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Humanitarian Workers and Jewish Refugees in World War II Shanghai: The Work of Laura Margolis and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), established in 1914, distinguishes itself as the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian organisation. During the Second World War, it aided Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in many cities around the world. This included Shanghai, a city whose foreign controlled section had open borders, and so was one of the few places allowing admittance without an entry visa. In total, around 20,000 Jewish refugees journeyed to Shanghai to escape Nazi persecution. The majority of these refugees were reliant on some form of JDC support. Yet despite this fact, the history of the JDC’s work in Shanghai is a less discussed part of its history.   

The JDC were initially wary of offering aid to refugees settling in Shanghai. They worried about Japanese occupation in the city and thought there could be better alternatives. Scholars Avram Altman and Irene Eber consider this hesitancy to be part of the explanation as to why more Jews did not come to Shanghai. Despite this, from 1939 onwards the JDC took over much of the funding of aid in Shanghai, and became pivotal in providing aid to Jewish refugees in the city.  After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the New York headquarters of the JDC were cut off from Shanghai in 1941, due to it now being in enemy territory. However, aid workers Laura Margolis and Manny Siegel remained in the city, providing assistance to refugees. In doing so, they made sure refugees in the city continued to receive critical support.

Laura Margolis

Laura Margolis was the first female overseas representative for the JDC, when she was sent to Cuba in 1939 to aid European Jewish refugees. In 1941, she was asked to travel to Shanghai to co-ordinate their efforts to help the mass influx of European refugees to the city. Whilst living in Shanghai, nearly half of these refugees heavily relied on material and financial support from the JDC. Despite efforts by committees already in place, conditions for refugees were terrible, with overcrowding and many refugees surviving on just one meal a day. In a letter to JDC offices in New York, Margolis describes: ‘the atmosphere is so depressing, and the people look so completely hopeless and lost that one visit is enough to know that ultimately this condition must be alleviated’.

The end of 1941 and then 1942 saw further complications for Margolis’ work. Until 1942, the organisation was sending around $30,000 a month from America – enough to feed 8,000 refugees and afford housing for 2,500. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor provoked the United States to declare war against Japan, which meant that the JDC, as an American organisation, was now not permitted to send funds into Japanese-occupied Shanghai, as it was enemy territory. Laura Margolis had already received confirmation from the JDC that, in the event that war broke out, she would have the authority to borrow money in the JDC’s name in order to keep aid systems running.  But crucially, she needed permission from the Japanese authorities to do this. In an interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, she recalled:

‘Now, Shanghai in the pre-Pearl Harbor days was a very social kind of place. And…uh…I had to go through…my round…my round of dinner parties and entertainment and at many of these affairs, horse races, I had met Captain…Japanese Captain Inasuka.

And I made this decision. I had my telegram from JDC that I could raise money to be repaid at the end of the hostilities, wherever these hostilities would be. So I phoned up to Captain Inasuka. He remembered me…he remembered me because we had been to social affairs together and received me very nicely.

Because without his permission I wouldn’t be able to do it. And I think my last…what was my last sentence, which I didn’t learn in the school of social work. Uh…I said, “Look,” I said, “You, as an occupying power, cannot afford to have hungry people riot. You’re responsible for them. On the other hand, I can help you, so they won’t riot if you’ll give me an okay to raise the money.” And he did it.’ And then he also…then the American Red Cross had lots of cracked wheat which had been shipped over and stored and I…I had contact with the American Red Cross and they said, “Look, take it.” But I had to have his permission. He gave it to me. So we had cereals that we could give to our kitchens.’

This exchange shows the complicated dynamics which can exist between humanitarian actors and governmental agencies: despite Japan being the occupying power, Captain Inasuka recognised that they needed the work of the JDC to continue so to keep order in Shanghai – Laura Margolis’ contact with the Captain meant that JDC operations were able to continue in the city. 

As well as making use of her contacts, Laura Margolis’ interviews also reveal the risks she took to improve aid structures in Shanghai. The kitchens which the JDC initially used to feed Jewish refugees were coal based, and so required constant fuelling. She heard of new boilers, which had arrived in Shanghai the day before Pearl Harbor for the Sassoon Company, which were not being used. However, the Sassoon Company were unable to share these boilers with her, as they were a British company, and so classed as enemy aliens. So, the decision was made by the JDC team to take matters into their own hands:

‘We hired a group of coolies and this engineer, Manny and I went out to the French concession and we highjacked the two big (laughing) boilers, and brought them through the masses of people going into the…buzzing around in the streets of Shanghai.’

Conditions in Shanghai remained difficult and uncertain for the refugees, but the new kitchens meant that the JDC team in Shanghai could feed the refugees in a much quicker and more cost-effective manner. The New York offices of the JDC provided support to Margolis, but much of what she achieved in Shanghai for the Jewish refugees was due to her own pragmatic approach, resourcefulness, and initiative. This was all achieved during a period of great uncertainty, with Margolis and her colleagues now also considered enemy aliens and unsure how much longer they would be able to remain in their positions.

Wartime Internment

In February 1943, Laura Margolis was interned by the Japanese, alongside other colleagues including Manny Siegel. After a few months, she pretended to be ill in order to get a permit to go to a hospital with doctors who she knew, where she was able to stay for three months. She was released as part of a prisoner exchange programme in September 1943, returning to the United States in December of that year. When she returned, she ensured that JDC funds to Shanghai continued to be sent and used her experiences to appeal on behalf of the refugees in the city. The JDC’s work continued in Shanghai and, towards the end of the war, focused heavily on the movement of refugees to more permanent places to live, such as Australia, the United States and Europe.

Post war

After World War II, Laura Margolis went to Belgium, to work for the JDC in establishing a welfare programme for survivors. She also became the JDC Country Director for France. Later, Margolis moved to Israel to work for MALBEM (acronym in Hebrew for the Organization for the Care of Handicapped Immigrants) an organisation created by the JDC and the Israeli government to care for disabled and elderly Jewish immigrants. In January 1947, Laura Margolis was awarded the Order of the Crown by the Belgian government for her work with the JDC.

There is a prevalent understanding of WWII Jewish humanitarianism as only that which took place and was achieved in Europe. The stories of Laura Margolis and the JDC’s work in Shanghai do not necessarily conform into this narrative, due to their distance from Europe and where the majority of Holocaust relief was sent. When asked why she was doing the work she was, Margolis joked that it was in order to find a husband. But there is no mistaking that she pushed the boundaries of what was expected of a woman in international humanitarian aid. Her involvement with the JDC in Shanghai, whilst only spanning a few years, was crucial to its work in the city.

Written by Niamh Hanrahan

Niamh Hanrahan is a PhD student in the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester. Her project looks at Holocaust era Jewish refugees who found refuge in Asia, and the aid networks which helped to facilitate this movement.

Further Reading

Eber, Irene. Voices from Shanghai: Jewish Exiles in Wartime China. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Gao, Bei. Shanghai Sanctuary: Chinese and Japanese Policy toward European Jewish Refugees during World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Bauer, Yehuda. American Jewry and the Holocaust: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 1939-1945. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1981.

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