Woman relates story of being born in China, which welcomed Jews during WWII when others wouldn’t
WILMINGTON — More than 70 years have passed since the end of World War II, but the memories remain for those who lived through it, while others who weren’t alive in the 1940s have taken an interest in that part of history.
Two such people were at Padua Academy earlier this month. Yvonne Daniel spoke about her experience as a young child from a group of thousands of Jewish people who lived in Shanghai, China, during the war. In fact, she was born there.
Daniel’s parents left Germany shortly after they were married, taking two suitcases and the equivalent of $8 each, she said. Few countries welcomed Jewish refugees escaping Nazi persecution, so they and approximately 20,000 others went to China.
“There was no other place in the world that would take them,” said Daniel, who spent two days at Padua.
Shanghai was a culture shock for the newcomers, who were unprepared for the climate and dress, among other aspects of their new life. Her father ran a shop, and other parts of Jewish culture – such as schools and sports – soon emerged.
“Eventually, they built a little Europe surrounded by Asia,” Daniel said.
After the war, nearly all of the Jews in Shanghai were eager to leave, and “the U.S. was the first destination of choice for most, including my family.” They ended up in New York City in 1948; she had an uncle who lived there.
Daniel returned to Shanghai in 2006, visiting the Center for Jewish Studies and returning to the ghetto where she lived.
After Daniel showed the students photos of herself as a young girl in Shanghai, Danny Spungen, a collector and philatelist, took the floor. He brought part of his collection of Holocaust-related items to Padua, including postcards and letters from the concentration camps. The display also included some letters from Nazi officer and physician Josef Mengele to his wife. The heartfelt letters stood in dark contrast to Mengele’s work selecting victims for the gas chambers and performing experiments on prisoners.
He purchased much of the collection several years ago and has been adding to it ever since.
“I added all the items that I thought would be interesting, like Shanghai. (It was) not just Europe. I want to say it’s the breakdown of humanity on a worldwide scale,” he said.
One section of the collection highlighted the “righteous. Those are the non-Jewish people who risked their lives to save a Jew. One of my favorite pieces is Bishop Angelo Rotta from the Budapest Catholic church. He gave these passes of protection that said, ‘You are now the property of the Catholic Church.’ That was an amazing piece to add,” Spungen said.
Spungen ended up at Padua after meeting a teacher and a recent graduate in Poland. History teacher Barbara Markham and 2014 alumna Joanna Liang traveled to Europe a few summers ago, and Liang had heard about the collection.
“Joanna was very persistent,” he said. “She heard about these pieces and about this exhibit, and she’d been trying for at least a year for me to come to her former high school.”
He happened to be spending some time in Philadelphia and was able to arrange a visit to Wilmington.
Spungen has agents around the world who keep their eyes open for additional material. All of the items are vetted for authenticity. Since selling his business in 2008, Spungen has spent a significant amount of time in schools educating students about the plight of Jewish people during World War II.
“I could have bought a horse, a car, a plane, but I bought a Holocaust collection,” he said.