The Jews who fled to Shanghai - a story imperfectly told; Deliverance in Shanghai, by Jerome Agel and Eugene Boe. New York: Dembner Books. 361 pp. $14.95.

It is surprising that it has taken so long for books to appear on the Jews who fled Hitler's Germany in the late '30s to take refuge in Shanghai. Tens of thousands did so, only to find that they had come to a city that was a recent battlefield, partly burned, and partly under Japanese occupation. As World War II developed, Shanghai was entirely occupied by the Japanese.

These refugees came to Shanghai because it was then still a treaty port, and did not require either a passport or a visa. It was known as a great center for trade and commerce, and the Jews hoped they would be able to establish themselves there, although they perforce had to come almost empty-handed. At one time it would probably have been possible for them to do so, but with the advent of the Japanese war everything changed.

Millions of Chinese had come into Shanghai hoping for protection and succor. It was mainly a Chinese city, but the millions already there were seldom in a position to take in very many of their countrymen. Trade was at a standstill, with the foreign firms wondering how to get out. There were thousands of White Russians in the city who had nowhere else to go, and lived precariously. The Germans turned their backs on the new arrivals, fearing reprisals if they helped - most of them were Nazis in any case.

The British and Americans, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army were all stretched to the utmost trying to keep people alive. It was indeed a bad time for these refugees from the once-charming cities of Lubeck, Breslau, and Frankfurt to have come.

There were few Jews in Shanghai then, although there were at least two synagogues, where many Russian Jews went to worship. The state of Israel did not exist, and most Jews felt themselves members of other nations: In Shanghai there were outstandingly successful merchants like the Kadoories, the Hardoons, Sir Victor Sassoon - people who were British citizens and who had been knighted. In China, the Jewish minority, some of whom had come to the country centuries before, had been absorbed; even now a Chinese will tell you sometimes that he is Jewish. But there was no solidarity among them.

Sir Victor Sassoon did indeed make available a good deal of property to the newcomers in Hongkew, but it was a dubious offer - that area was run-down, desperate, burned out. This reviewer well remembers the advent of these tempest-tossed wanderers in Shanghai, and the extreme difficulties that awaited them. Perhaps it was deliverance, but it assumed an ironic face.

Every individual had a tale to tell, and this book purports to be based on such stories. It is not a documentary, however, but a novel. It attempts to deal with the lives of its characters in Germany, then in China. Its characters are people who had witnessed, first with disbelief, then with horror, what had happened to them in their communities. They had been insulted, and had lost their status, their property, their homes. Most of them had relatives in concentration camps and were desperately anxious as to their fate. Small wonder that most of them were bewildered. They knew, generally, nothing of the Orient. The Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis meant that here they would be without protection. The account is a series of tragedies.

The scene, then, includes China, Japan, Germany, the Japanese war, the European war, the entry of the Americans, the Jewish situation everywhere - a vast canvas. Unfortunately, as a book this is a disappointment. In the attempt to portray so much, the authors have resorted to emphasis on lurid events - emotion, violence, and erotic scenes. The facts are bad enough, but the perpetual insistence on the grotesque, the vicious, the hideous, and lurid overreaches itself. One has no great respect for most of the people described, and the constant preoccupation with sex seems as unnecessary as it is distasteful.

There are minor factual errors, such as putting the Race Course in the center of the French Concession (it was in the International Settlement), and conjuring up a ''Forbidden City'' in the ruins of Nantao - an old walled site, always open if anyone wanted to see it. All the towns were walled in China then; there was no mystery about it.

This reviewer remembers Jews in Shanghai under Japanese occupation and their stories - stories in which reason, humor, order, and honesty played a decisive role. The ones in this book are of a different sort.

At the end of the war the survivors were brought out and found new homes once again. This chapter of the Jewish experience is one that should be known, undoubtedly, but it is hoped that subsequent accounts will do the actors more honor.

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