Edith Schafer once described her living quarters growing up during the Holocaust in a room she cannot even describe as an apartment to a young group visiting her home. She blocked off her living room to about the size of her area rug. She laid down a few pillows and blankets, brought in one chair and one small table to illustrate what her home looked like in Shanghai.
“To have survived the Holocaust you needed three things: hope, faith and good fortune,” Shafer tells people when they ask about her experience during the Holocaust.
Manfred, Gerda and the then Edith Oelsner would need all three to survive the Holocaust.
Edith, or Edie as most call her, was born during a time when Jewish people, like herself, were trying to escape the horrors of the Nazi regime any way they could.
This is how Edie, a Jewish girl with German heritage, was born in Shanghai, China. China was one of the few countries at the time of the Holocaust that allowed Jewish immigrants without a visa.
Escaping the Nazis
Her parents, Manfred and Gerda Oelsner, lived in Germany during the time of the Nazi regime.
They were married in June of 1938. Just four months later was the Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. It was a massive attack on German Jews in their homes and businesses.
Authorities showed up to arrest Manfred, which was something Gerda could not bear to witness.
“When they came for my Dad, my mother just fell over and blacked out,” said Edie. “By the time she came out of it, they were gone.”
He was sent, along with Gerda’s father Max Kuba, to the Sachsenhausen camp. However, this is where good fortune began to find Edie’s family. After four grueling months in the concentration camp, Manfred and Max were granted freedom due to the influence of an Argentinian consul, who employed Manfred’s brother-in-law.
Edie said her parents were given three months to leave Germany, which was not an easy task given their lack of assets. Her father would travel to Berlin daily to try and secure passage.
After three weeks, Manfred was able to obtain three passenger tickets for a boat heading to Shanghai from an aid group. In May of 1939, Manfred and Gerda, along with their father Max, escaped Germany and set sail for China.
Life in the Shanghai Ghetto
On June 4, 1939, they arrived in Shanghai and were taken to a refugee camp. The refugee camp housed many Jewish refugees in barrack-like rooms with over 40 beds in each room.
Edie’s grandfather, Max, stayed in the refugee camp the entire time he lived in Shanghai, but Edie’s parents had the chance to relocate. The Oelsners took residence at 725/83 Tongshan Road, a seven-by-14-foot storefront in the Shanghai ghetto. They divided the store in half, leaving them with a seven-by-seven foot living space.
“We lived in this cement room behind the store and my father put over the top of it ‘Villa Edit,’” said Edie. “That’s my name – that’s what he called it.”
After only a short time in Shanghai, Manfred and Gerda welcomed their baby girl Edith into the world on Jan. 30, 1941. As Edie grew up, she often enjoyed visiting her father’s cigar and cigarette store and played with simple toys, dreaming of one day having a doll to play with, a doll she would eventually receive once leaving Shanghai.
The air often smelled like Chinese food because of the Chinese restaurant next to their home. Edie’s mother could never stand the smell of Chinese food after her time spent in Shanghai.
The family lived in poor conditions, with nothing to spare, including water and heat. Edie recalled on Hanukah, how her father kept their home warm, which was a rarity, by burning briquettes on the stove.
“My father was so thrilled from my response from ‘thawing out’ that he immediately went to the store and got a couple more briquettes so we could be warm, and I could be comfortable for a little longer,” said Edie.
The sanitation in Shanghai was underdeveloped, and the conditions were sometimes beyond poverty. Disease spread, and the Oelsners were not immune. Edie become severely dehydrated at 18-months-old and needed to be hospitalized. Edie’s father donated large amounts of blood to the hospital in exchange for Edie’s treatment.
The Journey Home
After finally getting their visas approved, Edie and her parents received the chance to leave Shanghai and come to America. Manfred had family in Milwaukee, and sponsored the Oelsners. However, because he was of Polish heritage instead of German, Max was unable to get approval to enter the United States and stayed behind in China. In 1948, when Edie was 7-years-old, they boarded a ship to San Francisco. On the way, the ship stopped in Honolulu, Hawaii, where Edie recalls one of her favorite memories: the day she first saw grass.
“That whole day, wherever we went, I was on the ground,” said Edie. “I rolled in the grass all day because it was just so special to me to see something like grass.”
The ground in the Shanghai ghetto was always covered with rubble and trash from the bombings and lack of sanitary systems in the ghetto, so for the first seven years of her life grass never existed to Edie.
The Oelsner family continued on their journey to America and arrived in San Francisco.
Edie’s first memory of America was seeing the sun rising through the Golden Gate Bridge as the ship docked. It was a beautiful ending to a miraculous story of survival and a wonderful beginning to the rest of Edie’s life.
Life After Shanghai
“After everything that I had been through, all I ever wanted was a family,” said Edie.
She met her husband, Neil Shafer at the Jewish Community Center during a singles’ night.
Edie said she knew he was special when they were late for a concert because he insisted on finishing a card game with her father. Others who had taken her out avoided coming inside because of her parents’ thick accent.
The two married and started a life in Milwaukee. Edie went to school then worked as a schoolteacher for a year before following her dream of being a mother.
However, while Edie was able to find happiness in the United States, her memories of the Shanghai ghetto followed her.
“It’s interesting how different people are who have gone through experiences like that,” said Edie.
She explained how on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the sight of the second tower being struck put her in back in survival mode. She left to fill both of her cars up with gas. On the way home with the second car, she stopped to stock up on groceries.
“I wasn’t sure what was happening,” she said. “I had been through bad times before, and I thought, ‘If I don’t do this now, what is tomorrow going to be like?’”
While her past might still haunt her from time-to-time, Edie stays strong for her family.
“I share my story for them,” said Edie. “I wrote a book about my experiences so they can know how lucky they are and how good they have it.”
It’s safe to say everyone can learn to be thankful from Edie’s incredible story of survival.
Today, Edie resides in Fox Point, Wis. with her husband. She is a mother to three children and grandmother to nine grandchildren. All are her pride and joy in life.