Laura Margolis: Shanghai Savior 1941-1943

 By Bonnie G. Lindauer

Laura Margolis was not a person to give up easily, especially when it meant the difference between people eating or starving. Her career as a Jewish-American social worker took her around the globe, being the first woman to be deployed overseas by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Cuba. But her most significant contributions occurred in Shanghai, China, where she organized Jewish refugee relief operations in 1941-1943 during WW II.

Her professional skills and personal traits brought order and immense improvement to Jewish refugee operations. For example, when she learned that she could greatly increase the production of meals for refugees if the kitchen stoves were converted from expensive coal to steam, she doggedly pursued the British agent whose company stored the unused steam boilers on a vacant lot. When he would not agree to their purchase or loan, she hired some Chinese workers, as she described in an interview, “we just hijacked the boilers. In the hustle-bustle of Shanghai no one even noticed.”

Why Shanghai?

Shanghai has a long history as a port city of refuge. Jews fleeing persecution and seeking business opportunities had come to Shanghai since 1820, especially Jewish Sephardic families from Baghdad, Iraq and Russian immigrants who arrived in 1917 after the revolution. Just before and during the early years of WW II, came the largest wave of German, Austrian, and Polish Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Shanghai was one of the few ports to accept them because until late 1939 it did not require any documents to gain entry. Even an entire Jewish school made the trip to Shanghai. Ms. Margolis describes in the Survey Graphic article this group’s long journey from Poland to Japan to Shanghai,

“Among the last people to arrive before war closed the door were 1,000 Poles who had crossed Siberia in 1940 to reach Japan. The Japanese moved them to Shanghai in October 1941. Among this group of Poles were about 500 rabbinical students and their teachers. Coming all the way from Poland, they reached Shanghai with not a single student, teacher or book lost. They set up their school in Shanghai and quietly continued with their studies.”

Shanghai was a metropolis of five million people of practically every nationality in the late 1930s. Part of it, the International Settlement, was divided into two areas that the British, French and American consuls had administered since 1854. The Jewish population consisted of Jewish Sephardic families, some of whom were prominent and wealthy, and a sizeable group of Russian Jews who had arrived in the early 20th century. It was a city of extremes — high-end shopping, fine restaurants, a rich cultural and social life for many Westerners and rich Chinese and Japanese — to squalid poverty for a majority of Chinese and many refugees. According to Heppner, corpses on the streets were a common sight. “Depending on the weather, 60 to 80 corpses were picked up from the streets daily.”

Life for the Jewish Refugees

The nearly 20,000 refugees fleeing Europe during WW II faced an extreme contrast from their homelands and the passage on ships with plentiful food, to the filthy, noisy and overcrowded life in Shanghai. After leaving the ship, refugees were oriented in the Embankment Building, where they were housed and fed until they could find their own housing. Jews with more resources found housing outside of the poorest section, Hongkew.

Jewish refugees who for financial or physical reasons were unable to find their own housing were transported to one of the five refugee camps. A few hundred people lived in one large room in these dormitory-type buildings. Strobin and Wacs described these large rooms, “with partitions made of sheets strung on ropes to separate families and the single men from the women. There was no privacy, no fresh air, and no place to store items. Sanitary conditions were deplorable.”

Life outside the refugee camps in Hongkew was not much better. A refugee family of four typically occupied a room 14 ft by 14 ft with a toilet in the hallway or outside. Overcrowding worsened in December 1941 when the refugees who came to Shanghai after 1937 were forced to leave their apartments in other parts of Shanghai and move into Hongkew, known as the Jewish Ghetto. Living conditions were horrible, as noted by a diary entry by Rena Krasno:

“The refugees are segregated in 40 square blocks of crumbling buildings. The narrow lanes are strewn with rubble and refuse. Most houses have no toilets nor kitchens for families who live crowded together in single rooms. Tenants are forced to use outside toilets, buy drinking water from street vendors, go to the few public baths, and cook in the lanes or on flat roofs using Japanese ‘hibachi’ stoves. Insects and rats are a common problem.”

Even though living conditions continued to worsen, especially when sections of Shanghai were bombed by Allied forces, several authors have marveled at how the Jewish community not only created but also supported theatres, newspapers, literary publications, orchestras and other cultural institutions they missed from their homelands.

Organizing the Relief Operations

Ms. Margolis’s first task was to bring order to chaos and to obtain the cooperation of the various refugee relief committees. Another social worker, Manny Siegel, was sent to help her near the end of 1941, but their work was seriously hampered when JDC funding stopped after the Japanese bombing of American ships in Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941 and the subsequent entry of the U.S. into the war.

Ever resourceful, she sought the support of Japanese officials now in control. Fortunately, she had previously cultivated a good relationship with Captain Inuzuka, the Japanese officer in charge of the Bureau for Jewish Affairs. She obtained his permission for the release of 5,000 bags of wheat from the American Red Cross and to raise money from loans to be repaid by the JDC. She implemented other measures to stretch the meager funds, such as reducing staff in the camps, closing two small hospitals, and working with the Jewish leadership to reach the difficult decision to cut 4,000 people from the relief rolls.

Funding was still insufficient so Ms. Margolis took an enormous risk by publicizing the critical refugee situation, even though she knew the news story would anger the Japanese officials. After the article was published, she and Mr. Siegel were to be arrested, but through the intervention of an influential Japanese friend the order was canceled. Fortunately, the publicity paid off and funds were raised to meet another month’s budget. Throughout 1942 Margolis and Siegel worked productively with the relief committee she had formed and trained. However, as a foreign enemy of the Japanese, she knew she could be interned in a prisoner of war camp at any time, so she organized the residents to manage the camps.


Margolis and Siegel were finally forced to go to separate POW camps in February 1943. There she lived in primitive conditions for nearly nine months. To escape the worsening situation, she pretended to be ill and was transferred to a hospital where she found ways to communicate with leadership in the relief operations. Her determination, bravery and resourcefulness were demonstrated one more time before leaving Shanghai:

“I learned that I would soon be returned to the camp to prepare for the next prisoner of war exchange. I was able to obtain a report about the details of the refugee relief operations, and I wrote the information on sheets of toilet paper. I rolled them up and put them in the top of my panties, because I knew there would be a body search when I left.”

She was repatriated to the U.S. in September 1943. After a period of rest, she returned to Europe to work for the JDC in Jewish refugee rescue operations in Portugal, Spain and Sweden. After the war she settled in Israel with her husband, whom she met in France where she was assigned to assist with refugee relocation. In Israel she worked in a variety of roles, one of which was to help develop JDC’s Malben Homes for the Aged. After her husband died, she returned to the U.S. at the request of her family. In 1990 she was interviewed by the U.S. Holocaust Museum as part of the oral history archives of the Holocaust. She died in 1997 at the age of 93. Her New York Times obituary described her as a “true Woman of Valor.” Ernest Heppner, a Shanghai refugee who knew her when he was a young man, captures some personal traits that distinguishes her:

“There is no doubt in my mind that without the professionalism, the dedication, the persistence, and the nerve – the chutzpa – she displayed, thousands of refugees would have slowly starved to death. If there is one deserving hero in the whole Shanghai episode, it certainly is Laura L. Margolis.”

This article was published in the online magazine in October 2013.


Ernest G. Heppner, Shanghai Refugee: A Memoir of the World War II Jewish Ghetto. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska, 1993. p. 52.

Rena Krasno, Strangers Always: A Jewish Family in Wartime Shanghai. Berkeley, CA: Pacific View Press, 1992. p. 4.

Erica Lyons, “Laura Margolis in the Spotlights: Portrait of a Heroine in Shanghai,” Asian Jewish Life: A Journal of Spirit, Society and Culture, January 2012.

Deborah Strobin and Ilie Wacs, An Uncommon Journey: From Vienna to Shanghai to America: A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2011. p. 44-45.

Laura L. Margolis, “Race Against Time in Shanghai,” Survey Graphic 33(3) March 1944. pp. 168-171 and 190-191.

Laura L. Margolis. Oral interview, July 11, 1990, United States Holocuast Museum. RG number 50.030*0149.

Ms. Lindauer is a retired research librarian and currently writes for children and adult magazines.

About Gabriele Lange

Multi Media Consultant in SF Bay Area WebDesign at City College 2008-2011 Professional Photographer since 1998 Lived in Berlin, Germany between 1987-1994
This entry was posted in Congregation News, Jewish Learning and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Laura Margolis: Shanghai Savior 1941-1943

  1. bgratch says:

    Thank you for the quick posting! This is one that I didn’t want to post myself.

  2. Elizabeth Halperin says:

    This is marvelous, Bonnie! What a fascinating story, and so well written!

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