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The Singer of Shanghai

The Singer of Shanghai

A Valparaiso University Student Production Gets International Attention
Fall 2023
Illustrations by Mel Haasch

“To me, the Holocaust is important and very valuable information for the world to know. But for the Jewish community and for the people of the world, the one thing that always seems to be forgotten is ‘where were the people when it first started?’” says Harry J. Abraham, whose family experience during World War II was turned into a radio play by Valparaiso University students.

Kristallnacht, also known as “the Night of Broken Glass,” took place on the evening of November 9, 1938, and was the first instance of mass-incarceration of Jewish people by the Nazi party. Harry himself was in a crib when the attacks began, covered in broken glass as a brick came through the window of his family home. By the time it was over, Harry’s uncle and father were imprisoned, leaving his mother, Ida, with the daunting task of securing their release and getting her family out of the country. It was a long, harrowing journey that led the family to where a large number of Jewish refugees sought shelter: Shanghai, China.

The story of the Abraham family, their flight from Nazi Germany and the rebuilding of their lives in Shanghai with only Ida’s Singer sewing machine to generate income, became the subject of a play written and produced by Valparaiso University students titled “The Singer of Shanghai.” Originally performed in the spring of 2020, the play has since garnered international attention, with a performance in Scotland and publication by the Käte Hamburger Kolleg Ludwig-Maximilans-Universität München this November. Anton Hieke, Ph.D., of Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg is also translating the play into German in hopes of increasing the chances of it being performed in Germany.

Kevin Ostoyich, Ph.D., former recipient of the Dixon W. and Herta E. Benz Fund for Faculty Support and professor of history, has been fascinated by the story of Jewish refugees ending up on the other side of the world and the perseverance in recreating a European community in the most unlikely of places. He oversaw the student production of the original “Singer of Shanghai” and has been its global spokesperson ever since. He believes it’s also important to understand the global attitude that led to the Jewish community establishment in China.

“I believe this history of 16-20 thousand refugees who made it to Shanghai reminds us of the fact that there was a time in which Jews could only leave Germany if there were places that would accept them,” Professor Ostoyich says. “And that’s the real problem. At the time when Jews were looking for a place to escape, the rest of the world closed their doors.”

Professor Ostoyich has been deeply involved in Holocaust remembrance over the course of his career, gaining recognition in international circles for his interviews chronicling the individual stories of survivors and their families. Among his many, international memberships are board membership of the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, a board member of the Sino-Judaic Institute, an international advisor board member of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum (Shanghai, China), and an associate of the Center for East Asian Studies of the University of Chicago.

Professor Ostoyich’s recent work includes a project with the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation on the book “Forging Secrets: Faces and Facts Inside the Nazi Operation Bernhard Scheme,” detailing the lives of Jack Plapler and Hans Walter, Holocaust survivors forced to help operate a Nazi counterfeit money operation.

In 2017, Danny Spungen, one of the heads of the foundation, put Professor Ostoyich in contact with Harry J. Abraham to help tell his family’s extraordinary story.

Meetings and Beginnings

“He wanted me to spread a particular message about Kristallnacht,” says Professor Ostoyich, recalling his first conversation with Harry. “He’s afraid that people get so bogged down in the details of the Holocaust that they forget to ask the big questions about this part of history. The hard questions. The questions that he wants us to explore are why people looked away, why they were indifferent to the suffering of the Jews, and why more people didn’t rise up, in Germany and around the world, to help the Jews.”

That same academic year, Professor Ostoyich had begun teaching “Historic Theater, the Shanghai Jews,” the culmination of his struggle with finding new and innovative ways to connect students with the humanity of the narratives he was bringing to their attention.

“The play is the ultimate way in which students can creatively educate others on history,” Professor Ostoyich says. “I thought about how actors prepare for roles, in that they embody a role, and wondered if students could start interacting with history the way actors interact with their roles.”

Professor Ostoyich, with the help of Kari-Anne Innes ’93, ’01 M.A., ’08 G.C., then the arts and entertainment administration director at Valparaiso University, was able to make that idea into a reality. In the spring of 2020, the course was in its third year, and the time was right to bring the story of the Abraham family to the stage. Harry himself had visited Valparaiso University to discuss Kristallnacht and the flight of his family to Shanghai with faculty and students.

“Everyone learns about the Holocaust in school as a general event, but hearing it firsthand, for me, it was more impactful and made me proud of the project.”

Christian Yoder

“It was interesting. It’s been interesting all along that Kevin and Valpo would have an interest in this story and my family,” says Harry. “Some of the questions asked by the students were very intelligent and on-target.”

Armed with Professor Ostoyich’s research, the cumulative knowledge gained from their own research projects, and interviews with survivors, including Harry, the students, set to work synthesizing their information into a performance.

“For me, it was a very intimidating process,” says Christian Yoder, one of the students in Professor Ostoyich’s class. “We had spent so much time learning about this history and these stories. Everyone learns about the Holocaust in school as a general event, but hearing it firsthand, for me, it was more impactful and made me proud of the project.”

As they began work on the project that would eventually become “The Singer of Shanghai,” neither Christian nor her classmates could have predicted the challenges, or successes, that were in store.

“It was surprising me how much of a mental toll it was taking, hearing all of these stories, life changing events, all of the suffering, just so many heartbreaking things that hit close to home and made us think.”

Christian Yoder

Adapting to an Unexpected Challenge

In March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in nationwide lockdowns, and Valparaiso University was no exception. Preparing to craft a stage play to be performed in front of a live audience, the class had to put the project through a major shift, all while working together remotely from across the country.

“Even with COVID, we really wanted to still tell the story because we felt it was something that people needed to hear,” says Christian. “It’s not a very well-known history.”

The class considered using Facebook Live to remotely broadcast a live performance, but given their target audience’s wide range of ages and use of social media, the option was considered too limiting. Instead, the group decided that the performance would be a pre-recorded radio play to be posted on YouTube.

Even disregarding the global upheaval they had to navigate, the material itself was no easy thing to work with.

“It was surprising me how much of a mental toll it was taking, hearing all of these stories, life changing events, all of the suffering, just so many heartbreaking things that hit close to home and made us think,” Christian recalls.

Despite the challenges and setbacks, the play was written, recorded, and set to premiere on May 12, 2020. Today, standing at just over 15 hundred views, the video continues to bring the amazing story of the Abrahams to new audiences.

“The viewers were very responsive in the comments. It’s still getting attention, which is good because that’s part of history — important, but not very well-known,” says Christian.

“It’s out there for other students to perform and spread awareness of this little-known history of the Holocaust.”

Kevin Ostoyich, Ph.D.
professor of history

A Global Response

Months after the premiere of the play, Professor Ostoyich was contacted by one of his Edinburg-based fellows on the advisory board for Jewish Refugees Museum in Shanghai. Originally, he was asked to simply participate in a simple, pre-recorded interview to spread the story of the Shanghai refugees. What ended up happening, however, was a full-blown production of “The Singer of Shanghai” at Broughton High School in Scotland.

“In my mind, it was just a small class project for a small class in Indiana,” Christian says. “It’s crazy that something I had worked on as a class project is becoming something that will be performed internationally. I never would have expected that going into class.”

That performance may only be the start of the play’s international run. Professor Ostoyich has been working with Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich to publish the play, which would open the doors for performance all across Europe.

“The goal is for this to be something that was created at Valpo, but then has no end,” Professor Ostoyich says. “It’s out there for other students to perform and spread awareness of this little-known history of the Holocaust. It’s a story that shows that the Holocaust is not just something that pertains to Germany and Poland. It has a wide scope, and touches just about everybody in the world.”

“Kevin is a good seller,” says Harry. “He’s been able to convince people that there’s some value for them to see it.”

“What do we do when we encounter discrimination
in our own lives? Do we walk away? Do we confront it?”

Kevin Ostoyich, Ph.D., professor of history

Lessons From the Past

To Harry, Christian, and Professor Ostoyich, the main goal has always been to bring awareness to the mistakes and horrors of the past, and what we can do differently today to avoid repeating them.

“Everyone can talk about the Holocaust and what happened afterward, but the more important thing is to recognize what happened that led up to it that shouldn’t have happened, and wouldn’t have happened if the world had been there to understand and do something about it,” says Harry. “Whether something will happen, I don’t know, but at least we can get people to understand or acknowledge that there was something bad going on.”

Professor Ostoyich, now working on a fourth play titled “Three Girls from Shanghai” in addition to his international efforts with “Singer of Shanghai,” hopes that people use the ideas of this play to ask questions about their own lives and choices.

“Don’t go through a course on the Holocaust without asking questions, both to others and especially to yourself,” Professor Ostoyich says. “What do we do when we encounter discrimination in our own lives? Do we walk away? Do we confront it?”

“There are people who have lived through this, who still have these stories. Listen to your family about the stories of their histories, because you might learn surprising things. They can offer a different perspective,” says Christian.

The Singer’s Surprise

Today, we often use brand names as a kind of shorthand for everyday items. Every adhesive bandage is a “band-aid,” every gelatinous dessert is “Jell-O,” and so forth. While we may think of such naming conventions as a modern trend, in reality it was just as prevalent in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Ida Abraham’s sewing machine, now residing outside the office of Harry Abraham in Cleveland, Ohio, was always assumed to be a Singer brand, simply because that’s what Harry’s mother had always called it. After “The Singer of Shanghai” was created, Harry took a closer look at the machine.

“Kevin asked me to get the model number. So, I took it apart and I found out it wasn’t really a Singer,” Harry says.

The “Singer” is actually a Verdheim, made in Frankfurt.

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