Wit­ness to His­to­ry-From Vien­na to Shang­hai: A Mem­oir of Escape, Sur­vival and Resilience

September 1, 2021

This is a mem­oir of an 18 year old Aus­tri­an Jew who escaped to Shang­hai, Chi­na by him­self in 1938. Upon arriv­ing in Chi­na, not only does Paul sup­port him­self, but also helps his par­ents, sis­ter, aunt and uncle leave Europe and sur­vive World War II in Shang­hai. Paul relates how the Sephardic Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty came to the aid of the Jews flee­ing Cen­tral Europe. He pro­vides a detailed descrip­tion of the two years that the fam­i­ly was con­fined to the Hongkew Ghet­to. While many in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty elect­ed to leave Chi­na as soon as pos­si­ble after WWII, Paul and his young wife, Shirley, elect­ed to stay on after the Com­mu­nist takeover. This deci­sion led to a sequence of events that rivaled the per­ils of the war years.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Jean Hoff­man Lewanda

  1. From the title, what were your expec­ta­tions when read­ing this book? What time frame were you envi­sion­ing? What role in his­to­ry did you expect from the author?

  2. How is discussing/​critiquing a mem­oir dif­fer­ent from a fic­tion­al­ized account? What makes a mem­oir a good read”? Does this mem­oir meet your criteria?

  3. The author recounts a tale of near miss­es. How does his expe­ri­ence dif­fer from oth­ers who sur­vived the Holocaust?

  4. What fac­tors enabled the Hoff­mann fam­i­ly to escape when so many could not?

  5. What were the themes of this mem­oir? What message(s) did Paul want to impart to future generations?

  6. What were your feel­ings about life in Shang­hai for the refugees and Shang­hai­lan­ders (Non-Chi­nese liv­ing in Shang­hai)? Were there inequities? Why do you think the Inter­na­tion­al Set­tle­ment oper­at­ed as well as it did? What impact did the for­eign­ers have on the Chi­nese population?

  7. Unit­ed States Lines was depen­dent on Paul to extri­cate their busi­ness from Shang­hai, but would not hire him when he came to the States because he was Jew­ish. This did not appear to sur­prise Paul. What does this say about anti­semitism and the day to day Jew­ish expe­ri­ence through­out time all around the world?

  8. After World War II, immi­gra­tion quo­tas were based on the 1924 Justin-Reed Act that allowed entry to the US of up to 2% of the nation­al­i­ties of the exist­ing pop­u­la­tion based on the 1890 cen­sus. What does this say his­tor­i­cal­ly about Amer­i­can atti­tudes toward immi­gra­tion? Have these atti­tudes changed today?

  9. When Paul con­clud­ed his mem­oir in 1998, he said he thought the world was a bet­ter place? What do you think would be his reac­tion to events in Amer­i­ca today? Around the world?

  10. Sto­ry­telling is fun­da­men­tal to resilience;” (From I Want You to Know We’re Still Here by Esther Safran Foer). How does this quote res­onate with this memoir?




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