Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List” told the world about a generous businessman who saved several thousand Jews in Germany during World War II.
Tonight the original Chinese musical “Jews in Shanghai” will tell the story of how tens of thousands of Jews were given refuge in Shanghai during the war.
The musical opens the monthlong Shanghai International Arts Festival and is part of a series of performances commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory in the People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression.
The war commemoration series includes “Chinese Soldiers” by the National Theater of China, “The Flowers of War” by the Wuxi Song and Dance Group, “Yang Jingyu” by Jilin Peking Opera House and “Zhao Yiman” by Changning District Shanghai Opera House.
It’s the first time the festival has selected performances around one theme, but organizers deny it limits the variety of acts at this year’s festival.
“The festival still has performances diversed in many other themes and varieties,” says Wang Jun, president of the Center for Shanghai International Arts Festival. “We thought it would be good to include some timely features. With numerous artists worldwide presenting works to commemorate the end of World War II, we considered it a wise choice to include some similar works.”
“Jews in Shanghai” is an original work by Shanghai Heng Yuan Xiang Theater Development Company. It features both Chinese and Israeli artists. A trial performance of the show in early September was well received by critics. Shortly after the trial it was selected as the festival’s opening show.
The musical tells the story of the more than 20,000 Jews who fled to Shanghai from Europe to escape the Nazis. They were received and sheltered by kind-hearted Shanghai residents, who were in turn offered help and support when Japan invaded.
Presenting this story demonstrates Chinese people’s respect for human rights and is no less powerful than the two US atomic bombs, said former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Musical director Xu Jun says this part of the city’s history is something locals should be proud of as Shanghai “provided a glimmer of light in the world at it’s darkest time.”
The director says they felt a need to tell the story as a surprising number of Chinese people are unaware of what transpired in the city. Despite feeling the need to educate, Xu also realizes the musical has to be entertaining.
“It has to be authentic, yet artistic, otherwise it’s worthless,” he says.
Determined to base the story on facts, the production team spent almost two years collecting information for the script.
They visited historians both in Shanghai and Israel and talked with Jews who had lived in Shanghai.
The team decided to focus on one true story as the major thrust for the plot line. A young Jew who was sheltered in Shanghai taught local workers to make faulty grenade fuses in a Japanese military factory, thus saving many Chinese soldiers lives on the front lines.
Those who lived in Shanghai during that time told the production team about Jews who learned to sing Shanghai rhymes and locals inviting them to dinner for Chinese New Year.
A 78-year-old Jew from the US who can still speak Shanghai dialect told Xu that playing ping-pong with Chinese boys was the happiest moments during his childhood in Shanghai.
The musical’s composer Peter Kam says he is most intrigued by two very different sets of people coming together.
“How was that possible?” says Kam, “Shared suffering in the war was probably the major reason for them to look for encouragement and support from one another. That serves as the key in my composition for the whole musical.”
Traditional Jewish and Chinese music elements are mixed in based on the plot and both English and Chinese languages are used.
Five Israelies perform in the musical including actress Sivan Kissinger, whose grandmother was aboard the last legal ship leaving Germany in the war.
“When I put on my costume and looked into the mirror, I found myself just like my grandmother 70 years ago,” Kissinger says. “It is like going back in time.”
Changning District Shanghai Opera House’s “Zhao Yiman” focuses on the story of a woman in the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army. She kept faith regardless of the difficulties she faced during the war.
“Zhao is a very different heroine from others that have been staged, which makes the figure attractive to me,” says Opera House President Chen Suping, who has been planning to stage Zhao’s story for the past eight years.
After speaking with Zhao’s granddaughter in Sichuan Province, the production team finally decided to depict the heroine as a loving mother and a tough soldier at the same time.
“She is not one to fight a hopeless situation. She’s a well-educated woman who chose to leave her wealthy and warm family to fight for her beliefs and country,” Chen says.
Also be on the lookout for “Chinese Soldiers,” a drama following seven teenaged soldiers from Shaanxi Province who fought the Japanese for three days and nights with limited ammunition and food. They committed suicide after running out of supplies, but not before they had successfully delayed the enemy’s assault. It’s based on a true story from the Battle of Zhongtiao Mountain.
The teen soldiers come from different backgrounds.
One boy from a wealthy family insists on joining the army even though his father had bribed another boy to replace him. A young girl chooses to marry a boy who is leaving for the frontline the next day. And a father tells his son if he does not have the awareness to die, he should not go for the war in the first place.
“How can these teenage boys make such choices so decisively? That is the key to the story, for me, when I recall what I was doing and thinking about in my teenage years,” says director Zha Mingzhe, “I appreciate the opportunity to reenact their stories and bring these people to life.”