Professor of History Kevin Ostoyich was preparing to spend a year as Valparaiso University’s Study Abroad director in Hangzhou, China, when he made a life-changing discovery about a group of 106 Jewish people who took refuge in Shanghai, China, during the Second World War. This group of refugees, it turned out, was but a fraction of the approximately 18,000 to 20,000 Jewish people who had journeyed to Shanghai in order to escape Nazi persecution
At the time, Professor Ostoyich had never heard of the Shanghai Group, but as he read through documents in a file located in the state archives in Bremen, Germany, a story began to unfold. The refugees had attempted to immigrate into the United States but had been denied and eventually returned to Germany.
“As I started translating documents from this file,” Professor Ostoyich said, “I realized this was a fascinating story that needed to be told.”
Professor Ostoyich did some initial research and began writing a paper about the refugees, but he quickly realized there were far more possibilities for this story than he was able to tackle in his time in Hangzhou. And now, two years later, he is celebrating. With the help of Professor Yun Xia, six dedicated undergraduate students, and a generous grant from the ASIANetwork — a consortium of colleges dedicated to promoting Asian studies in the liberal arts — a fuller picture of the Shanghai Group is coming to light.
“All six students on the project are majors or second majors in Chinese and Japanese Studies, and they all come with a set of language abilities that make them qualified to do this research,” said Professor Xia. “Four out of six speak Chinese at different levels. One speaks Japanese, so she looked into the Japanese perspective, and one speaks German, so he was able to utilize the German newspapers that were issued in the 1930s and 1940s.”
The students traveled with Professors Ostoyich and Xia to Shanghai to perform their research, and each student chose a facet of the Shanghai Group to study. The group also worked together to produce a joint project. Then, during their month spent in China, the students and faculty conducted more than 20 interviews with historians, individuals who had known Jewish refugees in Shanghai, a current Shanghai rabbi, and even an antique dealer who had once possessed many of the items left behind when the refugees returned to Germany.
“It was interesting to hear about Chinese people’s impression of Jewish people,” said student Jonathan Mack. His research focused on a group called the Foreign Pao Chia, which was recruited by the Japanese to maintain order in the Jewish ghetto.
“My task was to determine whether the group was viewed as a form of Japanese oppression, or if it was seen as a necessary part of ensuring the safety of the refugees,” he said.
For Jonathan, the opportunity was a unique way to not only get to see another culture, but to practice his research skills with the help of knowledgeable professors. “I feel like working on this project really pushed and challenged me,” he said.
“The ASIANetwork student/faculty fellowship program is really about the students,” said Professor Ostoyich. “The emphasis is about students doing very high-level undergraduate research and being guided through the process by mentors. Each of the six students is still doing an independent project, and we are hoping that all six will ultimately be published.”
“As the project progressed, students became increasingly excited about their research and played a more active role,” added Professor Xia. “And they energetically continue to make efforts toward finishing the group project now that we are back in the United States.”
When students returned to the United States, they took the initiative to reach out and arrange interviews with former refugees and Shanghai residents who had relocated to the Valparaiso area.
Now as students finish up their work, both Professors Ostoyich and Xia are excited to begin sharing their findings. Professor Xia has produced a DVD based on the interviews the team conducted, and Professor Ostoyich is hopeful that his initial article about the refugees will be published soon. Professor Xia will also take part in a panel with a renowned Shanghai refugee scholar Bei Gao.
“It seems like we’ve discovered this project at the right time in that it appears to be one of those hot topics,” Professor Ostoyich said. “It’s kind of like an onion. We’re putting together all of the different layers, and that is what we ultimately want to present to a wider audience.”
“This is definitely an emerging subject,” Professor Xia concurred. “It absolutely has grown beyond our original expectations.”