The Unbroken Past: From Germany to Shanghai to San Francisco

Kurt and Jeannette Nothenberg lived comfortably in the middle class in Germany raising their only child, Rudy.  Following Kristallnacht, Kurt was arrested and sent to Buchenwald, but was later released on the condition that he leave the country immediately.  The family left by train to Genoa, where they embarked on a journey by sea to Shanghai.  Given that refugees did not need to have a visa to enter Shanghai, the city became an unlikely haven as the countries of the world put up paper walls to keep out the Jewish refugees.  Approximately 16,000 to 18,000 refugees escaped the Holocaust in Shanghai.  Based on interviews with Rudy Nothenberg, in conjunction with his unpublished memoir, documents from the Bremen State Archives, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Unbroken Past” chronicles the Nothenberg family’s time in Shanghai, as well as the complex story of how Rudy, Jeannette, and Kurt each made it to the United States in succession. The Nothenberg family’s refugee history is a timely one, given the present rise in xenophobia and anti-Semitism in the United States.

Read the stories of other Shanghai Jews

Clean Breaks

Rudy Nothenberg likes clean breaks.[1]  His experience as a Jewish refugee in Shanghai started to recede into the past the day he left the city for the United States.  He states matter-of-factly, “It was a new life, and I was looking forward and began to live it.”  Rudy arrived in San Francisco as a headstrong, independent sixteen-year-old.  He managed to keep the break with Shanghai clean for close to seventy years.  Then something happened.  A man full of anti-Semitic hatred walked into the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and started shooting.  Among the victims that day was the belief that what was past was past, and what is present is present.  That clean, temporal break had become unbroken.

In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, Rudy found himself thinking much more about his German past and, specifically, about his mother.

In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, Rudy found himself thinking much more about his German past and, specifically, about his mother.  He started to think about what his mother would have thought if she had heard that something so heinous—something so reminiscent of the Nazi past—had come to pass in the American present.  Rudy found himself sitting in front of his computer, plugging his mother’s name—Jeannette Nothenberg—into Google.  He did not find much, but as he continued to search, he eventually found the name Kurt Nothenberg—his father.  The name appeared in an article with the title “Back on Straw.”  The article chronicled a little-known story within a larger, but still, little-known story.  It was about 106 refugees, who were spurned by the United States and sent to Bremen, Germany, in 1950.  These refugees had landed in San Francisco from Shanghai, China, where they had found haven from the Holocaust with some 16,000 to 18,000 others.

Rudy, having rarely spoken to anyone about his now unbroken past, decided to contact the historian of the “Back on Straw” piece and tell his story.  The following is Rudy’s unbroken past, and the message it conveys informs our present and future.

Indefatigable

Rudolf Nothenberg was born in Schweidnitz, Germany (present-day widnica, Poland) near Breslau (present-day Wrocław, Poland) to Kurt and Jeannette (neé Cohn) on October 12, 1932.  Jeannette was born in Silesia as an only child on November 10, 1903.[2]  Both of her parents died when she was relatively young.  Rudy believes that one of Jeannette’s parents died during the influenza epidemic at the end of the First World War in either 1918 or 1919.[3]  Soon thereafter, Jeannette went to a secretarial school and eventually moved to Breslau.  There she started to work in a haberdashery owned by Max Nothenberg.  It was at the haberdashery that she met Max Nothenberg’s son, Kurt, who was also working at the store.  The two coworkers fell in love, much to the chagrin of Max, who thought Jeannette socially beneath the upper-middle-class Nothenbergs.  The handsome Kurt—who was about a year younger than Jeannette, having been born in Breslau on October 16, 1904—obviously did not agree with his father and married Jeannette.  In 1932, Jeannette gave birth to her only child, Rudy.  Rudy believes that his mother did not resume working at the haberdashery after his birth.  Kurt and Jeannette lived comfortably in the middle class and were able to employ servants, including a nanny for their son.  Rudy remembers his parents loving music and his father playing the violin.  His mother had a life-long love of literature and the arts.  Although he does not have many memories of Germany, he does know that his father took him to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

Two years later, Breslau—like countless cities and towns throughout Germany—was a site of Kristallnacht.  Whereas Max Nothenberg had been tipped off and managed to escape arrest, Kurt was not as lucky.  He was rounded up with other Jews and sent to Buchenwald.  At the time, Jews could be released from concentration camps on the condition that they leave Germany immediately upon release.  Jeannette learned that Jews could flee to Shanghai and worked on making the necessary arrangements in order to get Kurt released and the family out of the country. Kurt remained incarcerated in Buchenwald for one month and six days, being released on either December 14 or 15, 1938.  During his time in the concentration camp, Kurt contracted lung disease.[4]  This perhaps was the beginning of his struggle with tuberculosis.  Rudy remembers his father being hardly recognizable when he returned from Buchenwald.  Throughout the country in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, Jewish businesses were “Aryanized”—i.e., were taken away from Jews and given to non-Jewish Germans.  Rudy’s father had to relinquish the haberdashery.  Germany presented no future to the Nothenberg family.

Kurt, Jeannette, and Rudy left Germany by train to Genoa and journeyed to Shanghai on the Conte Biancamano.  Rudy remembers the Conte Biancamano in very positive terms.  Although his father had recently been mistreated in Buchenwald, Rudy recalls his father enjoying the voyage greatly.  Rudy also vividly remembers how splendid the food was on board the ship.  Ever resourceful, ever indefatigable—the word Rudy believes best describes his mother—Jeannette set out to start learning English and shorthand during the journey in preparation for the new life in Shanghai.

Rudy distinctly remembers arriving in Shanghai: “It was pandemonium on the docks, the overdressed refugees being beset by coolies, rickshaw drivers, and beggars.  […] Ultimately we, along with whatever luggage we had brought, were loaded on the back of some trucks provided by one of the various Jewish Relief Committees and taken to a processing center.”[5]  The family immediately found shelter at one of the Heime, the cramped barracks-style housing for the most impoverished refugees.  After staying only a few days at the Heim, they moved to an apartment in the run-down Hongkew district.

At some point that winter, Jeannette started working for one of the many relief organizations in the city, and her pay served as the primary means of support for the family.  Kurt tried “to establish a business selling bolts of imported fine wool to the many tailors serving the international community—there was no ‘off-the-rack’ clothing then.  This was a business that he attempted to continue throughout the war years and after.”[6]  Overall, Kurt was not very successful.  Rudy remembers Jeannette being the main force in the family.  Regarding Kurt, Rudy reflects, “my impressions, fair or not, are that as the son of and at least until 1939, under the control of, a domineering father, he was a weak, and certainly in comparison to my mother, ineffectual man.”[7]  For a time, the family all did piece-work in their apartment, “taking medicinal tablets that came in bulk and hand counting them out to refill into smaller retail size containers.”[8]

Meanwhile, Jeannette worked on trying to arrange for her father-in-law to come to Shanghai as well.  This was no easy feat.  Max Nothenberg had fought in the First World War and was a successful merchant.  He was intensely proud of being German and would not leave his fatherland lightly.  Ultimately, the indefatigable Jeannette won the battle of wills, and Max made the journey to Shanghai—Rudy believes in late 1940—going by land through the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  Thus, the proud veteran and haberdasher most likely owed his life to the woman whom he had deemed beneath his family.  Whether or not he saw it that way will forever remain an open question:  The relationship between father-in-law and daughter-in-law remained cool.[9]

The Nothenbergs attended shul on the High Holidays and fasted for Yom Kippur in Shanghai.  Nevertheless, Rudy does not describe his family as having been particularly religious. He claims, “devout, we were not.”  He believes his father was probably a little more religious than his mother.  He remembers that women and men were kept separate during the services at the orthodox synagogue and thinks this “may account for the less than avid attendance on the part of my mother.”[10]  Although the family was not particularly devout, Rudy did celebrate his Bar Mitzvah in Shanghai.[11]  Rudy recalls the event primarily, “as something to get over with as soon as possible (I was accused of having given the fastest reading of my Haftora portion ever given) and for a later drunken party for the adults—whose occasion it seemed to be much more so than it was mine.”[12]

In Shanghai, Rudy attended the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School (also known as the Kadoorie School after its main benefactor, Horace Kadoorie).  Kadoorie was a wealthy Sephardic Jewish businessman.  The Sephardic Jewish community had established itself in Shanghai during the latter half of the nineteenth century and used their considerable wealth to help the Jewish refugees from Europe who entered Shanghai in great numbers in the late 1930s.  Rudy explains that the school was in a U-shape, and was based on the British system of forms.  English was the language of instruction.  Rudy remembers at a certain point being forced to learn Japanese as well.  Students started the first form at one end of the U, and, over the years, made their way to the other end.  At the base of the U, there was an auditorium, and outside, in the open space of the U, students played sports.  Rudy remembers enjoying soccer and other sports, but he did not excel in athletics.  Rudy preferred reading and writing.  Despite such proclivities, he claims, with a laugh, that he was definitely not a model student.  He attributes this to being always rather headstrong.  He says, “I was arrogant enough to decide what I was going to be interested in….I loved history, I loved English, I loved literature, and cared little for anything else.”

He remembers when the USS Wake was commandeered by the Japanese and the British ship HMS Peterel was scuttled in the harbor at the Bund on the morning of December 8, 1941.  “The Pacific war began for us some two months after I turned nine and ended two months before I would turn thirteen and, as callous as it may sound, did not initially seem to much change life as I experienced and remember it.”[13]  The war did have a definite effect on Rudy’s parents, however:  It halted Kurt’s wool business and made the relief work for Jeannette more difficult.  Rudy remembers, though, that for a while the Japanese occupation forces “left us pretty much alone.”[14]  On February 18, 1943, this changed:  The Japanese occupation forces proclaimed that all stateless refugees who had entered the city after January 1, 1937, had to move into a Designated Area within the Hongkew section of the city within a few months.  The proclamation applied to the Nothenberg family.  Although the apartment they were living in was in Hongkew, it was outside of the Designated Area.  Thus, they had to move.

With the setting up of the Designated Area, the movement of the Jewish refugees was restricted and only refugees who had been granted a pass from the sadistic Japanese official Kanoh Ghoya could exit what has become known as the “Shanghai Ghetto.”  Rudy remembers this being particularly difficult and traumatic for his father.  During the time the Designated Area was in effect, resources became increasingly scarce.  The family did not go hungry, but struggled with the cold:  “I remember and can still almost feel […] the inability to keep warm in the bitter winters—I still hate being cold which I always associate with poverty.”[15]  Money was definitely in scant supply in the Designated Area, and Rudy remembers he and the other children scavenging for anything containing lead, such as old toothpaste tubes, to be melted down and sold as bars to the Japanese.

The family took shelter as the Americans started bombing the outskirts of the city in 1944.  Rudy recalls “being delighted each time there was a loud explosion indicating a target being hit.”  He also remembers the Japanese anti-aircraft batteries and how one time after an air-raid he found that a 5-inch piece of flak shrapnel had burst through the window and was lying on his bed.  Like most refugees, Rudy remembers when, on July 17, 1945, the Americans accidentally bombed the Designated Area.  He also remembers hearing later that a “super bomb” had been dropped on Japan.[16]

Food was a problem for the family: “It was difficult.  My mother worked and had an income…which…provided for us the opportunity to live not in a Heim, but in a rental unit. […] Nobody ever starved.  I don’t think there was a great deal of variety in the menu.”  He describes the cooking: “You had a five-gallon can, which was lined with clay, and you put paper and wood underneath it.”  Given that Rudy had picked up enough of the patois to communicate, he did most of the shopping.  Incidentally, Rudy still enjoys going grocery shopping today.

Troop 13

Most of Rudy’s memories of Shanghai are of the time after the war.  He remembers the subsequent arrival of American sailors in Shanghai.  “I remember spending a lot of time on the wharves with the American victory ships and admiring the sailors—the Navy guys—who sort of adopted this bunch of wild kids, [these] Europeans [whom] they found incomprehensively in China.”  He says he and the other kids had “free run of those ships.  And we came home with all kinds of food, stuff we had never seen and didn’t even know existed: Spam, canned butter, and God knows what.”  He remembers that, for years after the end of the war, the food that was given to them by the Americans constituted a considerable amount of their subsistence.

Courtesy of Rudy Nothenberg

Rudy became the editor-in-chief of the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School’s newspaper.  He says it was easy to be the “editor-in-chief” because there were no other editors.  He joined both the Boy Scouts and the Zionist youth movement known at the Betar in 1946.  Of the latter, he recalls, “I think I joined ‘Betar’ more out of loneliness than conviction and I must have dropped out rather quickly.  Other than a group photograph that I still have, I don’t remember any activities in which I may have participated.”[17]  The Boy Scouts was a different story.  He participated in the Scouts with both enthusiasm and enjoyment.  The Scouts in Shanghai was based on the British model.  He took to the discipline of the Scouts, and eventually became a King Scout.  One of the benefits of the Scouts was that it allowed Rudy to get out of the city and to a recreational camp in the countryside.  Many recreational activities organized by the Scouts took place in Pudong—today a major commercial center with skyscrapers, but at the time vast farmland.  The Scouts became the main focus of Rudy’s social and recreational life.  He fondly remembers his troop leader, Eric Bergtraum.  He even reconnected with Bergtraum in San Francisco soon after arriving in the United States, but then lost track of him until he saw his obituary many years later.  Looking back, he says that Bergtraum, “became a very good friend to me.  I saw him as a mentor, because he was successful at being a Scout. […] He was a very sweet guy.”  For Rudy, the Boy Scouts was an overwhelmingly positive aspect of his Shanghai years: “It provided very intense friendships with other Scouts and a huge amount of activity.  There must have been something every week, every weekend, of some kind.”

While in Shanghai, Kurt became increasingly sick with tuberculosis. Jeannette continued to work for the Jewish relief organization until the end of the war, when she started working for the U.S. Armed Forces Educational Service.  After this she took a job with the American firm William Hunt & Co., which represented manufacturers exporting primarily machine tools, and competed for contracts in China.  In 1948, Rudy got a job with the company as well.  His job consisted mainly in providing catalogues and manuals that were submitted with contract bids.

Separate Journeys

The family’s hopes to leave Shanghai for the United States were hampered by Kurt’s tuberculosis.  In 1949, it was decided that Max and Rudy would leave for the United States and Jeannette would stay behind with Kurt. Grandfather and grandson journeyed to the United States on the troop transporter USS General M. C. Meigs; they arrived in March of 1949.  Rudy clearly remembers “passing under the Golden Gate Bridge and seeing the city for the first time; all whites and pastels set against the green hills—love at first sight.”[18]  While in Shanghai, Rudy’s grandfather had felt it beneath him to learn English.  Thus, it fell to Rudy to make arrangements upon arrival in San Francisco.  As Rudy remembers it: “He was supposed to take care of me.  I think I took care of him more than he took care of me.”  Shortly after arriving, Max became immersed in a refugee community and found a girlfriend.  At that point, grandfather and grandson went their separate ways.  In the ensuing years, Max Nothenberg became religiously devout, married the girlfriend in San Francisco, and then when she died, he wed for a third time.  Rudy had little to do with his grandfather and does not remember when he died.[19]  Rudy sums up his relationship with the only grandparent he ever knew succinctly: “I was living my own selfish life, and he was living his own selfish life.”

In order to enter the United States, Rudy had been sponsored by a farmer in Iowa; thus, Rudy was supposed to leave San Francisco for the Hawkeye State.  This was simply not something the headstrong sixteen-year-old was going to do.  After splitting from his grandfather, Rudy spent the next few months sharing a room on Baker Street with a schoolmate friend from Shanghai named Ted.  Despite the company, Rudy remembers being lonely. He was a lonely and headstrong sixteen-year-old.  He remembers searching “help wanted” ads and, due to his lack of resources, remembers making free “tomato soup” from hot water and catsup at the cafeteria in the Flood Building.[20]  About eight to nine months after he had landed, his mother arrived in San Francisco.  Ted and Rudy parted ways, and Rudy and Jeannette moved into third-floor rooms in a Victorian house on Fulton Street.

Jeannette and Kurt Nothenberg embracing at the Oakland Train Depot.  Picture from the San Francisco Call Bulletin, May 23, 1950. Courtesy Rudy Nothenberg.

Jeannette had had to leave Kurt in Shanghai; he was not permitted to come to the United States due to his tuberculosis.  Eventually, Kurt was one of the 106 refugees granted special permission to leave Shanghai due to the fall of China to communism.  The group arrived in San Francisco in the spring of 1950.  Kurt, along with the other refugees, was immediately put on a bus to the Oakland Train Depot, where they boarded a train that sent them across the country to New York.  Rudy describes how father and the other refugees were “herded around like prisoners.”  Jeannette had gone to the train station and thus got to see him briefly on the platform.

Oakland Train Depot. Courtesy Rudy Nothenberg.

When Kurt and the other refugees arrived in New York, they were shipped to Ellis Island, where they had to await word of whether they would be permitted to stay in the country.  The press caught wind of the plight of the 106 refugees and various members of the U.S. Congress started to advocate that they be allowed to stay in the country.  On May 26, 1950, a resolution was drafted in the U.S. Senate, which stated in part, “That, in the administration of the immigration laws, certain Shanghai displaced persons, whose names are listed on the attached schedule A who arrived in the United States on May 23, 1950, shall be allowed to remain in the United States until the close of the second session of the Eighty-first Congress to permit a determination as to their eligibility for visas under such displaced-persons legislation as shall at that time be in effect.”[21]

Ultimately, the attempts to win admittance for the 106 refugees failed.  On June 19, 1950, Chairman Emanuel Celler of the Committee on the Judiciary of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Ernst G. Elguther and Dr. Hugo Lewinsohn, who were acting as the leaders of the group of the Shanghai Jewish refugees on Ellis Island.  In the letter Celler claimed that he had done everything he could do and would continue to do so but noted that their case was “a very intricate one, and it can be necessary that the refugees be transferred to some country to await admission into the United States.  Of this, however, you can be sure—that any such transfer will be a temporary one which will result in final entrance into the United States under the Displaced Persons Act recently signed by the President.”  Celler noted that he had spoken with President Truman about the Shanghai Group and that the President was “most sympathetic” to their plight.[22]  The next day the Shanghai Group received a cable from U.S. Senator Herbert H. Lehman as they waited on Ellis Island:

I UNDERSTAND YOU ARE ENROUTE TO IRO CAMPS IN GERMANY.  I KNOW THE TENSIONS TO WHICH YOU HAVE BEEN EXPOSED AND THE SUFFERINGS YOU HAVE ENDURED IN PAST YEARS.  ARRANGEMENTS HAVE BEEN MADE FOR THOSE WHO ARE ELIGIBILE UNDER OUR LAWS TO RETURN TO THE UNITED STATES AFTER PROPER SCREENING.  MEANWHILE YOU WILL BE CARED FOR BY IRO AND U S VOLUNTARY AGENCIES.[23]

Kurt Nothenberg and the other Shanghai refugees were placed on the General Sturgis and sent across the Atlantic to Germany.  They landed in Bremerhaven on July 1, 1950.  They were then transported to the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen.

In Bremen the members of the Shanghai Group were housed in a transport depot with minimal furnishings. Their arrival in Germany had been arranged by President Harry Truman and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer; the destination of Bremen had been agreed upon by Adenauer and the Bremen mayor, Wilhelm Kaisen.  Originally, it was thought the Shanghai Jews would stay in Bremen no longer than three months, and, according to the arrangement, the Free Hansa City of Bremen would handle 30 percent of the costs of accommodating the Shanghai Group and the Federal Republic of Germany would pick up the remaining 70 percent.  Those initial three months came and went, as did many months more; as they waited and waited, the Jewish refugees in Bremen started to ask awkward questions about restitution payments; moreover, the issue of the Shanghai Jews started to travel through a bureaucratic maze, with various agencies within the Bremen government and federal government denying responsibility.[24]

On July 1, 1951, a year after the General Sturgis had arrived in Bremerhaven with the Shanghai Group of 106 refugees, 19 of the refugees once again boarded the General Sturgis to return to the United States.  One of the 19 who was back on the General Sturgis—Dagobert Lewithan, who, like Kurt Nothenberg, had been incarcerated in a concentration camp—wrote at the time of the journey:

“On board this ship there is a group of human beings, who have crossed the Atlantic by ‘General Sturgis’ already once.  They are 19 members of the “Shanghai-Group of 106 Refugees formerly on Ellis Island.”  They escaped Nazi terror for Shanghai/China in 1939, took in April 1950 the first chance to flee Communism now, and via San Francisco they reached by train thru the American Continent New York at the end of May 1950.  The attempt and the goodwill of American Authorities and several organizations to grant this unlucky persons the immediate legal immigration to the States failed by law-limitations.  After a stay of 3 ½ weeks on Ellis Island the 106 sailed on the ‘General Sturgis’ to Germany and arrived in Bremerhaven on July 1st, 1950.

Exactly the same day, on July 1st, 1951, leaving Germany on the same ‘General Sturgis,’ the following members of the ‘Shanghai-Group’ are travelling towards their final destination, awaited by their longing wives, parents, children and relatives[.]”[25]

Kurt Nothenberg, still battling tuberculosis, was not on the ship.

Rudy remembers the extent to which his mother was consumed by the quest to get her husband back to the United States.  “If there was anything that could have been done, or should have been done, or might have been done, or would be remotely possible to get done, she would have been involved.”  He laughs and says that his mother was “a determined woman.”

Eventually, Jeannette was able to get the National Jewish Hospital in Denver to accept Kurt as a patient.  With this acceptance, Kurt was finally allowed to make the journey to the United States, the country he and his family had wanted to go to immediately after his release from Buchenwald back in December 1938.  Now, some fourteen years later, the paper walls had finally come down for Kurt Nothenberg.

Kurt went directly to Denver and was admitted into the hospital, where he underwent many surgeries on his weakened lungs.  Jeannette was employed in San Francisco and did not move to Denver.  Rudy estimates that his father was in Denver for a year or more.  During this time, Rudy made one visit to his father in the hospital.  Although he had not seen his father in years, the thing that sticks out most about the visit is that it occasioned Rudy’s first flight on an airplane.  He remembers little else.  As Rudy thinks back, he admits being a somewhat callous youth at the time, and says, “It was not a highly emotional reunion.  If it were, I probably would remember it more.”

After Kurt was released from the National Jewish Hospital, he moved from Denver to San Francisco.  Kurt and Jeannette then lived together in San Francisco for another eight or nine years.  At first, Kurt tried to establish a business selling imported quality gloves, but ultimately his health did not permit him to do so.  Jeannette continued to work and Rudy believes his parents were happy despite his father being very frail and being bedridden with an oxygen tank for the last few years.  Rudy sums up his father’s fate simply: “He was never healthy again.”  Kurt Nothenberg passed away in 1961.

Kurt and Jeannette in later years. Courtesy Rudy Nothenberg.

Rudy had moved out on his own by the time his father arrived from Denver.  Above all else, he remembers his transition to life in the United States as being a lonely one.  He says, “I was very lonely until I found a something to belong to, or get involved with. […] I tried to go to school, that didn’t work out too well.”  The first job he got was to be a bookkeeper for Rainbow Painting and Decorating.  The bookkeeping turned out to be little more than washing brushes, so he did not stay long.  He went to the Jewish Community Relations Board, which helped arrange interviews with Jewish companies.  Through this route he landed a job working for the wholesale grocery and liquor distilling company Haas Brothers.  He worked there moving up until he was recruited by a competitor known as Tiedemann & McMorran.

Rudy started to get involved in politics shortly after arriving in the United States.  “My first awareness of politics was in the warehouse…where I was doing inventory for Haas Brothers, where the union was involved in the senatorial campaign of Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas.”  This would have been in 1950.  He then became interested in Adlai Stevenson and volunteered for his 1952 presidential campaign.  It was through his political volunteer work that Rudy met and fell in love with Laura Woods.

In April 1951, Rudy joined the National Guard.  Rudy claims that he did so in order to avoid being drafted.  He quickly moved up the ranks to Sergeant First Class.  After receiving three deferments, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in March 1954.  After completing his basic training, Rudy and Laura were married on June 1.  Rudy then served in the Army until March 18, 1956.  He believes he was very fortunate to have been stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco.  This allowed him to work on a part-time basis at Tiedemann & McMorran.  He enjoyed serving and believes his participation in the Boy Scouts had provided him excellent preparation for the Army.  While serving in the military, Rudy became a citizen of the United States of America.  The naturalization process had been sped up on account of his service to his new country.

Starting in 1959 he attended night classes at Golden Gate College, and in November 1963 he passed the Certified Public Accountant Examination.  In 1965 he was asked to teach classes at the College and for the next twenty-two years did so as an adjunct professor.  With respect to politics, Philip Burton became Rudy’s mentor, and Rudy immersed himself in the Young Democrats movement.  Rudy busied himself running campaigns at local, regional, and then senatorial and presidential level.  His work in politics picked up considerably in 1964, when he ran the successful state legislature campaign for Willie L. Brown and then accompanied Brown to Sacramento.  Rudy and Brown forged a very close relationship; the two even, at one time, shared a desk while working together in the office of the attorney and civil rights activist Terry Francios.[26]  One of Rudy’s proudest accomplishments in his many years working with Brown was the successful introduction and passage of the Consenting Adult Sex Bill (Assembly Bill 489), which took many years from its initial introduction in the California State Legislature until it came into effect as law.  In 1966, Rudy was appointed as a State Inheritance Tax Appraiser and briefly worked in this capacity.  He then walked into the hornet’s nest of racial tension and student-administration battles at San Francisco State College (now University).  There Rudy served as the Executive Director of the San Francisco State College Foundation, which, in addition to managing the student fees, ran the Campus Bookstore, cafeteria, and on-campus dorms.  Rudy witnessed sit-ins, police beatings of students, and a revolving door of administrative turnover.  From 1970 to 1974, he served as Chief of Staff of the California Assembly Ways & Means Committee.  He then was asked to assist George Moscone’s campaign for San Francisco mayor in 1975.  After the successful campaign, Rudy served as Deputy Mayor for Mayor Moscone.  In this capacity, Rudy supervised the budget for the city.  In November 1978 it was Rudy who found Moscone after he had been shot by ex-San Francisco Supervisor Dan White.  Rudy stayed on to work for Dianne Feinstein, who became mayor in the aftermath of the assassination.[27]  Rudy continued to work as Deputy Mayor under Feinstein until 1983.  Rudy has maintained an intimate friendship with Feinstein and her husband, Richard C. Blum, for many decades.

Over the years, Rudy served in various administrative roles in San Francisco, including General Manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities, Chief Administrative Officer of the City and County of San Francisco, Head of the Economic Development team for Mayor Willie L. Brown, and President of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Commission.  Two achievements in recent years of which he is particularly proud are his respective roles in helping get the Giants Stadium constructed in its current location and the development of a new community in Mission Bay along with a new campus for the University of California Medical School.[28]  Most recently—from 2015 to 2018—he  presided over the San Francisco Port Commission Working Group, which was developing an updated Land Use Plan for San Francisco’s waterfront.  Reflecting on his career in politics, he says that he has been a progressive liberal as long as he can remember, and has been driven particularly by issues of racial, ethnic, and economic justice issues.  Whether his politics is rooted in his refugee experience, he cannot say.

During these years Rudy rarely looked back on the past.  For example, he does not remember ever talking about Shanghai with his father in the years Kurt lived in San Francisco.  There were two aspects of the past that did penetrate the temporal wall, however.  The first was the fact that loved ones had perished in the Holocaust.  But this seemed to have more immediacy for Rudy’s parents than for Rudy, himself, because he had only been six years old when the family left for Shanghai.  He says, “I remember that an effort was made to find out if anyone had survived.  There were lists published…and there were a number of agencies. […] My mother obviously knew how to do that.  We could find no record of anyone having survived.  But we did not have a huge family left there [when we left], so I don’t know who it would have been that they were hunting for.”  Rudy notes that his father’s sister, Margot, who was the person to whom his mother was the closest, had found haven in South America.  Margot had been politically active on the left in Germany and sensed the danger earlier than the rest of her family.  She fled Germany a few years before Kurt, Jeannette, Rudy, and Max.  Rudy says that in the years after establishing herself in the United States, Jeannette visited her beloved sister-in-law many times in Chile.

The second aspect of the past that lingered in the present was the issue of reparations.  Rudy remembers, “My mother was fiercely involved in everything, both reparations for loss of income, for stores, and she managed to get what seemed like a satisfactory lump sum payment and for the rest of her life she was getting money from Germany, and if that didn’t arrive the same day it was due [He laughs and impersonates his mother, throwing up his hands and saying] ‘It didn’t come!’ [He laughs more] So yes, I have…many memories of that.  I also got a check for about three or four thousand dollars at the time, I have no idea what I did with it.”  Rudy says that whatever his mother did, she would have done on Kurt’s behalf as well.  Rudy does not know if his father got any special compensation.  Ultimately, regarding reparations, Rudy says, “Was it what she thought she should get?  No.  Was it what we were due?  No.  But she was pleased to get what she got.”

Jeannette eventually moved into a “high-end, high-rise retirement community on Geary [Street] where after some initial adjustments to the new environment, she lived happily in retirement.”  She became an “avid participant” in continued learning at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute and often attended opera and symphony concerts with Rudy and his second wife Margo.  Rudy writes that his mother “maintained good health and her sharp wit until the last months of her life at the end of 1995.”[29]

Rudy has not talked about Shanghai often.  He was completely unaware of the Rickshaw Reunions that brought together Shanghailanders from across the United States.  He finally found out about them about ten years ago but has never attended one.  He was asked to speak a couple of times during local screenings of a documentary on Shanghai.  The topic was not even discussed much in his own household.  He did write a memoir—the first volume in 2007 and the second volume in 2014—for his daughters, Micah and Shirim, his grandchildren, Eli and Kalina, and his second wife, Margo.  Nevertheless, he wrote at the beginning of the first volume, “Even this effort is not entirely voluntary—a response to the importuning of those about whom I care deeply.”[30]  He says this is due in part to his being by nature a private person.  Nevertheless, he also has felt uncomfortable with how the history has been portrayed, particularly with those who he believes seem to want to make the history of Shanghai into a “great tragic drama and expect ashes and sack cloth and tears. […] And the fact is I didn’t suffer.  To me, not a big drama.  So, we grew up.  […]  The tragedy in all this is more ephemeral to me.  I was a kid.  I was six. I was there for ten years, and I grew up there.  And I grew up. […] I empathize and sympathize with the tragedy of my parents […] and what they lost.  But to me, you take a kid and you put a kid in a circumstance, and that’s their world and their experience, and they don’t know what the hell they’re missing if they’re missing anything.  Do I regret it?  Not for a moment.  Would I have liked to have grown up in Germany?  Not for a moment.  I am happy with my life.  I lived there, and I don’t dwell in it.  I don’t think it as a tragedy.  I don’t pass it along as a tragedy.  I don’t talk about it as a tragedy.  Even if anybody wants it to be.”  Upon reflection though, he adds, “On the other hand, it was a tragedy for my parents.  People who came there as adults and lost everything, and shattered whatever beliefs they might have had about the society in which they lived.”  Thus, Shanghai was a tragedy for Kurt and Jeannette, not Rudy, Nothenberg.  He explains, “Going to the Chinese market and shopping for potatoes and cooking them on a five-gallon can […] I didn’t think it was terrible.  I couldn’t have seen another type of kitchen that I remember.  […] And I don’t want to be forced into making this sound different than it was for me. […] I don’t want to be forced into being a tragic actor in this, because I don’t see myself that way.”  This is not to say that Rudy bears no marks from Shanghai.

Roots and Diamonds

Despite serving in the U.S. Army and having been naturalized in 1955, Rudy had a lingering sense of insecurity.  For, as he explains, once one is a refugee, it is difficult to ever feel fully rooted anywhere.  One way this feeling of insecurity manifested itself was in Rudy’s purchasing diamonds.  He felt the portable wealth would stand him in good stead were he to have to leave the country on short notice.  Rudy kept his diamonds until 1982.  He found out, though, that regardless of whether he had the diamonds or not, the refugee feeling of insecurity was always there.  Although the feeling has diminished over the years, it is not totally gone, the roots are never perfectly rooted.  This even though Rudy lives in the city he has spent decades of his life helping to plan and administer.  Few people can claim to have literally built the foundations of one’s home city like Rudy Nothenberg can, and yet, he still cannot shake the feeling that he is somehow not firmly rooted in that foundation.  When asked about this irony, he quickly dashes any attempt by this historian or any other to overly psychoanalyze or romanticize the motivation behind his career choice as a city administrator in San Francisco.  He claims the decision was rooted in nothing more complex than the fact that he “liked it and was good at it.”

The Unbroken Past

So, aside from lingering feelings of insecurity, it seemed that Rudy Nothenberg had managed very well to keep the past in its place and live life in the present and for the future.  But then Pittsburgh happened.  He explains, “It was after the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh, and […] both [my wife] Margo and I thought of my mother.  I thought ‘what a horrible thing it would have been for her to see this happening—a recurrence of this kind of hatred and violence.’”

His years of fighting political battles for social justice had taught him about the darkness that lurks even within this country of refuge.

The Pittsburgh shooting jolted Rudy, and yet, he did not find it all that surprising.  His years of fighting political battles for social justice had taught him about the darkness that lurks even within this country of refuge:  “Was I surprised at the extent of anti-Semitism here and the anger that has been released by the Trump administration?  No.  I’m not surprised.  I’m not surprised.  I think you can tear that scab of civility away […] and generate hatred and anger in this country very, very easy.  It’s got a history.  Not so much for Jews, but certainly for blacks and people of color and minorities generally.  So, I’m not surprised that there is this reservoir of hatred and anger.  But what I think is so frightening about it is that it is being encouraged by the national administration for the first time since a hundred years.”

Rudy Nothenberg speaks with the author. Courtesy Kevin Ostoyich.

Rudy hopes that young people will learn his history, the history of the Shanghai Jewish refugees, and the wider history of the Holocaust.  He feels “it is absolutely imperative that people understand the history of this country and the history of the world as they move into their adult life.  I would encourage them […] to be aware of their own history and the history of their own country and try to learn from that and avoid allowing the same kinds of hatreds and bitterness and anger to become common in this country as it has done so disastrously in Germany and other countries and is becoming again disastrously so in Hungary and Poland. And if you know your history, you can’t let it be repeated.  People who allow that to be repeated in their public life are people who don’t know their history.”  He believes it is important to study “the history of the event, but only as a model for what should not be happening, what government should not be allowed to do to their people or people who are trying to become their people.  You can talk about the ‘wall’ [at the U.S.-Mexico border] and you can talk about the fact that the ‘wall’ existed for all the Jews in Europe in the thirties.  It’s the same sentiment.  There’s history there, and we can’t let it be repeated.”

Rudy Nothenberg does not want the history of German anti-Semitism to find its repeat in the United States.  Perhaps the reason the Pittsburgh shooting jolted Rudy is that he believes that he has lived most of his life free of the effects of anti-Semitism.  Although anti-Semitism was the reason his family had to flee their home in Germany to Shanghai, while in Shanghai he did not experience anti-Semitism.  He also says that he would really have to think hard to remember encounters with anti-Semitism during his decades of living in the United States.  Yes, there was an incident here or a comment there, but, overall, he does not think that his career, social standing, or everyday life has been impacted in any significant way by his being Jewish.  But then came the bullets in the Tree of Life Congregation and the consequent thoughts for his mother, and then the discovery of his father’s story on line.  With the bullets had come the realization that the hatred that fueled the past is still burning in the present.  This history—this past—is unbroken.


The author is grateful to the Sino-Judaic Institute, the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation, and Dean Jon Kilpinen of the College of Arts and Sciences of Valparaiso University for their continued support.

[1] The main basis of the article are interviews of Rudy Nothenberg conducted in person by Kevin Ostoyich on March 3, 2019, in San Francisco and via telephone on August 29, 2019, as well as Rudy’s unpublished memoir “A Work of Remembered Fiction,” Volume One (2007) and Volume Two (2014).  The two volumes are cited as either “Volume One” or “Volume Two” in the footnotes.  Specific clarifications of details have been obtained via e-mail correspondence with Rudy Nothenberg.  Quotations that are not footnoted come from the two interviews.

[2] E-mail correspondence to correct an error he made about her birthplace in the interview.

[3] Rudy does not know exactly when his maternal grandmother died, but thinks that she probably died before he was born.  The only grandparent he ever had any contact with was Max Nothenberg.

[4] Document signed by Kurt Nothenberg 13 VII 1950, Staatsarchiv Bremen, 4,22/2-178.

[5] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 6-7.

[6] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 9.

[7] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 4-5.

[8] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 9.

[9] Rudy does not remember whether his grandfather arrived in Shanghai in 1940 or 1941.  He believes his grandfather left Germany in late 1940 and is certain that Max Nothenberg arrived in Shanghai before December 1941.

[10] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 12.

[11] Rudy says that regarding he and his parents after coming to the United States, he does not think any of them ever went to any service other than a memorial for someone.

[12] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 12.

[13] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 12.

[14] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 13.

[15] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 14.

[16] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 15.

[17] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 16.

[18] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 21.

[19] According to an online genealogical website, Max Nothenberg died in Chile, presumably having gone there to be with his daughter, Margot. (https://www.geni.com/people/Max-Marcus-Nothenberg/6000000027708023780)

[20] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 22.

[21] USHMM, Harpuder Family Collection, Accession Number 2010.240.1, Box 7.

[22] USHMM, Harpuder Family Collection, Accession Number 2010.240.1, Box 7.

[23] USHMM, Harpuder Family Collection, Accession Number 2010.240.1, Box 7.

[24] For more on the history of the Shanghai Group in Bremen, see Kevin Ostoyich, “ ‘Back on Straw’: The Experience of Shanghai Jewish Refugees in Bremen after Escaping German National Socialism, Enduring a Japanese ‘Designated Area’, and Fleeing Chinese Communism,” Studia Historica Gedanensia, 2014, Tom 5 (2014), 113-138.  (Available online:  http://www.ejournals.eu/Studia-Historica-Gedanensia/2014/Tom-5-(2014)/art/3191/.)

[25] “The Duplicity of Events” written by Dagobert Lewithan for the “Sturgis News” newsletter for the Shanghai Group onboard the General Sturgis, dated July 10, 1950.  The “Sturgis News” newsletter is located in USHMM, Harpuder Family Collection, Accession Number 2010.240.1, Box 7.

[26] Willie Brown Documentary: Interviews with Rudy Nothenberg, Supervisor Sue Bierman, and Judge John Dearman, https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/235579, 1993 (accessed August 29, 2019).

[27] John King, “Parting Shots / After eight years as San Francisco’s chief administrative officer, Rudy Nothenberg steps down with a few final thoughts about why City Hall doesn’t work,” SFGATE, March 26, 1995,  https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Parting-Shots-After-eight-years-as-San-3040436.php (accessed August 29, 2019).  Rudy has confirmed in conversation with the present author that he was the first person to find Mayor Moscone’s body.  In his memoir Rudy writes, “It was I who found George’s body on the floor of his private sitting room, his cigarette still smoldering in the ashtray.”  (Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 55).  For Rudy’s testimony during the trial of Dan White see https://www.famous-trials.com/danwhite/609-nothenbergtestimony (accessed August 29, 2019).

[28] Rudy Nothenberg discusses these achievements in Volume Two of his memoir.

[29] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 56.

[30] Rudy Nothenberg, Volume One, 3.

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 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.

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

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 kevin.ostoyich@valpo.edu.