May 16, 1939



Shanghai, 16, May 1939

Dear loved ones!

Two months have passed, since I first wrote to you at your [Karla’s] uncle's address, and I wait with longing for an answer from you every day. Then, a few weeks ago, I was writing a second letter to your current address, in which I asked you to take care of the matter of the golden Doxa watch on behalf of my friend Fischer. Hopefully that has been arranged by now. If that should cause any difficulties, please arrange to have the watch sent here as an insured parcel.

We haven't seen each other in four months and nobody can say, when and if ever, we will see each other again. I've become very pessimistic lately. Whenever I think of our old parents, I feel terribly depressed and so deeply conscious of the meaninglessness of our being. What should one do! For myself, I cannot bring myself to like those [people] vegetating in such a wretched existence. On the other hand, my realistic thinking resists the various hopes and versions, which appear again and again in tenacious rumors. These rumors, with all their joyful future expectations and seriousness, are spread bona fide, even by people who normally would never have nurtured such glimpses of hope and clung to them so intensely. I have the slightly confident hope that the local Betar[s] Palestinian transport will happen. Unfortunately, the prospect of its realization, or more precisely, its taking place in the foreseeable future, has severely darkened. Moreover, I was pursued by deep misfortune during the last days. Not only did I not earn a single cent during the last 14 days, but I, Fischer and Fürst were robbed by the houseboy (a sort of house servant). All my new things are gone. I only have the one single suit I was wearing just then. Even its vest vanished. Fisher is missing $200 and a diamond ring worth $300, which Fischer had been safe-keeping for a woman, and that needs to be replaced now. Fürst is missing his new summer suits. I was affected most badly and I literally don't have anything to wear now and I am also not in the position of buying myself even a single suit. Not being [properly] dressed, means here, as everywhere, being ruined.1 Achieving [anything] is hopeless.

The police are a story in themselves: 4.5 million Chinese, thousands of hideouts and hundreds of thousands of people who accept stolen goods and an uncertain legal situation in this gangster-city par excellence. The responsibility of the landlady, who doesn’t own anything herself, is heavily disputed and only decidable through a trial. And it would be a new form of suicide for an emigrant in Shanghai to try to initiate a trial. I can go nowhere now, can introduce myself nowhere, nor show myself; in sum, I am facing an impregnable handicap. Presumably I will be going to the refugee camp by the end of next month, if I haven't found another solution to this question. In the camp, however, the circumstances are awful. Apart from the living conditions, the food is qualitatively and quantitatively poor and people are constantly hungry. Some people still have a little money to improve their circumstances. Looking at the others that you meet in the street, you can tell immediately that they are fed in the camp. The Committee2 is not to blame for those fed in the camp, because one must consider the lack of funding and [that] every day brings many [more] refugees. The problem of accommodation is barely solvable by now and the tide of refugees not only continues unabatedly, but becomes more and more extensive. The situation became even more horrible at the very time that Felix Hirschensohn3 and his family arrived here. The newly-arrived had to sleep on the floor inside the temple and in other quickly requisitioned, similar buildings, because the camp was put in quarantine due to a scarlet fever epidemic. To put it mildly, the sanitary conditions inside the camps are completely deficient and it is no wonder that maladies break out continuously.

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Everybody here can vividly imagine what will happen when the heat becomes really intense. I think cholera, typhus, and other China-specific epidemics, whose names are unknown to me, will reveal the extent of the refugee problem. Shanghai is, during the three hottest months, nearly depopulated by all Europeans. They go to Dairen. There, the climate is fine. I am now reasonably all right myself. I had to cope with this gastro-intestinal issue long enough. On the first Seder evening I already expected to die. Back then, my streak of bad luck actually began. In the last incident a week ago, I broke my two incisors. Cost: 23 Dollars. I'm in good shape, huh? Not much more can happen to me now. That's why I am already indifferent to any vicissitudes. It only bothers me that since the theft-issue I am not in a condition to learn English. Simply nothing sticks in my mind. As easy as it went until now and as much as I enjoyed it – now it appears beyond my reach.

I have whined enough to you now. I only have indirect information of you. Gisela sent me the duplicates of the ship letters and Purim speech.4 I would be interested to learn everything about the course of your last days in Vienna, except for your departure. Then naturally, how you live, what you do and how you are all doing. Michaela will certainly have grown a lot. I imagine her to be very charming. She will be a very stubborn little person. Maybe you have a recent picture. Then send me one or more of them. How is the job outlook? A few weeks ago, I received a very depressing letter from Anna and Miron. I hope however, that Miron has found work in the meantime. Add to that the bad luck with Trude. I saw in Vienna, that she drags/pulls back the right foot. It was incapable of direct action. I am trying to imagine how they are living. It is not possible for me. It is easier for me to [imagine] your [life]. Hopefully you have a comfortable home. That is a lot. A few days ago a Mr. Goldhammer or Goldammer talked to me. He recognized me from the similarity with Karl. He was your client and sends you warm greetings. Strange, just now, it occurs to me, how few lawyers from Vienna have come here. Could those be clever people nevertheless? The few that are here have plenty to do and earn quite well. These [lawyers] certainly have a good command of English, [and] French. Most recently, most of the immigrants are arriving without any, or only with very little means. Naturally, for these people there exists absolutely no prospect of earning wages. Except through fraud. And that is flourishing quite nicely. Quite a few have been trapped. The fines here are scandalously draconian. A Jew pawned consigned goods valued at 50 dollars and got one year for that. Nonetheless, the swindling and thievery continue. Unfortunately, emigrants, among themselves, make the fewest reports [to the police] on each other. The few which have come here with money – it doesn’t have to be all that much, work quite nicely. Here money still makes things possible. We have already gotten a lot of answers to our America-letter. Most businesses here are already represented. Many have answered positively. Still, we can’t start anything with that, because all ask for a letter of credit or advance payment of half the goods, (we would take responsibility for the other half of the goods). After that it goes in the thousands; in any case, it appears that nothing will come of it. Franz Adler is co-owner of a really successful bar and sends you many greetings. I am often at his bar. Herrman Adler has a transportation business and bought himself a second truck. He is also doing very well.

If you send your letters by air mail, they will [simply] arrive a week faster. But, it would be a shame to pay all that extra postage, which would be in US dollars. Only in urgent situations. The mail from America came on Saturday. A lot of letters, only nothing from you. I don’t want to assume that my first letter got lost. Tomorrow mail from America comes again. Hopefully this time, a letter from you will be there. Please don’t put anything but pictures in the letters, because people here steal like brown ravens. God-willing, they will be punished severely.

Many kisses from your devoted


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Translation by staff of Leo Baeck Institute, with editing by P. Jellinek


  1. Alternate translations of “Erledigtsein”: broken, shattered, done in, done for, finished;
  2. Max is referring to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, aka ‘The Joint.’
  3. Probably the brother of Martha Hirschensohn Jellinek. Martha was Siegfried Jellinek’s spouse.
  4. Karl’s hopeful “Purim speech” of March 5, 1939 can be read in the Letters section.

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