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Jewesses with Attitude

Laura Margolis: The Heroine of Shanghai

At JWA, we love to see other organizations (and not just women’s organizations) sharing and celebrating the stories of unheralded Jewish women. Today, Asian Jewish Life shared the story of Laura Margolis in eJewishPhilanthropy. Erica Lyons, Asian Jewish Life founder/editor-in-chief, wrote:

“The story of Laura Margolis reads like an epic novel. She embodies what larger-than-life literary heroines are made of, though without embellishment, exaggeration, panache or hubris. She was the real thing. Yet despite this, to most, this remarkable and dignified woman remains unknown.”

Laura Margolis became the first female overseas representative for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) at her post in Cuba aiding German Jewish regufees. In 1941, she accepted a JDC assignment in Shanghai, China, which at the time was occupied by the Japanese. In the midst of the War, she traveled by ship (alone) to Shanghai, where she did not speak the language.

When she arrived in Shanghai, the occupied city was struggling to meet the demands of more than 20,000 Jewish refugees from Europe. Eight thousand of these regufees had come to Shanghai with nothing more than the clothes they wore during their escape. An estimated 12,000 were living in camps in makeshift barracks, fighting starvation and disease. The JDC provided food as well as housing, medical care, and education, but after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, Shanghai became an enemy territory and American organizations including the JDC were no longer allowed to transfer funds there.

Meanwhile in Shanghai, Margolis heard that the Japanese were invading the heart of the city. She and her colleague Manny Siegel, who had arrived only days before, began shredding records and flushed the evidence down the toilet in their hotel. Cut off from her funding, Laura Margolis had to make the decision to feed only 4,000 of the 8,000 refugees. She chose to focusing on feeding children, the elderly, and the sick.

Laura Margolis reached out to a Japanese official and secured charge of the ghetto. With help from the Japanese, she was able to construct a new soup kitchen and feed more than 10,000 refugees daily. She also was able to provide medical aid, economic aid, vocational training, and education for the refugee community.

Throughout this ordeal, Margolis knew that internment in a Japanese camp as an enemy alien was inevitable. In February 1943 when her internment occurred, Margolis was able to feign illness and reside in a hospital rather than the internment camp. When she was released, she smuggled out records and reports of the JDC operation written on toilet paper and hidden in her underwear.

In 1990, Laura Margolis was interviewed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She was asked why she took on these roles and why she was willing to travel around the world. She joked that she was obviously trying to find a husband. As Lyon’s notes, she did eventually marry Marc Jarblum in 1950 at the age of 47.

Laura Margolis Jarblum died September 9, 1997.

The JDC’s historic archive details the plight of Jewish refugees in Shanghai, but only contains little photographic evidence of Laura Margolis’s crutial role. As Lyons said, “Though she was larger-than-life and her bravery, deftness and persistence are rightfully credited with saving thousands of lives, she seemed in photos content with remaining out of the spotlight. Perhaps this is the mark of a true hero.”

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Laura Margolis: The Heroine of Shanghai." 17 January 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/laura-margolis-heroine-of-shanghai>.

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