Laura Margolis: Shanghai Savior 1941-1943

            October 2013    
Search the Jewish Magazine Site:     

Browse our



© reproduced with permission from the author


Laura Margolis: Shanghai Savior 1941-1943

By Bonnie G. Lindauer


Organizing the Relief Operations

Ms. Margolis's first task was to bring order to chaos and to obtain the cooperation of the various refugee relief committees. Another social worker, Manny Siegel, was sent to help her near the end of 1941, but their work was seriously hampered when JDC funding stopped after the Japanese bombing of American ships in Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941 and the subsequent entry of the U.S. into the war.

Ever resourceful, she sought the support of Japanese officials now in control. Fortunately, she had previously cultivated a good relationship with Captain Inuzuka, the Japanese officer in charge of the Bureau for Jewish Affairs. She obtained his permission for the release of 5,000 bags of wheat from the American Red Cross and to raise money from loans to be repaid by the JDC. She implemented other measures to stretch the meager funds, such as reducing staff in the camps, closing two small hospitals, and working with the Jewish leadership to reach the difficult decision to cut 4,000 people from the relief rolls.

Funding was still insufficient so Ms. Margolis took an enormous risk by publicizing the critical refugee situation, even though she knew the news story would anger the Japanese officials. After the article was published, she and Mr. Siegel were to be arrested, but through the intervention of an influential Japanese friend the order was canceled. Fortunately, the publicity paid off and funds were raised to meet another month's budget. Throughout 1942 Margolis and Siegel worked productively with the relief committee she had formed and trained. However, as a foreign enemy of the Japanese, she knew she could be interned in a prisoner of war camp at any time, so she organized the residents to manage the camps.


Margolis and Siegel were finally forced to go to separate POW camps in February 1943. There she lived in primitive conditions for nearly nine months. To escape the worsening situation, she pretended to be ill and was transferred to a hospital where she found ways to communicate with leadership in the relief operations. Her determination, bravery and resourcefulness were demonstrated one more time before leaving Shanghai:

"I learned that I would soon be returned to the camp to prepare for the next prisoner of war exchange. I was able to obtain a report about the details of the refugee relief operations, and I wrote the information on sheets of toilet paper. I rolled them up and put them in the top of my panties, because I knew there would be a body search when I left."

She was repatriated to the U.S. in September 1943. After a period of rest, she returned to Europe to work for the JDC in Jewish refugee rescue operations in Portugal, Spain and Sweden. After the war she settled in Israel with her husband, whom she met in France where she was assigned to assist with refugee relocation. In Israel she worked in a variety of roles, one of which was to help develop JDC's Malben Homes for the Aged. After her husband died, she returned to the U.S. at the request of her family. In 1990 she was interviewed by the U.S. Holocaust Museum as part of the oral history archives of the Holocaust. She died in 1997 at the age of 93. Her New York Times obituary described her as a "true Woman of Valor." Ernest Heppner, a Shanghai refugee who knew her when he was a young man, captures some personal traits that distinguishes her:

"There is no doubt in my mind that without the professionalism, the dedication, the persistence, and the nerve - the chutzpa - she displayed, thousands of refugees would have slowly starved to death. If there is one deserving hero in the whole Shanghai episode, it certainly is Laura L. Margolis."


Ernest G. Heppner, Shanghai Refugee: A Memoir of the World War II Jewish Ghetto. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska, 1993. p. 52.

Rena Krasno, Strangers Always: A Jewish Family in Wartime Shanghai. Berkeley, CA: Pacific View Press, 1992. p. 4.

Erica Lyons, "Laura Margolis in the Spotlights: Portrait of a Heroine in Shanghai," Asian Jewish Life: A Journal of Spirit, Society and Culture, January 2012.

Deborah Strobin and Ilie Wacs, An Uncommon Journey: From Vienna to Shanghai to America: A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2011. p. 44-45.

Laura L. Margolis, "Race Against Time in Shanghai," Survey Graphic 33(3) March 1944. pp. 168-171 and 190-191.

Laura L. Margolis. Oral interview, July 11, 1990, United States Holocuast Museum. RG number 50.030*0149.

Ms. Lindauer is a retired research librarian and currently writes for children and adult magazines.


from the October 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Material and Opinions in all Jewish Magazine articles are the sole responsibility of the author; the Jewish Magazine accepts no liability for material used.



All opinions expressed in all Jewish Magazine articles are those of the authors. The author accepts responsible for all copyright infrigments.