The Story of Bert Reiner, the Toy Maker, or: An Appreciation of the Individual Experiences of Former Shanghai Jewish Refugees

During the 1983 Christmas season, Coleco Industries, Inc. took the world by storm with a novel concept for a doll:  Each doll was unique and would be adopted by a child.  Reports started to pop up of parents fighting—even trampling—each other in order to get the individualized dolls for their children.[1]  A Christmas sensation swept through the land.  Every kid wanted to “adopt” their unique Cabbage Patch Kid.  The concept of a mass-produced doll based on each being uniquely different posed a challenge for the engineers in charge of the production.  It was one thing to mass produce figures or dolls that were identical; it was entirely different to mass produce dolls that varied by face, eye color, hair color, hair style, and the like.  This was a challenge for the toy maker, Bert Reiner.

In the office of his Las Vegas home, Bert has a framed copy of Newsweek.  On the cover a little girl kisses a red-headed, blue-eyed doll under the title, “What a Doll! The Cabbage Patch Craze.”[2]  Forty years earlier, Bert’s parents had very different concerns than purchasing a doll for their son.  In December 1943 Bert and his parents were living in the Designated Area, also known as “the Ghetto,” that had been set up by the occupying Japanese forces in Shanghai.  The Ghetto was located in the poorest section of a city known for its rampant disease, squalor, and poor sanitation.  The conditions may have been deplorable, but children found ways to adapt and play.  For Bert and his friends, even cigarette boxes were fair game—they folded them into small squares that they flipped in a game called “Packs.”  “Packs” was similar to “Marbles,” another favorite of the refugee children in Shanghai.  The children also tried their luck in a popular knock-off of “Monopoly” called “Shanghai Millionaire.”  The refugees living in the Ghetto were anything but millionaires.  Nevertheless, despite the restricted nature of their existence, they were fortunate in comparison to those friends and relatives who had not joined them in their journeys to Shanghai.

The Reiners were from Dresden, Germany, and like approximately 20,000 other Jewish refugees, they had fled to Shanghai to escape the clutches of Hitler’s Nazi regime.  Bert’s paternal grandfather owned a department store in the city called “Kaufhaus Reiner.”  Bert’s father, Horst, who had been born in Dresden, worked in his father’s department store for a while.  He graduated from the university and then went on to work in the import/export business, primarily in pharmaceuticals and chemicals used in the perfume industry.  Bert describes his father as a “very brilliant” man who had a photographic memory and was proficient in thirteen languages, of which he was fluent in seven.  More importantly, Bert remembers his father as having been his best friend.  When asked about his mother, Gertrude, who went by “Trudy,” Bert says guardedly, “I really don’t have much to say about my mother.”  He offers simply that she was from Frankfurt, had five siblings, and was a homemaker.

Bert’s parents had met at a masquerade party.  They had had a child before Bert, but there were complications with the birth, and the child passed away.  Bert was born in Dresden in 1937.  Horst had wanted to name the boy after his best friend, Norbert Strier.  Trudy objected given the Jewish tradition of naming children only after people who had passed away.  Horst insisted, however, and won out in the end.

During the following year, the persecution of the Jews in Germany reached a new level.  On Kristallnacht of November 9-10, 1938, Jewish-owned businesses, residences, and synagogues were vandalized and destroyed.  Horst’s best friend, Norbert Strier, who had been to Shanghai before and thought it a good haven, suggested that they all go to Shanghai (which was the only port not requiring a visa).  At first, Horst declined, feeling Germany was his rightful home.  Ultimately, after Kristallnacht, he came to the realization that it would be best for the family to leave, and he entrusted Strier with all his money to invest in behalf of the Reiner family.

The family purchased a forty-foot wood container called a “Lift” in order to hold all their furniture and belongings.[3]  As with other Jews who were fleeing the country, the Reiners were only allowed to leave Germany with 10 Marks per person.  In order to try to save the family’s jewelry from the Nazis, Trudy gave it all to the packer of the lift to hide in the furniture before it was shipped.  This would have to be done under strict Nazi scrutiny, and Trudy did not know if the man would actually do this, or keep the jewelry for himself, or turn them in to the Nazis.[4]

The family left Germany from Bremerhaven on the Norddeutscher Lloyd luxury liner, SS Potsdam, in March 1939.  While on board Potsdam, on March 6, 1939, they received the following notice from Captain O. Prehn: “I respectfully request that our non-Aryan German passengers only use the swimming pool and the sports facilities between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.”[5] The ship traveled to Genoa, Italy, through the Suez Canal, and then stopped in Kobe, Japan.  The Reiners contemplated staying in Kobe, Japan, where there were a number of Jews, but decided to continue on to Hong Kong and ultimately Shanghai.[6]

Upon arriving in Shanghai, they moved into a house in the French Concession, which was the nicest neighborhood in the city.  Unfortunately, Horst contracted spinal meningitis soon thereafter, and was not expected to survive.  Trudy thus found herself with a toddler, a gravely ill husband, and in a foreign land where she did not know the language.  She went to Norbert Strier to ask about their money entrusted to him, and learned that it was all gone.  Making matters worse, not a trace of the jewelry she had requested to have hidden in the Reiner furniture could be found.  Fortunately, Horst survived the bout with meningitis.  Nevertheless, Horst and Trudy resolved never to speak to Norbert Strier ever again.  From then on there was only to be one Bert in their lives.

Aboard ship, Horst had become acquainted with a Fritz Wolf, and later a Mr. Fleischmann.  Fleischmann was already established in China and lived most of the time in Harbin, Manchuria.  Together, the three men created an import/export company called Fleischmann Impex Company.  In the period before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and seized control of Shanghai, Horst conducted business on behalf of the company.  But the war put a freeze on the import/export trade and the company lay dormant as a result.  Horst then shifted his focus to helping Jewish organizations secure money and food for the Kitchen Fund, upon which many refugees depended for sustenance.

The Reiners continued to live comfortably in the French Concession until the Japanese issued a proclamation which stipulated that all stateless refugees who had entered after January 1, 1937, had to move into a Designated Area (the Ghetto) in Hongkew.  Fortunately, Horst’s business partner, Fleischmann, owned a villa in Hongkew, and the Reiners were able to move there.  Fleischmann’s house was divided among four families.  The Wolfs and the Reiners lived on the first floor and two Polish Jewish refugee families lived on the second floor.  Bert recalls, “Even though it was a little more crowded than a single-family [dwelling], we lived in luxury in comparison to where all the other refugees did, with hundreds of families per room in a ‘Heim’.”  Most other refugees were crammed into abysmal living quarters within the Ghetto.

The family employed “amahs” (servants) throughout their entire time they lived in Shanghai.  The amahs served as nannies for Bert.  Bert notes “as far as having an amah:  The cost of having Chinese servants was very, very low cost; so having an amah wasn’t a big deal.”  Both of Bert’s parents were very busy in Shanghai.  While living in the Ghetto, Trudy cooked for those who were less fortunate in a charity kitchen.  Although their living arrangements were better than those of most refugees, they were not without problems and worries.  Horst was not able to work; thus, they did not have any income.  Given they had brought from Germany a lot of furniture and personal belongings (including crystal, silverware, and china), they started to sell their possessions and live off the proceeds.  Although they employed amahs, Trudy always did her own cooking.  Thus, Bert remembers growing up having European food rather than Chinese food.  He explains,

“Food was a scarcity.  We, generally, during the war, had an assortment of different beans.  Every conceivable color you can imagine.  People would often ask you what color did you have last night, knowing that it was one color of beans: purple, brown, black, white, or yellow.  We rarely had meat.  I tasted butter the first time when the war ended.  My father bought K-rations from the U.S. Army, and in there they had margarine—synthetic butter—that was the first time I ever had butter.  I remember how excited my parents were to get this stuff that looked and had the texture of rubber; and you had a capsule [with] which you would color the margarine to make it look more like butter.  And this was around Passover, when we had matzos, and I was trying to smear the butter on the matzos, and the matzos would break up, and I couldn’t understand why everybody was so excited to have this butter.  But that wasn’t until the war was over.  I never had milk.  To this day I don’t drink milk.  And so I didn’t have any calcium growing up [or] any fluorides in the water.  Yet my teeth are phenomenally good in spite of that.  We would occasionally go out to restaurants, which [were] generally Chinese.  And so to this day I love Chinese food, and I eat it all the time.”

Conditions in the Ghetto were rather bleak and the future uncertain.  Bert notes that while in Shanghai, his mother had an abortion.  He explains, “You didn’t want to bear and bring up children under these conditions.”  He adds, “most of my mother’s friends either had one child or no children.”

Horst often needed to go outside of the Ghetto and thus needed to get a pass.  Sometimes he got it, sometimes he did not.  Overall, however, he did not encounter too many problems.  Perhaps this was due to Horst’s diminutive stature.  Kanoh Ghoya, (the unstable and often sadistic Japanese official who oversaw the distribution of the passes), was an extremely short man and did not take kindly to tall men, often slapping and humiliating them.

Bert remembers Ghoya coming to his school.  There was a Purim play in which Ghoya sat next to Bert and his parents.  Bert notes that “Ghoya, like many Japanese, loved kids.  I was maybe five years old, and Ghoya jokingly said, ‘would you like a cigarette?’ and he held over a cigarette, and I pushed the cigarette out of his hand, and I said, ‘No, you lousy Jap!’  And my father held his breath.  He thought this was the end of our lives.  And Ghoya just laughed it off.  As tough and cruel as he was, he was still kind to children.”

The school where this transpired was the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, which was also known as the Kadoorie School after its Sephardic Jewish benefactor, Sir Horace Kadoorie.  Bert attended this school while living in the Ghetto.  After the war he attended the Shanghai Jewish School.  He remembers the quality of instruction at both schools being high.   He says he did well in both schools and has a report card that indicates that he was first in his class but also reprimands him for talking too much.  When it came to schoolwork, Horst was always a great help to him.  Bert did not participate very much in sports but did play soccer and swam, his father having taught him the latter.  Bert also liked to box.  He beams when showing off the small silver cup he was awarded for his fists on February 29, 1948.  Bert did not attend a separate Hebrew school, but Hebrew was part of the curriculum of both the schools he attended.

Bert describes his parents as not having been very religious.  Horst came from a family in which his father was Jewish, but his mother was not.  Although Trudy had come from a particularly religious household, she herself was not.  Bert remembers how when they lived in the Fleischmann Villa, the two Polish Jewish families on the second floor were Orthodox and kept kosher, whereas on the first floor the Reiner family did not.  The Reiners did observe holidays, but they did not attend synagogue on a regular basis.  Bert notes that his level of religiosity remained pretty much the same after the family arrived in the United States.  In the years since, the only major change for Bert was that when he married his wife, Sandy, he agreed to keep kosher at their home to honor the wishes of Sandy’s father.

Bert does not remember many interactions with Japanese soldiers.  These soldiers patrolled the area but so, too, did the Jewish self-policing force that was set up known as the Pao Chia.  Horst served in the Pao Chia.  Bert does not remember there being many problems.  In fact, he remembers crime having been kept in check until after the war was over: “It became rampant after the Japanese left.  We had a lot of robberies and murders, which didn’t happen during the war years.  The Japanese really controlled and enforced the people of all nationalities.”  Bert remembers only being with other German, Austrian, and Polish Jews.  After the war he did have more interaction with Russian Jews.  Bert’s best friend was a Russian immigrant.  His friend’s father actually had a car with a driver (which was very unusual).  They picked Bert up every morning and drove him to school.  Bert does not remember any interactions with the British, Americans, French, Italians, or others.

Initially, Bert had an ambivalent attitude toward the Americans, for they had bombed the Ghetto in July 1945.  He quickly overcame these reservations after the war, however, and started to look up to the American soldiers.  Trudy took a pair of her ski pants and made a jacket for Bert with American military badges sewn all over it. Bert wore this jacket with pride.

Overall, Bert believes life after the war was good in Shanghai.  The family moved into a nice fourteen-story apartment house back into the French Concession, Horst resumed work in the import/export business with Europe and the United States, and Bert started to attend the Shanghai Jewish School.  Bert remembers that at this time, “Living was very comfortable.”  But it would not last.  The Communists were closing in.  When the Communists took over the country on October 1, 1949, Horst and Trudy decided it was time to leave.  But Bert was far from happy about this.  Although in the years after the war friends had started to leave Shanghai, there were still friends around, and Bert did not want to leave them.  Leave them he would.  The family applied for a visa to the United States.  Given they had family sponsors and the quota was high for Germans wanting to enter the United States, the Reiners did not have difficulty securing the visa.

The family left Shanghai on October 29, 1949, on the troop transporter, the USS General W. H. Gordon.  Bert slept in the hold of the overcrowded ship with 300 men in triple bunks.  He proceeded to get seasick for 18 of the 19 days of the voyage.  He also had a serious accident in which he hit his head on the steel deck floor and lost consciousness.  All things told, it was not a pleasant voyage for the twelve-year-old.  They arrived in San Francisco, where they stayed for three weeks.  Then they took a train to New York City.  For the first three months they lived in Manhattan and then moved to Queens.  Bert remembers this being a difficult time:  He had just left his friends in Shanghai, had then just started to make new friends in Manhattan, and then had to start over again in Queens.

At school, Bert was put into a class that corresponded with his age (twelve).  Nevertheless, the level of instruction in Shanghai had been so high that he felt that he was much more advanced than his classmates.  Given that he spoke English with a British accent, used a slightly different vocabulary, and tended to pronounce words such as aluminum “AliMEEnium,” Bert says, “Kids laughed at me sometimes.”  Thinking back at the teasing he received he laughs and admits that even his wife, Sandy, still makes fun of him from time to time.  Bert eventually attended Brooklyn Technical High School (Brooklyn Tech) and thus had to commute via subway each day from Queens.  He did not participate in sports or other activities, focusing instead on his studies.  Overall, he believes he received an excellent education at Brooklyn Tech.

Trudy spoke primarily German and had spoken almost no English before coming to the United States.  After they arrived, Horst anglicized his name to Horace and enticed Trudy to learn English.  Despite the discrepancy in their English skills, the transition to American life was easier for Trudy than Horace.  Horace was simply overqualified and thus found it difficult to find a job.  He eventually took a course to become a stockbroker.  Unfortunately, he died shortly thereafter from cancer, at age fifty.  Trudy, on the other hand, lived a long, good life in the United States, passing away on her 102 birthday.

Bert remembers learning about the horrors of the Holocaust through the newspaper Aufbau in New York: “People read the newspaper continuously to find out who survived and who didn’t, and it was a continuous shock.  It was hard to believe.  Throughout the war we had no idea what was going on in Europe. [My parents] were always very concerned.  And it took a long time to find out what really happened.”  Trudy had come from a family of six children.   She had had a brother who had passed away but whose death was not related to the Holocaust.  Another brother had a wife with family living in the United States and moved there.  One of her sisters moved to New York with her husband.  Another sister was a Zionist and moved to Israel.  Trudy’s father and her youngest sister stayed in Germany and were ultimately killed in a concentration camp in Austria.  It was not until a few years ago, when Bert visited Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem), that he was able to find out where and when his grandfather and aunt were killed.

Horst’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law stayed in Dresden and survived the war.  Horst’s mother was Lutheran but converted to Judaism, but when the war started she converted back to Christianity and was thus able to survive.  Horst’s father, on the other hand, was Jewish and was sent first to Sachsenhausen and then Theresienstadt concentration camps.   He survived the war and came to the United States.  Unfortunately, he died six months before Bert and his parents arrived here.  It was not until well after the war had ended that Bert’s father was able to communicate with his mother and sister.  He went to visit them once in East Germany, but was not happy to be back in Germany and never spoke much about the subject.

Bert noted that he would speak with his parents more about Shanghai than of Germany:

“My father was almost ashamed of being a German.  You know, we got to keep in mind that Germany was probably the most culturally and technologically advanced country in the world.  People all over the world respected the Germans much more so than anyone else.  And yet they [the Germans] treated us [the Jews] the way they did.”

They talked more about Shanghai.  Bert was only a year old when the family left Germany.  He was 12 years old when they left Shanghai.  So he simply had more to talk about with his family with respect to Shanghai.

After graduating from Brooklyn Tech, Bert went to college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he met his wife, Sandy.  He started his career at Sikorsky Aircraft, which was not an enjoyable experience.  He then took a job at a company called Soundscriber.  He wanted to work with plastics, so it was suggested that he should work at a toy company.  He decided to do so, and over the next few decades he worked for three toy companies in succession:  A.C. Gilbert, Ideal Toy, and Coleco Industries, Inc.  Since March 1988, he has served as the president of his own company, Reiner Associates, which does consulting work for the toy industry.

Bert says that for many decades he did not talk much about Shanghai and his experiences there, “partly because I didn’t think people were really that interested.  Many people didn’t even know where Shanghai was.”  He says he also had not spoken with many other former refugees about this history.  This is simply due to the fact that he does not know many of them.  Although there have been many reunions of “Shanghailanders” over the years, he says he was not contacted about any of them.  He is sorry to have missed them and would very much like to attend such a reunion in the future.

In 2009 he created a DVD about his Shanghai experience titled My Shanghai Memoirs.  He says, “It was primarily for our children and grandchildren so that they would understand about my experience.”  Since making the DVD, he has been asked to speak about Shanghai publicly in both Connecticut and Las Vegas, presenting to various Jewish and genealogy groups.  Often at such gatherings he screens his DVD, a copy of which he donated to Yad Vashem.  Regarding the response he and his film has received, Bert says “Well, generally, I find that people are somewhat awed about this whole experience because they never heard of it.  A lot of people know about the Holocaust, know about ghettos and concentration camps in Europe but never thought of anything as having been experienced in Shanghai.”

Bert researched the topic for about a year before making the film.  He started reading many of the memoirs that have been written by survivors and he watched some of the documentaries, including the film Shanghai Ghetto, which was produced by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann in 2002.  While conducting his research, Bert was struck by how each person’s story was unique: “Well, it’s interesting.  Every book that I’ve read has told the story from a different angle.”

As he talks about making his film, it becomes clear that the inspiration had come from his best friend, his father.  Not too long after the Reiners arrived in the United States, Bert turned thirteen years old.  As Bert prepared for his Bar Mitzvah, his father worked every night compiling a book of memorabilia for his son.  In addition to including various items and photographs, Horace wrote his thoughts on every page.  When Bert completed his Bar Mitzvah, Horace presented him with the book and a bicycle: “At thirteen years old that book held no interest to me.  It was only the bicycle.  That bike had rusted and is long gone; but that book I still cherish.”  With his DVD, Bert has given his children and grandchildren something infinitely more valuable than any bicycle.

The message he wishes to convey to his children, grandchildren, and others, is that Shanghai was a great haven during the Holocaust.  He says, “It was one of the few success stories that came out of the Holocaust.”  He considers himself a Holocaust survivor, but says that his experience in no way compares to those people who had remained in Europe.  He says if his father had not had the “fortitude and foresight of going and leaving the country—which must have been very difficult,” they most likely would not have survived.

Bert also believes there is an important message to be found in the story of the packer whom Trudy had entrusted with the family’s jewelry.  When she so desperately needed her jewels, with Horst stricken with meningitis and the family’s money squandered by Norbert Strier, Trudy could not find them.  They thought the packer must have kept the jewels for himself.  Two years later, however, when Horst and Trudy were hosting a dinner at their apartment, the lights went out.  They had to call an electrician and “as he was taking the chandelier apart, there was every piece of jewelry in the arms of the chandelier, not a thing was missing.”  When thinking about the packer who had done this despite being a complete stranger, Bert says, “Here this guy risked his life by doing what he did for us, so he was, you know, a good German.”  When confronted with the history of the Holocaust and the Second World War, it is important to remember that there were numerous such stories of successful escape because of the goodness of such individuals.

Currently, Bert and Sandy split their time between homes in Connecticut and Las Vegas.  One of the prized possessions that Bert keeps in his Las Vegas home is a one-of-a-kind prototype of an Asian Cabbage Patch Kid.  Perhaps the doll is a reminder of how fortunate Bert’s life has been in his adopted home.  He says, “I appreciate America more than most American-born Americans.”  The doll is also a reminder that in history there is never one size that fits all and no assembly line for lived human experience.


Professor Kevin Ostoyich is currently serving as a Visiting Fellow at AICGS and was previously a Visiting Fellow in Summer 2017.  He is chair of the Department of History at Valparaiso University (Valparaiso, IN). His research on the history of the Shanghai Jews is being sponsored by a research grant of the Sino-Judaic Institute (http://www.sino-judaic.org) and the Wheat Ridge Ministries – O.P. Kretzmann Memorial Fund Grant of Valparaiso University. In addition to these institutions, Professor Ostoyich would like to thank Dean Jon T. Kilpinen of Valparaiso University’s College of Arts & Sciences for his support. The article is based on an interview conducted on October 27, 2017, in Las Vegas, NV.  Further details, clarifications, and minor alterations to quotations were provided subsequently by Bert Reiner in correspondence with Kevin Ostoyich.

[1] See, for example, Otto Friedrich’s “The Strange Cabbage Patch Craze,” in Time, December 12, 1983.  A store manager in Charleston, West Virginia, described one such Christmas Cabbage Patch mob: “They knocked over the display table.  People were grabbing at each other, pushing and shoving.” The article can be accessed online at http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,921419,00.html.

[2] Newsweek, December 12, 1983.

[3] Bert Reiner, My Shanghai Memoirs, DVD, March 2009.

[4] Bert Reiner, My Shanghai Memoirs, DVD, March 2009.

[5] The document is written in German and is part of Bert Reiner’s personal possessions.  The document is shown in Bert Reiner, My Shanghai Memoirs, DVD, March 2009.  The original German reads:  “Ich bitte unsere nichtarischen deutschen Passagiere höflichst, das Schwimmbad und die Sportgelegenheiten nur in der Zeit von 10 bis 15 Uhr benutzen zu wollen.”

[6] Bert Reiner, My Shanghai Memoirs, DVD, March 2009.  The Jews in Kobe, Japan were later sent to Shanghai as well.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
Kevin Ostoyich

Kevin Ostoyich

Valparaiso University

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 Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Valparaiso University. He holds his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and his A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. He has served as a Research Associate at the Harvard Business School and an Erasmus Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. Prior to moving to Valparaiso, he taught at the University of Montana. He has published on issues of German migration, German-American studies, and 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 is interviewing former Shanghai Jewish refugees and conducting research at the National Archives at College Park, MD. 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.

Click here for an article by Ostoyich on the Shanghai Jews.

Click here for an article by Ostoyich on the Shanghai Jews.

He is currently applying the finishing touches to the articles “Of a Bread-loaf Missile: The Shaming of Brooklyn’s 13th Regiment of the National Guard during the Spanish-American War” (American Nineteenth Century History) and “A Tale of Emigrants, Priests, Nuns, and Gestapo Agents: The Experiences of Johann Friedrich, Catholic Emigration Agent in Hamburg, 1911-41” (Catholic Historical Review).