Raised during the Holocaust, Sigmund Tobias was only three or four years old when his regular life in Berlin was shattered.
“There was a tree lined street with benches in the center. One day a gang of guys appeared, and they put signs up on the benches. The signs said, ‘Jews forbidden.’ And that was my first real sense that something awful was about to happen,” Tobias said.
Another early childhood memory he has is of a demonstration in Berlin, where he lived with his parents.
“Everybody was shouting, ‘Heil Hitler,’ and my parents urged me to do the same thing. I was shocked. But they said, ‘You better do it,’ because the crowd would have beaten us up otherwise.”
When he was five years old, Tobias lived through Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.
“I remember cowering in our apartment and hearing the sounds of smashing glass as Jewish businesses and residences were being vandalized,” he said.
After that, Tobias’s father decided their family needed to leave Germany for a safer location — they decided on Belgium.
“My father tried to get smuggled into Belgium, was caught by the Belgians, and was imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp for two weeks. And my mother found that he could be released if he left the country immediately. Of course, if he could leave the country immediately, he wouldn’t need to be smuggled into Belgium. So that’s when we found out that the Japanese occupied portion of Shanghai was the only place in the world at that time which was open to Jewish refugees.”
With passage secured to Shanghai, Tobias’s father left Dachau and Germany behind the next day. Tobias and his mother followed soon afterward to what would be their home for the next decade.
“Shanghai was very different from anything we had ever experienced before. Instead of living in an apartment, we lived in a house with seven rooms, and every family lived in one room. We all shared a common bathroom and a common toilet,” he recalled.
Although their living situation in Shanghai was nowhere close to ideal, Japanese policies about the Jewish refugees were much better than those of the Germans.
“We didn’t know this until after the war, but a German Gestapo Colonel tried to induce the Japanese to impose the Final Solution to the Jewish problem on us. He says, ‘Look, it’s very simple. Put all these twenty-odd-thousand Jewish refugees on a [boat] and tow them out to the Yellow Sea and sink them. No one will ever miss them.’ To their credit, the Japanese could not see themselves doing that,” Tobias said.
Instead of participating in the genocide of Jews, the Japanese confined all the Jewish refugees to small sections of Shanghai.
“Once the war broke out, the Japanese occupied all of Shanghai, and under pressure from the German government, put all the refugees in a ghetto,” Tobias said. “Malnutrition was rampant during the war, but we didn’t suffer any real loss of life until July 17, 1945 when American bombardment of the ghetto killed 31 refugee Jews and many, many, many Chinese.”
Even in the ghetto, Tobias was able to continue his education. A dedicated scholar, he attended a British public school for a few years, and when he was ten years old, he switched to a yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish school.
“The yeshiva from the city of Mir, which was a very famous academy, also found their way to Shanghai, and I ended up studying with them for about five years. I studied only sacred subjects and no school subjects,” he recalled.
After living in Shanghai for over ten years, the residents of the ghetto observed some changes in leadership.
“What happened was in Shanghai, from one day to the next, the Japanese disappeared,” Tobias said. “We didn’t know what happened — they just disappeared. And then after a few days, we heard rumors that an airplane had landed in the Shanghai airport and a tank had driven out of it. The tank was an American jeep — no one had ever seen a tank before. A few days later, it became clear that the war was over. We never really heard formally.”
In the weeks leading up to this, Tobias was not completely unaware of the new developments in the war.
“About two weeks before, there was a German language newspaper published by Jewish refugees, which had one tiny paragraph saying that a bomb had been exploded using atomic fuel,” he said. “I didn’t know what that meant, [but] physicists in our community who understood what was going on said, ‘If they did that, the war cannot last much longer.’ And of course, two or three weeks later the war was over. And then American and Chinese Nationalist troops began to pour in.”
While Tobias and his family were very aware of the war during their time in Shanghai, they did not hear about the horrors that occurred in Europe until World War II was over.
“We knew nothing about the Holocaust until we heard about it after the war in Shanghai,” he said. “The first camp we heard about was Treblinka. Then, of course, Auschwitz, et cetera. And horror rattled through the ghetto because virtually every family lost somebody. Fourteen aunts, uncles and cousins of mine were killed in the Holocaust in Europe. And these were not just names to me. These are people with whom I had lived and laughed and cried and never would again.”
Tobias and his parents had wanted to come to the United States for years, but the immigration quota for Polish born people was much smaller than the number of applicants. Both of his parents were born in Poland, but Tobias was born in Germany, so he traveled to the United States by himself in 1948.
“After the war, in the late 1940s, the Communist Chinese were advancing towards Shanghai. And my parents realized that there was a real danger that they would be caught again in a government which may have been very unfriendly to Jews. So they decided that I should go to the United States by myself, and at least that I would be safe and [it might] help them come over.”
Tobias had an aunt living in Brooklyn, so he traveled to New York, where he lived without his parents for a year until an amendment was added to an immigration law stating that the Jewish refugees living in Shanghai were displaced persons. At the time, the United States allowed displaced persons who were also Holocaust survivors to get visas outside of the quota, so Tobias’s parents were able to join him in New York after one year of living on his own.
In the United States, Tobias graduated from high school and went to the City College of New York, where he studied psychology. He then went on to receive a PhD in clinical psychology from Columbia University and to start a small private practice.
“My first job was in an educational clinic where I spent about 30 hours a week testing and doing therapy with students. I taught one course as part of my responsibilities, and I fell in love with teaching. I liked my clinical work, but I liked teaching so much more that after working at the clinic for four years, I changed careers and decided that I wanted to teach. I moved from Brooklyn College to the City College of New York, where I became a professor of educational psychology. I did a lot of research and taught thousands of students.”
In New York, Tobias had a successful career and a happy life with his wife and two daughters. The Atlantic Ocean provided a necessary barrier between Tobias and the horrors of his childhood.
“Many years ago, I was invited to teach at the University of Kiel in Germany. They had heard about my research and wanted me to come and lecture. I simply couldn’t go. I just couldn’t go back to Germany. It hurt too much.”
He maintained an aversion to non-Jewish German people until a memorable moment in the early 1970s.
“I attended a convention of the American Psychological Association in Hawaii, and we got to a beach, and on the way back from the beach, we heard a broadcast on the radio about 11 Israeli athletes who were killed at the Munich Olympics. In the car with me was a woman who was born in Germany — she lived in America, but she was born in Germany. And her scream of agony was even louder than mine. That meant a great deal to me because [even though] she was German, she was as upset about this as I was.”
This was the beginning of Tobias’s reconciliation with his childhood experiences in Germany and Shanghai, but it would take many more years until he felt prepared to publicly speak about his life.
“I wrote a book about growing up in Shanghai called ‘Strange Haven,’ and I published it in 2000. Beginning with that, I was invited to do a lot of speaking, and I’ve been glad to do so,” he said. “I’m particularly glad to speak to young people because I think it’s important for [them] to know something of this history. When we go to some classes, they’ve never even heard the word ‘Holocaust,’ and it’s very upsetting. Not because it happened to me — it’s upsetting because if people can’t remember the horror of the Holocaust, there’s grave danger that it may happen again. The only defense is to know, to be aware, and to fight the tendencies within us to hate other people.”