Born in the Weimar Republic’s East Prussia in 1929, Jerry Lindenstraus (then named Gerd) was from a middle class, assimilated German Jewish family. His parents divorced when he was young and both remarried. By that time, Gerd had begun his education, attending both public and Jewish schools. He spent time living in Konigsberg, Danzig, and Gumbinnen, where his father’s family owned a store.
Gerd’s family was uprooted by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany during the 1930s. Restrictions on the lives of German Jews increased steadily throughout this period, and eventually the Nazis forced Gerd’s father to sell the family store to a non-Jewish buyer at a heavily reduced price. Gerd’s father never went back to work, and from that time his sole focus was getting the family out of Germany. Following Kristallnacht in November 1938, he was able to get their papers in order. Gerd’s father booked passage for himself, Gerd, Gerd’s stepmother, and seven other family members on a German luxury ship. They left the German port of Bremerhaven in July 1939, one month before the start of World War II. Gerd had just turned eleven years old.
Like thousands of German and Austrian Jews, Gerd’s family opted to go to Shanghai because it was one of the only cities in the world that did not require an immigration visa. In 1842 – almost one hundred years prior – Great Britain had claimed the right to trade in China, and other western foreign powers soon joined them in establishing an area of Shanghai known as the Foreign Concessions, which was separate from the Chinese government. In the ensuing century, Shanghai grew into an international trading hub, with many wealthy merchants supported by a large, impoverished Chinese working class. In 1937, Japan occupied sections of Shanghai, including the Foreign Concessions. Amidst this fractiousness, Gerd Lindenstraus and his family arrived in Shanghai just before the Japanese government began requiring entry visas in August 1939.
The hardship began when Gerd and his family disembarked in Shanghai. His father had sent their remaining savings to a cousin in England, who was meant to transfer the money to Shanghai. However, the wire transfer never arrived, and Gerd’s father fell ill that winter and died of pneumonia six months after their arrival. Instead, Gerd’s stepmother sold enough of their belongings to rent a small apartment. She found work in a deli and eventually married a man who worked at a clothing store. Gerd contracted malaria and developed jaundice, and his stepmother struggled to obtain the right medicines. Between malarial attacks, Gerd attended a British style school for Jewish refugees founded by Horace Kadoorie. The school was funded by the small but wealthy Sephardic community, who had lived in Shanghai since the mid-nineteenth century. There, Gerd learned to speak English and befriended the children of fellow German and Austrian Jewish refugees.
Japan occupied Shanghai in 1941, and by 1943 Germany succeeded in pressuring their ally to move the city’s Jews into a ghetto. Known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees, it was located in the Hongkew neighborhood and centered around the Ohel Moshe Synagogue. Although the Jewish inhabitants were not allowed to leave without an official pass, they were not terrorized or forced to work like the ghettoized Jews of Europe. Chinese residents continued to live in the sector. Many refugee families received aid from charities like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and the most economically vulnerable lived in JDC-funded barracks called heime (“homes” in German). At the same time, some Jewish refugees managed to support themselves with successful businesses as shopkeepers or builders. Gerd’s uncle worked as a dentist and treated Japanese patients. As a result, he could remain outside the ghetto for longer than most, and Gerd was permitted to visit him. Although Gerd has good memories of his uncle’s patients, he also recalls witnessing the brutality of Japanese soldiers toward Chinese civilians.
Gerd Lindenstraus grew up in the Shanghai Ghetto. In 1942, he became a bar mitzvah. The service was held at a Russian synagogue, probably Ohel Moshe, and he received a party and a talit as a gift. He attended friends’ bar mitzvah services at small synagogues in the heime. Gerd also sometimes went to the heime to receive free lunch from the JDC. In 1944, Gerd joined the Boy Scouts. He belonged to the 13th Shanghai (United) Group, whose members were all German and Austrian Jews, as the Sephardic Jews who held British passports either fled Shanghai or were interned by Japan in 1941. Eventually, Gerd dropped out of school to work at a silk weaving factory owned by a Russian Jewish immigrant. Throughout this time, he observed the life, traditions, and struggles of his Chinese neighbors from a distance.
Interview with Gerald Lindenstraus, 1992. Interviewer: Naomi Rappaport. Collection of Museum of Jewish Heritage in affiliation with the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University.
Shortly after Shanghai was liberated by American troops, Gerd heard from his mother, who had been unable to contact him during the war. She had escaped from Germany and was living in Colombia. Gerd’s mother convinced him to join her there in 1947. At seventeen years old, he traveled alone to San Francisco, then crossed the country to Miami, where he boarded a flight to Colombia. During this time, Gerd’s stepmother and stepfather were waiting to receive a visa to Monroe, Louisiana, and they left Shanghai six months after his departure. Gerd lived in Colombia for seven years, but after the deaths of his mother and her husband, he decided to immigrate to the United States. He joined his stepparents in Louisiana and then spent time in California, Cincinnati, Chicago, and New York, where he eventually settled and worked in the import-export business. He founded the Lindeco International Corporation in 1957.
Gerd – who adopted the name Gerald – returned to Shanghai for the first time around 1980. He struggled to find a tour guide who knew about the city’s former Jewish population, which once numbered in the tens of thousands. Nevertheless, he was able to visit Hongkew with a private guide and ran into an old woman who recognized him there. He was unable to find the Jewish cemetery where his father and uncle were buried, but the synagogue, jail, and many other structures were still standing.
Today, Gerald “Jerry” Lindenstraus still lives in New York and is an active member of the Speakers Bureau at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. He talks to schoolchildren, community groups, and other audience to share his experiences as a refugee from Nazi Germany and his eventual immigration to the United States.
Scroll through the photos below to see more of Gerd Lindenstraus’s life pre-war and in Shanghai.