edited and footnotes added by P. Jellinek


1. Max is referring to his older brother, Karl Jellinek’s introductory remarks at the Purim celebration on board the ship carrying Karl, his wife, Kreindel/Karla, and their infant daughter, Michaela, to the US. Click on http://www.shoahletters.org/letters/3-5-39.html to read Karl’s speech.

2. Gisl was the familial nickname for both Gisela Jellinek Schlesinger (Max’s older sister), as well as for Gisella Nadja Jellinek (Max’s niece). The ‘beautiful photo’ was most likely that of 18 year-old Gisella Nadja in Mandate Palestine. The birthday greetings for the “Gisl” three sentences later, are for Max’s sister, Gisela’s 54th April birthday. Gisela J. S. was still in Vienna helping to take care of their parents there.

3. The “Esqu.” following Max’s name is puzzling, because to our knowledge, Max was not an attorney.

4. From here, through most of the remainder of this page, Max bitterly and sometimes sarcastically, defends himself for escaping from Vienna to Shanghai, separately from his wife, Stella. Stella escaped to Mandate Palestine, but her ship was delayed en route there. See Max Jellinek’s Bio. page for more information.

5. Erna and Mimi Gerstl were apparently friends of Stella, and perhaps, former friends of Max as well.

6. “Erez” is an abbreviated way of referring to Erez (or Eretz) Yisrael, Hebrew for Land of Israel. The concept of “The Land of Israel” has a varied traditional, biblical, geographic, Zionist and political history. Max was referring to the area of Palestine governed by the British Mandate after WWI, until the proclamation of the state of Israel, in the same way that many Zionists and others referred to the Land of Israel during that period. For one of many sources for additional background info. see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_of_Israel. It is puzzling however, that Max wrote that without enough money to live, he was “compelled” to go to Erez, since he was an ardent Zionist, and had strongly implied in his letters of August and October 1938 and expressly indicated later in this letter, that he wanted to go to Erez.

7. It is unclear what Max meant by “Das helbe Schiff ist Zeuge, . . .” (The half ship is witness. . . ). Possibly, the ship that Stella travelled on, had been severly damaged and broken in half, or possibly, Max typed “half ship” quickly, and he meant the half-way point of the ship in its journey.?

8. Port Said is a northeastern Egyptian city on the Mediterrean Sea, at the northern end of the Suez Canal. Port Said or the island of Rhodes, Greece, was probably where Stella Jellinek’s ship, and other ships, were stalled on the way to ‘Erez’ - Mandate Palestine.

9. Betar started as an activist Zionist Jewish youth movement in 1923, but expanded to include adults and has continued into the present day. Among many sources of information on Betar: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/betar

10. We do not know why this plan, or any other plan to sail from Shanghai to Mandate Palestin failed. Max could not get out of Shanghai until 1946. He then reunited with his wife, Stella in Sydney, Australia, but very sadly, he was too sick to ever travel to Mandate Palestine or Israel.

11. Max is referring to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, aka ‘The Joint.’

12. Max typed “Shangai” here, but this must have been an inadvertent error, because Anny and Miron had escaped to Sydney, Australia. Anna (aka Anny) Jellinek Nadel, was Max’s slightly older sister. She was married to Miron Nadel.

13. Thousands of Russians who were anti-Communist fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and settled in Shanghai.

14. Miron Nadel, was born in Feodosia, Russia in 1896, and must have spoken Russian.

15. It makes the most sense to translate this phrase as “everything will be gobbled up” and to interpret it figuratively, as a warning from Max to Miron, that all of the opportunities and resources for Miron to open a business, will be seized by others before Miron comes to Shanghai. However, Max may also be referring literally to the scarce food in Shanghai being eaten up.

16. It is unknown whether Max obtained and sent this Guarantee Declaration to Hugo Jellinek (Max’s older brother, who was in Brno, Czechoslovakia at this time), and why Hugo did not come to Shanghai, if in fact, he received this ‘Guarantee Declaration.’

17. It is likely that “Schuschny” was a friend or acquaintance of Max and/or an old family friend or acquaintance, just as the aforementioned “Erna” and “Mimi Gerstl” were, and “Hermann Adler,” “Franz Adler,” “Hermann Skutezsky” and Mimi Gerstl’s husband,“Gerstl,” whom Max wrote about below, were also.

18. Max may be referring here to the Max Schafer who was his maternal uncle/the brother of his mother, Berta Schafer Jellinek.

19. Max, the youngest son of Siegmund Jellinek, is referencing the biblical Benjamin, the youngest of Jacob’s sons. The concept of “waywardness” is also a biblical reference, although not an attibute applied to Benjamin.

20. Max typed “gew.” between the names “Hermann” and “Skutezky,” but it is unclear whether any of the following German words that can be abbreviated by “gew.” are the full-length German word that Max intended to insert here: “gewöhnlich” (usually), or gewogen (well-disposed), gewachst ((waxed), gewählt (chosen), gewichtet (weighted), and gewonnen (won).

21. “Most of them have something to spare. . . “ is a possible alternative translation of this phrase.

22. Rubin Eckstein, an uncle of Karl Jellinek’s wife, Kreindel/Karla, sent the affidavit that was key to Karl and his family securing visas to enter the US.  Karl and his family stayed briefly in Rubin’s Brooklyn home upon their March 1939 arrival in New York City. By later, the following month, when Max wrote this letter, Karl, Kreindel /Karla and their infant daughter, Michaela were probably still staying at Rubin’s Brooklyn home, but in any case, Rubin’s address may have been the only address that Max had for Karl or Anna. Furthermore, even if Max had received Anna's new Australian address by this time, he may have found it difficult to purchase the postage to send a separate letter to her in Australia.

23. These four people are all Max’s close relatives who were still in Vienna. Poldi was the nickname for Leopold Schlesinger, who was the husband of Max’s older sister, Gisela. Sigl was the nickname of Max’s older brother, Siegfried. Martha was Siegfried’s wife. Erich was the only son of Siegfried and Martha. See Gisela Jellinek Schlesinger’s Bio. page and Siegfried Jellinek’s Bio. page for more information.

24. Gustl was the familial nickname of Dr. Gustav Jellinek, Max’s first cousin/son of his paternal aunt, Jetti Jellinek. Gustl did escape from Vienna to New York City in April 1939. Please see Gustav Jellinek’s Bio. page for more information.