Around the Alster, Around the World – the Wolf Brothers in Exile in Shanghai

Xin Tong

Source Description

Following the November pogrom of 1938, the situation of the Jewish population worsened dramatically, and the majority of Hamburg's Jews left their hometown. James Iwan Wolf (1893-1981), son of Leopold Wolf and a member of the famous Wolf Brothers, was one of about 500 to 700 Jewish emigrants from Hamburg who fled to Shanghai. After the Hongkew district had been turned into a Jewish ghetto in 1943, the Shanghai office in charge of stateless refugees – a Japanese military authority responsible for supervising and controlling a total of between 20,000 and 30,000 Jewish refugees from Europe – issued James Iwan Wolf's pass on June 2, 1944. Printed in Japanese, Chinese, English, and German, the document points to the various international powers' spheres of influence in the port city of Shanghai. While James Iwan and his brother Donat Wolf (1902-1984) continued to perform on stage in Shanghai under the name Wolf Brothers, his pass shows that he made his living by repairing typewriters. It also included a permit, which was renewed monthly and contained specific information on the times when its bearer was allowed to leave the closed off Hongkew district and enter certain other districts. Thus James Iwan Wolf was repeatedly subjected to the arbitrary decisions of Japanese officials who decided on the renewal of his passport.
  • Xin Tong

The Wolf Brothers of Hamburg

James Iwan Wolf, to whom this pass from the Hongkew ghetto was issued, was born in Hamburg in 1893 and hailed from a family of Jewish singers of popular songs. Until 1924 the family's last name was Isaac; following the Hitler putsch of November 1923 and in reaction to increasing antisemitism, all family members assumed their stage name, “Wolf,” which they had been using since 1895. James Iwan's father Leopold Wolf and his uncles Ludwig and James Wolf had performed on Hamburg's stages as the Wolf Trio since 1895 and later – after James Wolf retired in 1906 – as the Wolf Duo or the Wolf Brothers. They called themselves “singing humorists” [Gesangshumoristen] and became particularly successful with a routine portraying Hamburg dock workers. They made films as well and gained international popularity by touring Germany and Europe. In addition to their sensational success with the revue “Rund um die Alster” [Around the Alster], they scored hits such as the songs “Een echt Hamburger Jung!” [A True Hamburg Lad] and “Snuten un Poten” [Puss’n Paws]. The Wolf Brothers also wrote and composed the music for the Hamburg folk song “An der Eck steiht'n Jung mit'n Tüdelband” [On the Corner There's a Boy with a Trundling Wheel] still well-known today.

James Iwan Wolf had trained as a typewriter mechanic. Thanks to his professional training, he was able to support himself in exile, which we learn from the profession listed on his pass. It was only after Leopold Wolf's death in 1926 that James Iwan, who was a talented musician in his own right, took over his father's part in the singing duo. Partnering with his uncle Ludwig Wolf, James Iwan took the stage in order to continue to perform the Wolf Brothers' repertoire.

Persecution in the National Socialist period

Nur Deutsch will ich sein, Deutsch, wie der Vater Rhein” [“I want to be only German, as German as Father Rhine”] – one of the Wolf Brothers' anthems, can be read as a statement on what they considered their personal identity. After the Nazi takeover in 1933 the occupational ban against Jews limited their opportunities for performing, however. While the Wolf Brothers were allowed to perform at the first evening of music and entertainment organized by the Jewish Cultural Association  Jüdischer Kulturbund, their performance in the program “Heute besonders zu empfehlen” [“Today's Special Recommendation”] was prohibited by the Gestapo since their signature hit “Snuten un Poten” was classified as too typical of Hamburg to be performed by a Jewish singing duo. The songs performed by the Wolf Brothers were considered so-called “German national tradition” [deutsches Volksgut] and were therefore incorporated into the “national community” [Volksgemeinschaft]. Yet paradoxically, their performers were excluded from the “national community” based on their Jewish origins. The Wolf Brothers' last performance on a German stage probably took place during an event organized by the Jewish artists’ group  jüdische Künstlergruppe in December 1937.

During the 1938 November pogrom, James Iwan Wolf was arrested and deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Jewish prisoners were only released from there if they could prove that they intended to leave Germany for good. With the help of his family James Iwan managed to be released from the concentration camp. On June 26, 1939 he and his brother Donat left their homeland on a passenger ship bound for Asia.

Refuge in Shanghai

Since the mid-19th century Shanghai had been under the influence of various international powers, which was reflected in its cityscape. In addition to the districts listed in Wolf's permit – the so-called International Settlement controlled by Great Britain and the United States (1863-1941) and the so-called French Concession (1849-1943) – there was the Chinese-governed part and since 1937 also the Japanese occupation zone. When war broke out in the Pacific in 1941, the Japanese conquered and occupied the entire city.

Considering this atmosphere of political turbulence, the exotic metropolis of Shanghai was hardly an optimal choice for Jewish migrants. Most Hamburg Jews who had sufficient means, the necessary contacts, and had started planning for emigration in time went to the USA, Great Britain or France. When the November pogrom triggered a mass migration of Jews, however, many Western states began to establish quotas and closed their borders to penniless or impoverished Jewish refugees. Thus Shanghai was an exception. Until October 1939 the city was the only free port that could be entered without a visa and immigration papers. Between November 1939 and the end of 1941, Jewish refugees from Europe who had obtained a permit from the Shanghai Municipal Council – the International Settlement's governing committee were admitted to the city. This made Shanghai one of the last remaining places of safe haven for refugees who could not obtain a visa for any other country until its complete Japanese occupation in 1941.

After his release from the concentration camp in December 1938, James Iwan Wolf was forced to emigrate as quickly as possible from National Socialist Hamburg to Shanghai. He and his family arrived there via different escape routes. James Iwan and his brother traveled by sea through the Suez Canal and via Bangkok in June 1939. James' wife and daughter left in 1940, taking the Trans Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok and continuing by ship from there.

The majority of the 20,000 to 30,000 refugees arriving in Shanghai in the 1930s until 1941 came from Germany and Austria. Among them were about 500 to 700 Jews from Hamburg. Refugees who had relatives in Shanghai were able to use their connections to find accommodations in better areas such as the International Settlement or the French Concession. Most of the penniless Jewish refugees were provided for by local branches of Jewish aid organizations. For these refugees life in exile was extremely difficult. First, their traumatic experiences in Nazi Germany such as deportation and especially the experience of the concentration camps were still fresh in their memories. Second, they were now confronted with a foreign culture, a subtropical climate, and Shanghai's bad housing situation and living conditions. As a result, many of them lived at or below the poverty level.

On Stage in Exile

James Iwan Wolf and his family were among those refugees who depended on support from the Jewish aid organizations. They first moved into one of the refugee accommodations in the destroyed district of Hongkew, which was located in the Japanese occupation zone. James Iwan opened a typewriter repair shop there and, like many other refugees, tried to maintain a piece of “home” in his foreign surroundings. In his living quarters, photos on the wall reminded him of his previous life and of his family in Hamburg . He and his brother Donat also revived the Wolf Brothers act, performing their Hamburg dock workers routine at the Eastern Theatre and in numerous temporary accommodations for Jewish refugees. Donat later recalled: “Among other things, James and I took to the stage as our father and uncle did in their time. [] on October 21, 1939 I had my first public appearance on stage. It went well and people apparently liked what we performed for them.” These performances, which particularly resonated with exiles from Hamburg, helped James Iwan and Donat to improve their financial situation: “My second salary came from performing with my brother as the Original Wolf Brothers. I met a longtime resident of Hamburg there who had come to Hongkong specifically because of our performing there.”

Continuing the Wolf Brothers' artistic tradition in exile became a significant part of the musical life among German-speaking refugees in Shanghai. This makes the Wolf Brothers an example for the diverse cultural life of the Shanghai exiles. In addition to various exile newspapers and other publications, a large number of plays, operas, and concerts were written and composed. Dancing parties and lectures were also organized by Jewish artists. Despite unfavorable circumstances, the intellectual and artistic life of the Jewish refugees in Shanghai contributed to strengthening their resolve to endure and survive.

Establishment of the ghetto

The refugee's cultural life was ended forcefully when Japanese troops occupied the city after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Moreover, the Jewish aid organizations' contacts to the USA were interrupted by the onset of war, which also put an end to their support for refugees. The situation of the refugees further worsened when SS Colonel Josef Meisinger came to Shanghai from Tokyo in 1942 in order to implement a stricter policy towards Jewish refugees there. Due to strategic interests and the Japanese military authority's ambivalent policy towards the Jews, the Nazi's extermination plans were not realized in Shanghai, but under pressure from the German side, the Japanese military authority on February 18, 1943 proclaimed a “designated district” in Hongkew where all “stateless refugees” were to be resettled. Although the Japanese avoided the use of terms such as “Jews” and “ghetto” and justified their measures as “military necessity,” the aim was to confine the Jewish refugees to a ghetto – as happened to James Iwan Wolf, who had long lost his German citizenship and passport. His status as a “stateless refugee” was highlighted in this pass by its title, the personal information listed and the name of the issuing authority.

About half of the refugees who previously had not lived in the designated area lost their professional and economic existence due to their resettlement. As the address information listed on the pass shows, James Iwan and his family were forced to move to an accommodation on Anguo Street, which was located in the off-limits area. Here they lived at close quarters with the area's longtime Chinese inhabitants. In Hongkew the Jewish refugees were exposed to dismal economic as well as sanitary and hygienic conditions. According to a 1943 Red Cross report, at least 6,000 Jewish refugees there were on the edge of starvation. Moreover, the refugees were subject to direct supervision and control by the Japanese military authority, as the pass shows. Only those who were granted a permit due to an occupation practiced outside of the ghetto, like Wolf, were allowed to leave the ghetto at prescribed times. James Iwan's pass shows that his permit was issued on June 2, 1944 by Kubota, the Japanese officer at the office for stateless refugees in Shanghai. Since the Jewish refugees came from various European countries and lived in a Chinese off-limits area under Japanese control, the pass was written in several languages. In order to have their pass renewed, the refugees had to undergo humiliating experiences and wait in line for hours. They were frequently harassed and abused by a Japanese official named Ghoya, who was in charge of renewing passes and who called himself the “King of the Jews.” James Iwan's pass, too, bears Ghoya's stamp.

Survival in Hongkew

During the difficult years he spent in Hongkew, James Iwan Wolf tried to support himself by working as a typewriter mechanic. Donat Wolf taught German and English language classes to the Chinese and forged friendships with his Chinese students. Both Wolf brothers survived the U.S. air raids of July 17, 1945, which missed their target and instead killed 250 Chinese and refugees and injured many more.

After Japan's capitulation on August 15, 1945, the period of Japanese occupation came to an end, and the Hongkew ghetto was dissolved by September 3. It was only after the city had been liberated that the refugees learned of the extermination camps in Europe. The Wolf brothers found out that many of their family members, such as their uncle James Wolf and Donat's wife and son had been murdered in extermination camps. Although their uncle Ludwig had managed to survive in Hamburg, James Iwan and Donat could not imagine returning to their former hometown. Like most refugees, they left Shanghai for the United States in 1947.


James Iwan Wolf’s permit illustrates his struggle for survival in exile in Shanghai, which was marked by everyday Japanese supervision and control. Moreover, this document issued in several languages reveals the multi-layered relations between Nazi Germany, China, Japan, and the USA as well as the complex interests of these powers. With its special status, the port city of Shanghai, once the largest place of exile for Jews in the Far East, represents a curious episode in a chapter of Hamburg's Jewish migration history.

Select Bibliography

Georg Armbrüster / Michael Kohlstruck / Sonja Mühlberger (eds.), Exil Shanghai 1938–1947. Jüdisches Leben in der Emigration, Teetz 2000.
Frank Bajohr, „Nur deutsch will ich sein.“ Jüdische Populärkünstler, antijüdische Stereotype und heutige Erinnerungskultur. Das Beispiel der Hamburger Volkssänger „Gebrüder Wolf“, in: Marion Kaplan / Beate Meyer (eds.), Jüdische Welten. Juden in Deutschland vom 18. Jahrhundert bis in die Gegenwart, Göttingen 2005, pp. 373–396.
Ammon Barzel / Jüdisches Museum im Stadtmuseum Berlin (eds.), Leben im Wartesaal. Exil in Shanghai 1938-1947, Berlin 1997.
Sybille Baumbach et al. (eds.), atmen und halbwegs frei sein. Flucht nach Shanghai, Hamburg 2011.
Dieter Guderian, Die Hamburger Originale Tetje und Fietje. Lebensgeschichte der Gebrüder Wolf und ihre Familie Isaac, Ochtendung 2006.
Jens Huckeriede / Angela Müller (eds.), „An de Eck steiht’n Jung mit’n Tüdelband“. Gebrüder Wolf. Hamburger Gesangshumoristen und Revuestars 1895 bis 1953, Hamburg 2002.
Barbara Müller-Wesemann, Theater als geistiger Widerstand. Der Jüdische Kulturbund in Hamburg 1934–1941, Stuttgart 1996.

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About the Author

Xin Tong, M. A., is member of the research training group „Recollections: Representations of the Shoah in Comparative Perspective“ at Hamburg University. She writes her dissertation about „Transmedia Remembering: A Case Study on Exile in Shanghai (1933-1949) in German and Chinese Media since 1989“. Her research interests are: Media and cultural memory, exile memory, media history, documentary film theory and mediology.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Xin Tong, Around the Alster, Around the World – the Wolf Brothers in Exile in Shanghai (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, June 25, 2018. <> [May 20, 2024].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.