Almost 80 years ago, in July 1938, representatives from 32 countries (including the United States) attended a conference in Évian-les-Bains, France, that addressed the surge in the numbers of Jewish refugees from Germany and other Nazi-controlled countries. These people needed a visa from another country in order to be able to leave, but few countries were opening their doors. And the conference made little progress, with only the Dominican Republic agreeing to accept more refugees.
However, in Vienna, there was a Chinese consul named Ho Feng-Shan, who took it upon himself to grant the visa of any Jew who wanted one, even after the Gestapo closed down the consulate. And so thousands of Jews ended up in Shanghai, where they were, in general, warmly received by the Chinese, even though the city had plenty of problems of its own, including widespread poverty and cruel mistreatment under the Japanese occupation.
“Above the Drowning Sea” — a documentary that will be shown on June 10 as part of the Summer 2018 edition of the New Jersey International Film Festival at Rutgers University in New Brunswick — tells that story in impressive detail, with lots of historical films and photos, and interviews with some of the surviving refugees and the Shanghai residents who befriended them, as well as the refugees’ descendants. It was co-written and co-directed by René Balcer, showrunner for “Law & Order” and “Law & Order Criminal Intent,” and narrated by actress Julianna Margulies.
Great care and creativity went into the making of this documentary. New footage was shot in six countries, and the film also has animated sequences for parts of the story that couldn’t be told in any other way, and actors (including Tony Goldwyn) reading the words of deceased refugees. It vividly captures what it was like to live in Austria, under the Nazis; as well as life in the cramped Jewish ghetto that was created in Shanghai.
Everything builds to a heartwarming reunion between a childhood friends Vera Sasson (an Austrian refugee) and Zhou Huizhen (a Shanghai native). Sasson now lives in the United States, and Huizhen is still in Shanghai; they had not seen each other in 65 years.
A final segment notes that Ho Feng-Shan, who died in 1997, was given posthumous Righteous Among the Nations honors — awarded to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust — by the Israeli organization Yad Vashem, in 2000.
Then Margulies concludes by saying: “Over 20,000 Jewish refugees found sanctuary in Shanghai. And still, the wars are without end, and refugees keep coming.”
“Above the Drowning Sea” will screen at Voorhees Hall at Rutgers University, June 10 at 7 p.m., after a short film, “Crazy Hive.” The screening will be followed by a question and answer session with co-director René Balcer. Visit njfilmfest.com.
For more about the movie, visit abovethedrowningsea.com.
Here is a trailer: