Holocaust survivor from Northbrook recalls her escape to China in PBS special
Uprooted from her Berlin home, Doris Fogel had one thing working on her behalf as her family struggled to survive in a Shanghai ghetto during World War II.
"I was a child," she said.
They say ignorance is bliss. In no way could this be called bliss -- sharing one room with four other people for five years, going without tap water for nearly a decade, using a bucket as a lavatory.
Still, that youthful bubble, plus the kindness of others and her family's determination, enabled the Northbrook resident to shrug off the trauma and live to tell about it in the documentary "Harbor from the Holocaust" on WTTW-Channel 11 and streaming on PBS.org.
The show details the somewhat hidden story of about 20,000 Jewish people from Germany and Austria who relocated 5,200 miles to a Chinese internment camp, related through the words and memories of Fogel and seven of the other "Shanghai Jews."
Spoiler alert: Today Fogel is doing great.
At 86, she is president of her building's residents association at the Pheasant Creek condominium development tucked behind the southeast corner of Landwehr and Dundee roads.
"Harbor from the Holocaust," which included her contributions filmed over several days in New York City in October 2019, is only her latest assignment before the camera. Fogel has done PBS panel discussions in Chicago, Hawaii and Pittsburgh.
She speaks in churches, schools and periodically at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie. She conducts services for Yom HaShoah, the day that commemorates victims of the Holocaust. On May 1, 2014, she presented "A Survivor's Remembrance" from the old Illinois state capitol's Hall of Representatives in Springfield.
"I'm old, but I try to keep busy," Fogel said.
Staying busy also served her well in Shanghai.
"I did sports, I was a gymnast, I danced," she said. "We didn't know."
Fortunately, Fogel and the other children there didn't realize the extent of the Nazi horrors. In January 1939, at age 4, she traveled to China with her mother, Edith (her father, Alfons, had died), a Berlin couple Fogel knew as "Aunt and Uncle," and their 9-year-old son.
They bore only the clothes on their backs and "what you could carry in one bag," Fogel said. China's doors were open to displaced Jews when other countries, including the United States, had closed theirs.
Three of her four grandparents had died in concentration camps back in Germany.
Many of the German emigrants were aided by benefactors inside and outside of China. A Chinese delegate in Vienna issued visas to allow many of them into Shanghai.
"It became a fail-safe to the Jews in Germany," said the daughter of that delegate, Manli Ho, in "Harbor from the Holocaust."
After a monthlong boat ride via the Panama Canal, they arrived to find assistance from established and well-off Jewish people who helped them restore some sense of community with housing, shops and schools, such as the Kadoorie School.
Fogel learned French there and "the King's English." After being liberated and resettled in the United States when she was 13, she tested as a sophomore in high school based on what she'd learned at the Kadoorie School, though she was placed in the eighth grade.
In the ghetto of Hongkau, the German and Austrian Jews made friends with the Chinese.
"We played with the kids; we were friends," Fogel said. "They didn't have anything and we didn't have anything. So, together, we didn't have much but we took care of each other."
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, they applied even more pressure to Chinese and Jewish residents alike in Hongkau. It was "the poorest, poorest part of Shanghai," said Fogel.
"It made me tough, made me street smart," Fogel said. "It made me learn how to take care of myself."
Even the war's end caused strife, as the United States bombed the area a little more than a month before declaring victory over Japan on Aug. 15, 1945. Fogel maintained a positive attitude toward the American soldiers -- especially due to the little Hershey bars they handed out.
Finally, in 1947 -- after nine years in China -- she was able to leave, turning 13 during the boat passage initially to Hawaii, then to San Francisco. From there they traveled to Peoria, where a family sponsored Fogel and her mother.
"The day that we were leaving Shanghai, I thought that my bed was going to walk out by itself because it was so infested with bedbugs," she said.
Eventually they made it to Chicago, where Fogel met her husband, Sam, an attorney from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and they had three children. They lived there for 52 years, with Doris managing her husband's legal practice for 45 of them.
She served as president and executive director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Wayne, was a Rotarian, and served two separate terms as president of Congregation Achduth Vesholom in Fort Wayne.
Sam Fogel died in 2008, and on Oct. 1, 2013, Doris moved to Northbrook.
She said that, after "Harbor from the Holocaust" aired on television, she heard from friends she hadn't spoken to in 50 years. "So it's been very effective," she said.
She maintains a positive view of humanity despite ghastly experiences and deprivation. She received charity, but mainly Fogel forged her own path.
"I always tell people, as you heard me say in the movie, 'Why me?' Because I was chosen. I'm here. I believe in God. Many times I could have died easily, but I didn't," Fogel said.
"I've worked hard all my life, but the opportunities -- one way or another, if you go out and search for them here in America, there are things for you to do."