“Witness to History: From Vienna to Shanghai: A Memoir of Escape, Survival and Resilience” by Paul Hoffmann


In his new (but posthumous) memoir, Shanghai Jewish refugee Paul Hoffmann writes about his three most tumultuous experiences. One was enduring six months of Nazi Vienna, the other the terror inflicted by Sargent Kano Ghoya in the Shanghai Jewish Ghetto, and the third life under the new Chinese regime from 1949-1952. Much has been written about the first two, but Witness to History sheds light on the lives of the Jews that stayed behind in Shanghai after 1949.

Hoffmann started his memoir after his retirement in 1986 and wrote his last entry in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2016 that his daughter Jean looked to get it published. Born and raised in Vienna, Hoffmann was the son of a physician who saw the writing on the wall after Hitler annexed Austria. Oskar Hoffman sent his daughter Licci to the UK through a program to employ Jewish women as maids and nannies. Eighteen year-old Paul was sent to Shanghai.


One morning, late in August 1938, shortly after a visitor informed us about the possibility of going to Shanghai, Father and I, without telling Mother, went to the Italian shipping line, Lloyd Triestino. We managed to purchase a second-class ticket for me on the Conte Verde. The ship would be leaving Trieste on October 31, 1938. There were only a few boats to China and tickets went very quickly once it became evident that this was a viable escape route.


Hoffmann does not mention Ho Feng-shan, the Chinese consul general in Vienna who issued thousands of visas—against orders—to thousands of Austrian Jews, a lacuna perhaps explained by Hoffmann having left relatively early, before Kristallnacht in November 1938, only after which Ho issued the bulk of these visas.


Witness to History: From Vienna to Shanghai: A Memoir of Escape, Survival and Resilience, Paul Hoffmann, Jean Hoffman Lewanda (ed) (Earnshaw, November 2021)
Witness to History: From Vienna to Shanghai: A Memoir of Escape, Survival and Resilience, Paul Hoffmann, Jean Hoffman Lewanda (ed) (Earnshaw, November 2021)

Although still a teenager, Hoffmann became responsible for his family—including some of his extended family—once he arrived in Shanghai. He managed to book passage to Shanghai for his parents, sisters, and other relatives the following year. Some of his relatives escaped to the US, but those that stayed behind hoping for the best all perished in the Holocaust.

As others have written, life in Shanghai was tough with hot and humid summers and rampant disease, but it was tolerable until 1942 when German and Eastern European Jews who had arrived after December 31, 1937 were rounded up and sent to what became known as the Jewish Ghetto in the Hongkew district. Enter Sargent Ghoya and his reign of terror.

After the war, most Jews in Shanghai resettled in the United States, Canada, Australia, or Israel. Hoffmann’s sister and her new family went to the US in 1947 and their parents followed in 1950, but Hoffmann and his wife Shirley (a Russian Jew he met in Shanghai and married at the synagogue Ohel Moshe) stayed on after the Communist victory in 1949 because they enjoyed their lives in Shanghai and were hopeful they could carry on as normally as one could expect. He studied at the French Jesuit Aurora University in Shanghai and found a job at a law firm there.

Almost as soon as the Communists won the civil war, another war broke out in Korea and now China and the US were at opposite ends of this conflict, unlike during WWII. Hoffmann’s boss at the law firm had to leave suddenly because he had worked with Chiang Kai-shek and other high-ranking Nationalists.

Hoffmann was put in charge of the Shanghai office with the eventual task of closing it down, although there seemed to be no great rush. Business did not come to an immediate halt on 1 October 1949 and other companies also stayed on with hopes they could continue to operate in China. In addition to running the law firm, Hoffman was also tasked with paying the employees of the shipping firm, United States Lines, after their American manager left Shanghai for good. The latter proved harrowing because of the Korean War. The US froze all Chinese funds in America and the shipping company could not send salaries to its fifty employees in Shanghai until the US Treasury Department approved it. With growing anti-American sentiment in Shanghai because of this new war, Hoffmann had dozens of disgruntled employees who took out their frustrations on him.

The Hoffmans were finally ready to leave Shanghai by early 1952 when Shirley became pregnant with their first child. They went through Europe; by the time they reached Vienna in April 1952, Hoffmann learned that police had come to his Shanghai home to arrest him, only to find that he and Shirley had left. The charges were espionage.


The arrest of a Chinese lawyer, Dr. Ai, the same day would seem to explain what happened. I had worked with Dr. Ai to translate official, published legal decrees and sent them to Mr. Allman [his boss at the law firm] so that he could continue to advise clients in the United States on legal problems in China. In the twisted minds of a police state everyone is under suspicion.


For all his distressing experiences after 1949, Hoffmann wrote that he could understand the appeal of Communism after decades of corruption and wealth disparities, but he couldn’t see any silver lining during his experiences those first three years of the new government. Hoffmann passed away in 2010 after enjoying a successful career in the US as a trademark attorney. He wrote this book so his children and grandchildren would know about his life in China. And now thanks to his daughter, people interested in the Shanghai Jewish experience and life in Shanghai following 1949 can, too.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.