Finding 'Uncle Zhou': Saved by China in WWII, Jewish girl goes on mission

Time:2023/5/17 11:57:50    Author: CHEN JIAN    From:ISRAEL HAYOM

During the Second World War, tens of thousands of European Jews fled to Shanghai to escape the Nazis and seek refuge. They were welcomed and helped by the Chinese people who were themselves suffering from Japanese aggression. Following the end of World War II, most Jewish refugees in Shanghai left for countries with much larger Jewish populations. Decades after, many chose to return to Shanghai to visit their Chinese friends – seen as families – who rendered them help during the most difficult times.

Vera Sasson from Florida, the United States made two trips to Shanghai in 1989 and 2006, where she looked for "Uncle Zhou" in the old street she used to live. Vera, holding a photo in her hand, asked everyone she met if they recognized Uncle Zhou from the photo, hoping anyone there could happen to have lived in that neighborhood and give her a clue. The two trips didn't yield any results, but Vera wouldn't give up that easily.

In 2011, Vera made her third try and traveled to Shanghai again. The city developed into a metropolitan with skyscrapers and avenues. Hongkou, a district of Shanghai where her family sought refuge, became a modern area bursting with commercial prosperity. During this trip, Vera heard about a new museum commemorating the experience of Jewish refugees in Hongkou and decided to visit the museum. At the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, Vera watched video clips of her fellow Jewish people's wartime life in Shanghai and was struck with mixed emotions. It came to her mind that the museum might help her find Uncle Zhou. Vera thus told her story to the museum staff.

Vera remembered vividly her life in Shanghai after her parents brought her to seek refuge in the city during World War II. Her family lived on Kunming Road in Hongkou District, and Uncle Zhou was her neighbor. He was a warm-hearted person who often invited Vera to his home for tea and snacks. Vera loved to hang out with his daughter Huizhen; the two girls were like sisters. At that time, Vera studied in a Jewish school on East Yuhang Road. Every day when she left home for school or when school was over, she saw a rickshaw driver waiting for her to give her a ride. Only later did she know that it was arranged by Uncle Zhou for her convenience. When the rickshaw approached the neighborhood, Uncle Zhou would kindly host her with some snacks before she went home. It was an unforgettable experience of how Vera and Uncle Zhou, a Jewish family, and a Chinese family, gave each other assistance and support during the war. After the war ended, Vera's parents decided to take her to the United States. She lived in Florida but still missed Uncle Zhou and her dear friends in Shanghai even after decades passed.

Deeply moved by Vera's story, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum lent Vera a helping hand. Vera brought Uncle Zhou's photo to local TV shows, hoping the audience could offer some information about the kind man. More Shanghai residents knew about Vera and Uncle Zhou through media coverage. However, Vera didn't want to be too hopeful in case it lead to disappointment. After spending some time waiting in Shanghai, she again returned to the United States with nothing but regret. But one day a pleasant surprise came. The TV channel that interviewed her received a phone call from Vera's childhood playmate, Uncle Zhou's daughter Huizhen. Huizhen said she recognized the image of her father – his name was Zhou Zhiji – in the news. During World War II, their family lived on Kunming Road in Hongkou District, and she recalled neighbors of a Jewish family. Vera heard the good news at the earliest time possible, but it came with heavy regret as she learned that Uncle Zhou passed away in 2001.

On November 29, 2011, after half a century of parting, Vera finally met Huizhen via video. With great excitement, they shared old photos in the video call, burst into tears, and called each other "sisters". Their stories began when they were little girls, and continued when they became old ladies with grey hair. They told each other at length about their lives and the changes that took place after they parted. The two friends also had a face-to-face reunion later in Florida.

Vera's story of finding Uncle Zhou is recorded in a documentary made by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. The touching story of friendly exchanges between the Chinese and Jewish people becomes known to more and more people.