Julie Kalmar: IS Student Curates Exhibit on Jewish Refugees in Shanghai

Kalmar is a graduate student staff member in Special Collections at UCLA's Charles E. Young Library.

An exhibit currently on view through Dec. 14 at UCLA Hillel, tells the story of more than 20,000 Jewish men, women, and children who were shielded from persecution and death in the Holocaust by living in a “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees,” a one-square mile area in the Hongkou district of Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Among the photographs, documents, and other artifacts showcased in “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941),” are several other relics of this little-known chapter in history that bring the story closer to home, thanks to Julie Kalmar, a graduate student in the Department of Information Studies.

Kalmar is earning her post-master’s degree certificate in archival studies and is currently a graduate student staff member in Special Collections at the UCLA Charles E. Young Library. Her husband George Kalmar is a filmmaker and the child of Holocaust survivors, with an interest in the Jewish refugees of Shanghai. When the couple heard last spring that an exhibit on the “Shanghailanders” from the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in Hongkou was coming to UCLA, they offered their collective expertise and passion for the topic.

The Abraham Family in Shanghai, 1922, with their Chinese "amah," or nanny. Courtesy of the Abraham Abraham Collection
The Abraham Family in Shanghai, 1922, with their Chinese “amah,” or nanny. Courtesy of the Abraham Abraham Collection, Los Angeles

“I was always intrigued by these mysterious documents we had about my husband’s family’s Holocaust history,” she says. “If your parents survived, that’s the happy part. The unhappy part for most European Jews is that most of the rest of the family died. There are questions: things you both do and do not want to know more about.”

George Kalmar was hired by the Center for Jewish Studies and the UCLA Confucius Institute to create the video components to accompany “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai,” using historical photographs and Shoah Foundation interviews with Shanghai refugees. The majority of exhibits in UCLA Hillel’s “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai” are on loan from the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. However, Julie Kalmar’s contribution as a volunteer for the last several months produced a more local perspective on the story of the Shanghailanders. Working with Mary Enid Pinkerson of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, she connected with former refugees who now live in Los Angeles. The refugees were primarily from Germany and Austria, but Kalmar also worked with members of the Russian and Iraqi communities who lived in Shanghai prior to the arrival of the refugees. Members of these communities were children or young adults while living in the international settlement; most who are still living are in their 80s and 90s.

With the support of several UCLA entities including the UCLA Confucius Institute, the Center for Chinese Studies, the Dortort Center for Creativity and the Arts at UCLA Hillel, and her own professional experience, Kalmar worked with local Shanghailanders and lovingly accepted and cared for their loans of personal artifacts that she prepared for the exhibit. By listening to their recollections, she was able to gain a personal window onto the indomitable spirit of human survival in the face of life-threatening adversity.

“I drove to their houses, heard their stories, and arranged to borrow whatever they were willing to loan for the exhibit,” she says. “I also digitized some of the collections and asked some to write personal biographies.

“I became very attached to them, and they were so trusting. They’re thrilled to be a part of telling the stories of how they survived in these very unique circumstances. Many of them have written memoirs, speak to groups, or have been profiled in recorded testimonies and documentaries. Others have only shared their stories with close friends and family. It’s important to work towards the preservation of memory for each individual, as well as their communities, whether historic in Shanghai, here in the U.S., or in other places of diaspora.”

Jewish Scouts at Camp Millington, Shanghai, 1940. Courtesy of the Abraham Abraham Collection
Jewish Scouts at Camp Millington, Shanghai, 1940. Courtesy of the Abraham Abraham Collection, Los Angeles

Among the personal treasures entrusted to Kalmar were photos of family and friends, passports, and even a coin that was recently minted in China that commemorates the story of the Shanghai Ghetto. Most significant were artifacts that bore witness to the Holocaust that drove these Jews to their Chinese sanctuary. A set of documents from the “Erhart Trial,” where 25 German nationals were convicted of espionage for Japan after Germany had surrendered unconditionally was loaned by Walter Bloch, who had served as a German-French-English interpreter in the U.S. Army after surviving as a child on a Kindertransport to England. A metal sign loaned by the late Gary Matzdorff that reads, “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” is a memento that he acquired on the day the war ended in China against the Japanese. Most infamously, passports issued by Germany and Poland tell the story in one letter: in the late 1930s, these were required to be marked with a red “J” to identify their bearers as Jewish.

“Documents can tell this story, both personal and historical,” says Kalmar. “These artifacts are the only things people are left with [from that time]… and because they are few, and so much time has elapsed, they’re really precious.

“When you work with these [objects], the stories of what people went through begin to emerge,” she says of the emotional weight of working with artifacts and documents from the Holocaust era. “You think about what it must have been like living through that kind of uncertainty, knowing that things are deteriorating.”

A symposium on “Cosmopolitan Shanghai” opened the exhibit at UCLA Hillel on October 27  brought together faculty and scholars from across the UCLA campus and the world with Shanghailanders, their families, and friends. Kalmar says that a woman whose family members survived the Holocaust by living in Shanghai traveled from Albuquerque to attend the event – Karen Landis Knauf told Kalmar that she had also just visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York and that the sight of the personal belongings of the victims inspired her to donate her family’s artifacts to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. Speakers at the Oct. 27 symposium included William Hant, who lived in the Shanghai Ghetto from 1939 to 1947 is a researcher in the High Speed Electronics Lab at UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Peter Loewenberg, professor emeritus of history, who lived there from 1933 to 1937.

Kalmar with William Hant, a researcher in UCLA's Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. Hant, whose family left for Shanghai from Vienna, lived in the international settlement from 1939 to 1947.
Kalmar with William Hant, a researcher in UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. Hant, whose family left for Shanghai from Vienna, lived in the Hongkou District from 1939 to 1947.

Hant says that the reason he strives to share the history of the Shanghai Ghetto is “to prove to the world that not all Jews were victims.” He remarks on the miraculous fortune that kept the Japanese from killing the Jewish refugees and the ability of the Chinese and Jewish populations to coexist in relative harmony.

“Both the Jews and the Chinese were oppressed by the Japanese, they had that in common,” he says. “They both had Japan as an enemy. The Chinese also respect scholarship like the Jews, so they had that in common also.”

Former Shanghai refugees have made their mark on history after history made its mark on them. Among those featured in the exhibit are artist Peter Max, and film producer Mike Medavoy, whose biography was one of three panels that Kalmar helped prepare for the exhibit.

Hant says that while the experience of living as refugees in the Shanghai Ghetto was less than ideal, his family was very fortunate. Only one family member was killed in the Holocaust, and the survivors were able to emigrate to England and the United States.

“Survival doesn’t take much if you know what you’re doing,” Hant notes. “You can live at a low level and still make it. We lived in a single room for four years, and we survived.

“My parents made a distinct decision in 1939 to leave with very little money and go to an unknown place… the only place open for Jews,” says Hant, who was able to leave Shanghai for the United States at age 13. “But they figured it was a good move, and it saved our lives. If they would have stayed there, I’m sure I would have been killed in the Holocaust.”

“It proves a resourcefulness on their part,” says Kalmar. “And a very brave step.”

Kalmar, who worked at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in museum administration and subsequently in architectural planning for art museums, earned her master’s degree in art history at the University of Minnesota. Her contribution to “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai” is her curatorial debut. She says she hopes to work towards the increased digitization and access of archival records and information, because increased access is key to aiding individuals, organizations and scholars to locate and share information.

“When I was undertaking family research, it was really difficult to find information,” says Kalmar. “Even if it’s decades after historical events occur, people are still seeking information. The Archival Studies program here has a very significant and unique focus on human rights archives, information as evidence, and community archives. Professors in our department are at the forefront of this focus. The idea is that traditionally, records and archives have been held by governments or some group in control, and not by the subjects of the archives themselves. This is particularly the case in human rights violations, genocide, or indigenous communities who are trying to regain control of their heritage. Whether this information takes the form of bureaucratic records or a single family photo, to be able to find it or reclaim it can have an enormous impact on legal outcomes, a family seeking justice, or trying to heal.

“It’s too bad we didn’t have the degree of networked information we have now several decades ago,” Kalmar notes. “Yet, the Shanghailanders are an amazing example of a community network. Here in L.A., many [of them] know each other, and that network extends around the world. When you work with a community that wants to tell their stories, you want to help them do it.”


Above: Julie Kalmar, who is earning her post-master’s degree certificate in archival studies in the Department of Information Studies, curated an exhibit in UCLA Hillel’s “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (1933-1941)” on “Shanghailanders” who now live in Los Angeles.