From Berlin to Shanghai


The Zander Family Store,
Before and After Kristallnacht


Excerpt adapted from the story From Berlin to Shanghai

Jam-packed into a steamer trunk for the voyage from Berlin to Shanghai—the last port of entry open to Jews fleeing Germany in 1939 were a cache of photographic negatives and prints, as well as a few hundred newly minted books. Among the keepsakes the Tischlers packed were a ticket stub from the club where the couple first met in 1936 and their engagement announcement—Alice Zander Helmut Tischler Verlobte 1937—decorated with a green cloverleaf and the words, "You bring me Good Luck." A gilded gold teacup, adorned in German to commemorate Helmut Tischler's first birthday, also went into the trunk. A decade later, the Tischlers prepared for a second ocean journey—this time with a toddler in tow.
     Professor Henry Tischler explained: "My family's story begins on November 9, 1938, on Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. The SS came looking for my grandfather and my father, but they were out surveying what had taken place. When they returned and heard that the Germans had been to the apartment, they responded very differently. My father ran and hid. My grandfather, who had fought in World War I, sat down and waited for them. He considered himself a German military person, and he said emphatically that they couldn't do anything to him. 'I'm a German and I was in the military.' When the SS returned, they arrested my grandfather and took him to Dachau. At that moment in time, it was a prison, a place of intimidation, not yet a concentration camp."

Herr Tischler

Excerpt adapted from the story From Berlin to Shanghai

A debonair Helmut Tischler, photographed right after the Nazis took power, stares back at the viewer. A more youthful depiction of Helmut from the Weimar years is sleeved in a negative glassine stamped with the photographer's atelier. This ghostly image, one of many negatives Henry inherited, prompted him to speculate: "If I were fleeing a country, I am not sure that I would take all these negatives. I might take the actual photographs, but the negatives?"
     Helmut's letters and bills from Berlin and Shanghai overlap on Henry's parlor table, revealing Helmut's futile requests for assistance. Henry explained: "From Shanghai, my father wrote back to the Welfare Agency for Jews in Germany looking for assistance. And they answered: 'Herr Tischler, We have received your letter of April 2nd of 1940, and we are sorry that we can not do anything for your request.' In 1940, they needed a whole lot more than this agency to help them out."

Helmut's Circulating Library

Excerpt adapted from the story From Berlin to Shanghai

In the 1980's, Henry inherited his father's circulating library. In some hardbacks, the residue of glue still clung to creased corners, while in other books whole sheets were missing, mysteriously lifted from their seams. Henry found worn bills with Chinese characters and Asian faces wedged between the pages; the occupying Japanese and the pre-revolutionary Chinese government had circulated the currency. Henry speculated it was the small change that his father received for renting out his classics to other German Jews waiting out the war in this Asian port. Unable to work, these refugees had limitless hours, day after day, year after year, to read and wait for the war's final chapter.
     Helmut's penchant for books and photography may date back to this childhood portrait of him posing with his older siblings at the Baum Bros. studio in Berlin. Henry reflected, "My father's motivation to take the books? I am not sure. He wasn't a professor. He wasn't a former scholar who was wedded to books. He wasn't even educated, because by the time he was old enough to enter the university, the doors had been closed to Jewish students in Germany. But of all the things you need to take when you are fleeing, hundreds of books?"

Reading The Good Earth

Excerpt adapted from the story From Berlin to Shanghai

Henry, depicted here in one of the few snapshots from China, is still perplexed as to whether his father had packed Pearl Buck's classic to wile away the hours on the ship, hoping to acquaint himself with the ways of the natives. Or had Helmut imagined himself running a circulating library in the Shanghai ghetto? Or was The Good Earth simply the perfect container in which to smuggle his goods?
     Henry will never know the answer, but he concluded: "You weren't allowed to take money or anything else out of Germany. So my father hid American dollars in the books. He glued the pages together, and he knew that in certain books on certain pages was one U.S. dollar. One U.S. dollar was quite valuable at that time. Maybe that's why he brought the collection. So he could hide the contraband."

Reading War of the Worlds

Excerpt adapted from the story From Berlin to Shanghai

Henry has dim memories of the country that gave his family refuge, but he has documentation of their refugee status. A letter dated June 4, 1947 from the "United Relief and Rehabilitation Office" in China states that Helmut, Alice, and Henry Tischler are" bona-fide Displaced Persons of German nationality."
     It was not until after the war that the Jews of Shanghai fully understood what had transpired in Europe. Henry explained: "It was a real shock for my parents and grandparents to discover what had really happened and what they had escaped. They really weren't aware of the concentration camps, only after the war…If my grandfather hadn't been arrested on Kristallnacht, and imprisoned in Dachau, and released with the stipulation that he leave the country, my parents wouldn't have left. And if the port of Shanghai hadn't been open, I wouldn't be here."