A Survivor’s Luck: Reflections on Berlin and Shanghai
Prof. Kevin Ostoyich was a Visiting Fellow at AICGS in summer 2018 and was previously a Visiting Fellow at AICGS in summer 2017. He is Professor of History at Valparaiso University, where he served as the chair of the history department from 2015 to 2019. He holds his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and his A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Prior to moving to Valparaiso, he taught at the University of Montana. He has served as a Research Associate at the Harvard Business School and an Erasmus Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. He currently is an associate of the Center for East Asian Studies of the University of Chicago, a board member of the Sino-Judaic Institute, and an inaugural member of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum International Advisory Board. He has published on German migration, German-American history, and the history of the Shanghai Jews.
While at AICGS, Prof. Ostoyich conducted research on his project, “The Wounds of History, the Wounds of Today: The Shanghai Jews and the Morality of Refugee Crises.” The Shanghai Jews were refugees from Nazi Europe who found haven in Shanghai, and thus escaped the Holocaust. For this project Ostoyich has interviewed many former Shanghai Jewish refugees and has conducted research at the National Archives at College Park, MD, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. At Valparaiso University he co-teaches a course titled “Historical Theatre: The Shanghai Jews,” which fuses the disciplines of history and theatre. To date, students of the course have co-written and performed two original productions based on the history of the Shanghai Jewish refugee community: Knocking on the Doors of History: The Shanghai Jews and Shanghai Carousel: What Tomorrow Will Be. In addition to his work on the Shanghai Jews, he is currently working on projects pertaining to the experiences of ordinary Germans during the bombing of Bremen, German Catholic experiences in nineteenth-century Württemberg, German Catholic migration, and U.S.-German cultural diplomacy during the first half of the twentieth century.
He is currently trying to interview as many former Shanghailanders as possible. If you would like to be interviewed or know someone who might want to be interviewed, please contact Professor Ostoyich at email@example.com.
Harry Katz is lucky. As a man who has had a life-long love of numbers, he knows the odds were stacked against him from the beginning: He was born a Jew in Hitler’s Berlin on March 4, 1933. And yet he survived. As he sits in a penthouse suite of Caesar’s Palace in the gambler’s paradise that is Las Vegas, he thinks of those who were not as lucky as he…
A House of Cards
Harry’s father, Julius Katz, was born in Posen on October 7, 1877. Harry’s mother, Frieda Katz (née Selmanson), was born in Berdychiv in the Russian Empire on August 2, 1898. Harry does not know how his parents met, but he thinks they did so in Lübeck, Germany. Frieda was a housekeeper, and Julius had a number of jobs including that of a salesman for a chocolate factory. The couple had four children. In addition to Harry there was Hans (ten years older than Harry), Horst (seven years older than Harry), and Ilse (five years older than Harry). As the youngest child, Harry was tasked by his siblings to ask their father for chocolate so they could put it in the cream of wheat they often had for breakfast.
The family lived in a third-floor apartment in Berlin. The first floor of the building served as an SS headquarters and a police station was located across the street. This did not worry the family too much though, because Julius was a veteran of the First World War and had friends in both the SS and the police. In fact, he played cards with them every Friday night. With such an ace in the hole, Julius was certain nothing would happen to him and his family. On Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938) the family’s house of cards came crashing down though. Harry remembers on the morning of November 10, the “rest of the kids had gone off to school, and my father had gone out to get a shave and a haircut, and I was home with my mother. We heard the sound of boots coming up the stairs. There was a knock. He was a Gestapo. And he said, ‘Is your husband home?’ And my mother said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Well, make sure you go out and find him, don’t let him come home, because if he does, we’ll have to pick him up. You have one hour to take whatever belongings you can with you. We will lock the place up. And once you find another place to live, then we’ll let you come back in and get the rest of your belongings.’ So, actually, that was probably a slight accommodation because of the friendships that my father had.”
Harry was five years old at the time, and to him Kristallnacht meant he did not have a party for his sixth birthday (March 4, 1939): Harry explains that not having a birthday party “to me was the most meaningful thing that I missed. Actually, being so young was a blessing.” Given his young age, he had not yet formed deep emotional attachments to his family. Harry says, “the fact that this happened to me when I was that young really helped because, I mean, sixteen of the aunts and uncles didn’t make it.”
After Kristallnacht Julius started looking for a way to get the family out of Germany. He applied for an exit visa and was able to secure one on December 7, 1938. This gave the family one year to leave the country. But where to go? Finding a destination was not easy because most countries closed their borders to the Jews. As historian David S. Wyman has chronicled in detail, the United States erected obstacles to prevent the immigration of Jews. Eventually, Julius found out that Jews could escape to Shanghai. Harry does not know why, but the family split up: Hans was to go to Palestine; Horst was to go on a Kindertransport to England; and the rest of the family was to go to Shanghai. In April 1939, Julius, Frieda, Ilse, and Harry took an overnight train to Genoa, Italy. From there Frieda took one boat and Julius, Ilse, and Harry boarded the Conte Biancamano, to Shanghai. Harry does not know why these were the particular arrangements, but guesses this was simply the best Julius could manage for the family. Harry remembers the trip to Shanghai lasting four weeks, his getting seasick on the journey, and his father assigning Ilse to look after him. Meanwhile, Hans started out on his journey to Palestine by first going to Cologne. In Cologne, he was apprehended by the Gestapo and sent back to Berlin. Subsequently, the family received some correspondence from Hans “in the early 40s, and then it stopped.” Years later, the family learned that Hans had died in Auschwitz. The second son, Horst, decided rather than taking the Kindertransport to England, where the family had cousins, he “wanted to be with the rest of the family. And at the tender age of thirteen he somehow managed to get his documentations changed and followed the same route by train to Genoa, Italy, and followed us to Shanghai.”
A Will to Survive
Shortly after arriving in Shanghai, both Horst and Ilse contracted polio. Horst’s case was particularly acute, and he had to stay in hospital for two years in Shanghai. As a result of the disease, Horst had a severe curvature of the spine. Harry explains, “To give you an idea of how advanced the medical technology was, they literally hung him out the window in a harness to try to straighten him out.” Ilse’s case was milder. She had to wear a metal corset to strengthen her body. Always the lucky one, Harry did not contract the disease.
By the time the family left Germany at the relatively late date of April 1939, the Nazis had imposed severe restrictions regarding what Jews could take with them out of the country. As a result, the family was quite destitute. Harry remembers arriving in Shanghai: “It seemed like there were people all over, and I know there was a truck waiting to pick us up to take us to the first place we lived, which was in Alcock Camp.” Harry notes that many Jews who had fled to Shanghai earlier had been able to take more of their valuables with them and thus were able to live in the more fashionable neighborhoods of Shanghai (such as the French Concession). Harry’s family did not have much of anything, and had to live in the poorest section of the city, Hongkew, the whole time. The living arrangements in the Alcock Camp were far from ideal: “We were in a large room with thirty other families, and we used bedsheets and tablecloth to kind of divide the spaces and get whatever privacy we could.” After Alcock Camp they moved into a one-room apartment in Wayside Camp, where they stayed the longest during their years in Shanghai. “We had two bunk beds, so my mother and my father were on the bottom and my sister and I were on top, and then there was a little alcove, like a balcony, that my brother, who—after he got out of the hospital from polio—[…] had[.] But that one room served as a bedroom, living room, dining room, whatever.”
Julius was sixty-one years old when the family arrived in Shanghai and found it difficult to adjust and find work. The only job that Harry remembers his father having in Shanghai was as a supplier of local news to a newspaper; however, he did not do so as a full-fledged reporter. Briefly, Julius and Frieda tried to run a coffee stand with a partner, but could not continue because the demands of looking after two polio-stricken children were too great. Frieda was able to secure some income intermittently by working as a housekeeper and nanny in various homes. Overall, though, the family lived “hand to mouth.” They were able to acquire basic staples through food stamps. They also went to the relief kitchen, where they received such fare as red beans, rice, and corn-on-the-cob. For Harry, corn-on-the-cob and sweet potatoes were always his favorites, and remain so to this day.
The camps not only provided food but social sustenance as well. Wayside Camp had a canteen, half of which, was “a coffee shop or café, and the other half was used as a synagogue and also for performances. So that’s how we interacted […] with one another.” Theater revues were held in the canteen. Usually the adults would have a revue on Saturday evening, and the young people would have theirs the next morning. On one occasion Harry served as the emcee for the young people’s revue:
“I went to attend the revue Saturday night and listened to some of the jokes. And when people laughed, I tried to remember that joke. I didn’t know why they were laughing. But then, the next morning, I would tell those jokes to the young revue, and the adults in the audience would laugh, and the young kids didn’t know what I was talking about, but from that time on […] and today, I still like to tell jokes because I enjoy to hear people laugh.”
The children who lived in Hongkew attended the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association school. The land and building for this school had been donated by the wealthy Sephardic Jew Sir Ellis Kadoorie. The curriculum was rigorous, and in order to graduate from the high school one had to pass the Cambridge University entrance exam. Harry excelled in mathematics. He and Ilse shared a room, and at night they would give each other chain problems of multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction of whole numbers:
“One would give the problem and the other one would answer, and then they would give the problem, and the other one would answer. And you kept doing this until you didn’t get an answer any more, and then you knew that person was asleep, and then you went to sleep. […] It meant that early in our childhood we really became very familiar with numbers, and I’ve been a numbers person ever since. And I can still add numbers faster than most people can do it on a calculator.”
He jokingly adds, “if they had never invented the calculator, I might be famous now!” When Harry was eleven or twelve he started to train to become a rabbi at the Mir Yeshiva. While doing this he did not attend regular school, and his family had to keep a kosher house. This lasted for about a year and a half. Harry did not enjoy the Mir Yeshiva experience and believes it actually distanced him from the faith to a considerable extent.
On a more positive note, Harry remembers he and other children riding scooters, which were forerunners to skateboards. These could be rented for an hour or so. Children also participated in many sports, including soccer and track and field. Harry loved all sports, and as a left-footer, he was always in demand on the soccer field as a leftfielder. Harry joined the Boy Scouts and later, after the end of the war, he briefly participated in the Betar. His friends and playmates were predominantly other Jewish refugee children who went to the same school or lived in the same camp. They generally did not interact with Chinese children. They also did not have much interaction with the Japanese. For him the biggest engagement with the Japanese was that the occupying forces mandated that Japanese become part of their curriculum. He says, “teachers had to teach it, and students reluctantly had to take the course.” He and the other Jewish refugee children tended to have more interaction with the children of the White Russians who lived in the area. He does not remember any stateless Russian Jews having attended his school.
Although the attack on Pearl Harbor of December 1941 and the Proclamation of the Designated Area in 1943 had considerable consequences for westerners living in Shanghai, they did not have as much of an effect on Harry’s family, given his family already was poor and living in the part of Hongkew where the Japanese set up the Designated Area. The Proclamation meant that other Jewish refugees—many of whom had been in much better material circumstances—now had to move into the area. Distinctions still remained, though, for many of those who moved in after the Proclamation were able to afford apartments within the Designated Area. Harry remembers these new neighbors providing help to the poorer children such as himself. When the “richer” children started to attend the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association, Harry developed a system whereby the “richer” kids brought extra sandwiches for the poorer children. According to Harry, the response to his idea was “remarkable.” Harry and Ilse tended to stretch whatever lunch money they had by purchasing hot sweet potatoes from Chinese street vendors. The sweet potatoes served two purposes: They kept their hands warm during the walk to school, and then filled their bellies when eaten upon arrival.
Harry and Ilse liked to go to see American films at the cinema. They were always trying to scrounge up enough money to go, but only managed to do so once every two or three months. They mostly saw musicals and romantic comedies. The movies of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Errol Flynn were Harry’s favorites. Ilse also like to leaf through the pages of Look Magazine and Life Magazine and fill scrapbooks with pictures of the latest movie stars.
Children such as Harry and Ilse did not really look too much to the future because the future was so uncertain. Growing up, Harry remembers wanting to become either a psychiatrist, chemist, or a lawyer. The latter probably was grounded in his love of Perry Mason books. His main outlets for books were the C-rations and K-rations from the United States. In addition to food, coffee, and cigarettes, these packages often included books. Whereas his mother, being a smoker, took the cigarettes, Harry often got the books.
Children tended to adjust well to Shanghai life. The adults were less successful. Julius particularly struggled in Shanghai. In addition to his difficulties finding work, he eventually was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Harry never developed a very close relationship with his father and unfortunately does not have many positive memories of him. Nevertheless, one thing Julius accomplished left an indelible mark on Harry:
“I was due to become Bar Mitzvahed in March of 1946. […] At the time, my father was near death, and he said he wanted to live long enough to see his son become Bar Mitzvahed. And so he was at the service that Saturday morning and that evening he went into a coma, and the next day he died. And it impressed me that the only thing I could attribute to this was just the human will that he lived long enough to accomplish what he wanted to see, and that was it. And quite frankly it was one of the few positive memories that I have of my father, because he was fifty-five when I was born, so we didn’t have the normal father-son-playing-ball relationship […]. The only other positive thing that I remember is he would take me to the Bierstube in Germany, and I’m sure what I had was Coke while everybody else was having beer, but the Coke looked just liked the beer that the adults were drinking so it made me feel like an adult. And at that time already I was good with numbers and he would show me off a little bit. So that and the Bar Mitzvah thing were two of the few positive memories I have of my father. He was a rather stern individual.”
On August 15, 1945, word spread quickly that the war was over. There was dancing in the streets and everybody was happy. This triggered an immediate exodus from Shanghai. Most people wanted to go to the United States. Other popular destinations included Australia, Canada, and Israel. Soon American sailors arrived in Shanghai, and one day Harry and a friend went out to an American ship on a Chinese sampan boat:
“The sailors welcomed us on board, and God they fed us, what I remember mostly was ice cream. I […] ate [so] much ice cream [that] I almost got sick to my stomach. They entertained us, treated us really nice, actually kept us overnight. [We] slept in one of the bunks. Of course, our parents had no idea where we were. [He laughs.] So the next day […] on one of the United States boats, they took us back to shore. And then we went home, and I think our parents had a tough time deciding whether they should give us a spanking or just welcome us back because we were okay. So that was our interaction.”
At the time, the United States was thought of as “the land of milk and honey.”
Given that Julius had been born in Posen, the family fell under the Polish quota for U.S. immigration. This quota was extremely small. When Julius died in 1946, the family then were categorized under Frieda’s place of birth, Berdychiv. The American immigration system was even more restrictive with respect to the Soviet Union than Poland, so the family’s prospects of going the United States did not look good. In either 1946 or 1947 the family was finally able to move from a camp into a small apartment, where they resided until they eventually left Shanghai. At this time the family had some income because Frieda continued to work in houses, Ilse worked as a hairdresser, and Horst worked in a pharmacy. By 1948 most refugees had left Shanghai, and there were no longer enough children or teachers for school. Thus, Harry took a full-time job at a fur salon.
When Horst turned twenty-one years old in 1947, he automatically became a stateless German and, thus, no longer tied to the quota associated with Frieda’s place of birth. Given the United States’ immigration policy was favorable to Germans, Horst was able to leave for America immediately and settled in Chicago. Meanwhile, Frieda, Ilse, and Harry were stuck. They were not able to leave Shanghai until President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order authorizing boats to pick up refugees who wanted to come to the United States regardless of quota before the communists took over China. Harry thinks that at this late date in 1949 there were only a few hundred refugees left in Shanghai. Frieda, Ilse, and Harry did not have any money but were able to get out on an emergency basis on the S.S. President Wilson, which was one of the last ships to leave. Frieda and Ilse slept in a gymnasium, and Harry slept in a hallway. Nevertheless, they were allowed to eat first class:
“After living on fish heads and rice and C-rations and K-rations for as many years as we did, to start eating fresh fruits and vegetables cooked in butter, my goodness! [The] two weeks on that boat [were] just wonderful. My mother gained twenty pounds in those two weeks. Fortunately, I was young enough, sixteen, and active enough that despite enjoying all this good food, I was able to work it off. But that two weeks’ trip from Shanghai to come to the United States…that was wonderful!”
During the trip there was a competition consisting of five or six different sports (badminton, deck tennis, shuffleboard, etc.). When the points were tallied, Harry was declared the winner and awarded a trophy. He explained that when he got to the United States, he lost it. Eventually, however, “somehow it showed up again, and once it did, I put it on one of the shelves to display it. I mean really, it’s a simple little thing, but it brings back wonderful memories.”
Harry had saved up five U.S. dollars for the trip. They first stopped in Yokohama, Japan, where he bought a Swiss army knife for $2. They then docked in Honolulu. Harry remembers thinking that Hawaii was so beautiful that he decided if he was ever rich enough to retire, this is where he wanted to be. They landed in San Francisco and stayed there for a couple of days. It was in the spring, and cherries were just starting to be in season. Harry loved cherries and remembers buying a pound of cherries for thirteen cents. He then walked up and down Market Street in San Francisco eating his cherries. He went to his first movie in the United States: The Champion starring Kirk Douglas. Harry and his family were champions in their own right: “We got out of Germany very late and just made it. And so then we got to Shanghai, and ten years later we got out of Shanghai just barely, just made it. And to now come to a place like the United States where you felt safe and secure. That meant a lot. All of a sudden this fear about having to leave again, was no longer there. So that felt good.”
The family moved to Chicago and stayed in the Jackson Hotel. Their room had a small television, and Harry watched his first baseball game of the Cubs. It was love at first sight, and Harry became a charter member of the Chicago Cub Die Hard Fan Club in 1949. Although he could not afford to go to many games, he loved listening to the Cubs on the radio. He says proudly “I will die a Cub fan!”
Becoming a Cubs fan was easy; not so easy was the adjustment to the American school system. The first challenge was to figure out how Harry’s credits from Shanghai would transfer to his new school. Eventually, it was decided that he be placed in the junior class because he was sixteen years old. The next challenge was to master English. This meant taking special courses in the summer. He was given the assignment of reciting “A Message to Garcia.” Not having a clue who “Garcia” was, he gave it a try. The teacher immediately stopped him saying, “Mr. Katz, we are here to learn how to pronounce the English language correctly, not to have a cute accent.” At the time he burned with anger and embarrassment. Thinking back now though he believes this “abbreviated” message to Garcia was one of the best things to have happened to him, because from that point on, he resolved to speak English fluently and without accent.
The accent did have its advantages though in non-scholastic pursuits: The girls liked it. Harry enjoyed the popularity of being the exotic guy from Shanghai at Hyde Park High. Eventually, when the novelty effect wore off, Harry compensated by drawing on the craft he had developed back in the Sunday morning revues: He told jokes. Accents may open doors, but laughter wins hearts.
Harry graduated from high school in 1951 and proceeded to take a job with an advertising company. After a few months, Harry and a close friend decided to enlist in the army and signed up to become paratroopers. Harry took this leap in hopes of staying with his friend despite never having been in a plane before, let alone jumping out of one! Despite their well-laid plans, Harry and his friend were separated. The next thing Harry knew, he was travelling back to Asia, this time to fight in Korea.
“In order to become a citizen of the United States, you had one of two requirements: you either needed five years of permanent residency or you needed two years of active duty. Well, I came here in ’49 so in ’54 I would have had my five years of permanent residency. I joined the Army in ’52 so in ’54, I had my two years of active duty. So I happened to be in Japan at the time, so I actually became a citizen of the United States in Camp Hakata, Japan, […] which was somewhat unusual. I am proud of my service.”
Harry says that he “went into the Army as a eighteen-year-old punk kid and came out a twenty-one-year-old man.” After returning from Korea, he attended the Illinois University of Chicago for a year under the GI Bill, but ultimately this proved too costly. His chemistry professor gave him a letter of introduction to Sherwin Williams, where he took a position as a paint chemist in 1956. He worked to develop paint for aluminum sheet used in aluminum siding. While working at Sherwin Williams, he met his wife, Audrey. In 1959 he accepted an offer from another company, and he and Audrey moved from Chicago to South Bend, Indiana, where they stayed until 1970.
While in South Bend, Harry and a friend, Ralph Hagemeier, started Big Brothers of Saint Joseph County in 1968. Harry’s favorite memory from his time with Big Brothers was playing in a softball league with his thirteen-year-old “little brother” named Anthony. In one game Harry had a particularly woeful pitching performance, walking something like nine batters in a row. Afterward, he was feeling quite down in the dumps when Anthony came up to him and tried to cheer him, saying “you know, they never hit ya!” Harry remembers how effective this comment was in cheering him up, for it made him laugh. This episode with Anthony encapsulates well Harry’s experience with Big Brothers and his volunteer work in general: “I’ve always found whenever I volunteered that I always got so much more out of it than […] what I gave.”
From South Bend, Harry and Audrey moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where Harry worked for a friend running a plastics business. The arrangement eventually started to strain their friendship, and Harry thought it best to move on. First he took a job with an aluminum siding business, but after this experience too started to sour, he and a partner bought a distribution company in Maryland. He helped run the business for seventeen years, each of which being profitable. Due to this success, in 1999, Harry and Audrey were able to retire to Pebble Beach, California, of which he quips, “When I die it’s a shame if I don’t go to heaven, because I feel like I’m so well prepared for it just by living there.”
Facing the Odds
Harry still is close with his sister, Ilse, who also lives in California. He is also fortunate to have had his mother in his life for many years after Shanghai. He says that his mother was always remarkably adaptive throughout her life. After Julius died in 1946, Frieda “had a boyfriend that none of the kids liked.” This relationship was brief and never serious. After the family went to the United States, she became a milliner. She took care of Horst, whose health was still very compromised. His lungs had not formed properly due to the curvature of the spine that resulted from the polio contracted in Shanghai. One day she came home from work and found Horst dead. She always blamed herself for having left him. Harry says other than Horst’s tragic death, Frieda always managed to enjoy life. She particularly liked to try her luck at casinos, and Harry often took her to Las Vegas. She loved playing blackjack and tended to blame the dealers when she lost. One time when she was starting to lose a bit too much, Harry cried out “Hey, ma, that’s my inheritance!” Once again, laughter won the day. Frieda passed away after a full and active life of ninety-four years.
For decades Harry’s Shanghai past remained in the background. Aside from the girls of Hyde Park High, not many people showed interest. Then, “out of the blue,” he received an invitation from the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation to attend a dinner in commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Shanghai Ghetto. He decided to go. He says that although it was nice to see people from the Shanghai past, it was somewhat unsettling because everyone had changed so much over the decades. People, naturally, no longer looked as they had in Shanghai, and even those who had been his close friends had drifted away so much due to their divergent life experiences. It was at this time that Harry started to tell his friends locally about his story. He was then featured in an article in the Carmel Pine Cone and interviewed by a local radio station. Harry’s Shanghai experience informs his views on religion and immigration today. With respect to religion, he states:
“I am Jewish. I’m proud to be Jewish and all that, but I haven’t followed the faith. As I’ve grown older and started thinking for myself, I decided that religion as we know it isn’t all that good, because probably more blood has been shed in the name of religion than any other cause known to mankind. To me it is much more important [that] the emphasis should be on [being] good, whether you are a good Jew, a good Christian, or a good Muslim, that’s what’s important, not necessarily the religion itself. But also, I think what’s important is to have tolerance, that everybody can respect whatever they want to believe and what’s right for somebody else, that’s up to them. So that is kind of how I have been leading my life from a religious standpoint: just being as good a person as I can be.”
He feels that loving one another is more important than sharing a traditional faith of any kind. He does not believe this love should be withheld from immigrants:
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s good versus evil or good versus bad. I think any time you show intolerance toward any group, it’s bad. We, obviously, had to spend three years longer in Shanghai than necessary because there was a quota system and immigration system that this country had a right, or any country has a right, to make part of their law. And so, to some extent, I feel like ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do,’ but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have some people in high office who use that for bad reasons. And that shouldn’t be. If you want to say ‘we will allow one hundred immigrants to come in, and we would like the make-up of those hundred to be ten from here and five from there’ […] as a sovereign nation, that’s your right, as long as it isn’t designed to be intolerant. So, when I read the paper or watch the news, unfortunately, I have a very difficult time seeing where any of what we’re talking about relative to immigrants is good in nature, it does smack of intolerance, so I don’t like it.”
Harry has never returned to Shanghai but says he would love to do so. He did go back to Berlin at the invitation of the city. He enjoyed the trip, saying the city did a nice job showing his group all the memorials. The most moving experience for Harry in Berlin had to do with his eldest brother, Hans:
“After the war when we inquired and we got the letter—I think from the Red Cross—that said that Hans, my oldest brother, was picked up on January 12, 1942, and taken to a concentration camp, where he died. One of the memorials we went to was a railway station and it had a huge metal sheet, and they had etched into that the different dates where Jews were picked up and put on trains to take to the concentration camp, and I actually saw the date that my brother was picked up. […] It impressed me because that this was the last place that I knew him to be alive. [Harry chokes up as he continues.] And even though I didn’t have the emotional attachment, like I said before, every time I think of that, I feel emotion. I can’t explain it.”
Given Harry had been so young, and the Berlin of his youth had been destroyed to such a great extent during the war, there was nothing for him to remember. When Harry thinks back to the fate of Hans and his aunts and uncles at the hands of the Nazis, Julius’ battle with cancer, and Horst’s and Ilse’s struggle with polio, he often wonders why it was he who was destined to be the lucky one. Being lucky often comes with feelings of guilt:
“I’ve always referred to myself for […] a number of reasons as being really a lucky survivor because there wasn’t the emotional problem, nor did I have any of the physical problems, nor did I have to worry about how to feed a family like my parents obviously had to do once we got to Shanghai, so I feel like I kind of skated through this thing rather easily. […] Probably because of that I had a guilt complex. I couldn’t enjoy life once we got to the United States for a while. And my wife deserves a lot of credit because she insisted that we enjoy things. And once I faced it and understood it, then I was able to deal with it.”
Harry has recently been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He knows that once again the odds are stacked against him. As he confronts this disease he thinks of his family members—his father who willed himself to stay alive in his own battle with cancer to see his son Bar Mitzvahed, and his brother and sister who confronted polio with resolve. Moreover, Harry still has the power of humor on his side. A few years ago, he told a joke to an interviewer that can provide strength to all those facing the odds of time:
“Somewhere I don’t know who told me this that there are only two things in life that can happen to you, you are either healthy or you are sick, if you’re healthy you’ve nothing to worry about, if you are sick only two things can happen, you either get better or you get worse. If you get better, you have nothing to worry about. If you get worse, only two things can happen: you’re going to live or you’re going to die. If you live, you’ve nothing to worry about. If you die, only two things can happen: you can go to Heaven or you can go to Hell. If you go to Heaven, you have nothing to worry about. If you go to Hell, you’ll be so busy shaking hands with all your friends, you won’t have time to worry. So why worry?”
Professor Kevin Ostoyich’s research on the history of the Shanghai Jews is being sponsored by a research grant of the Sino-Judaic Institute and the Wheat Ridge Ministries – O.P. Kretzmann Memorial Fund Grant of Valparaiso University. He thanks the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation for permission to use the August 15, 2013, interview of Harry Katz that was sponsored by the Foundation.