In One Swoop the Japanese Officer Cut Off Rabbi Walkin’s Beard

- Chaya Small
Chaya Small, Born in Poland in 1934, took shelter in Shanghai from 1941 to 1946 together with her parents and 2 siblings. Her father, Rabbi Samuel Walkin, traveled to Vilnius where he was helped by the Japanese Consul of Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, who disobeyed his Imperial Japanese government’s orders and issued transit visas to Jews to travel to Japan. After two weeks on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and a short stay in Kobe, Chaya, her family and other refugees were transported to Shanghai, China where they took refuge for the remainder of the war.

Mrs. Small’s father, Rabbi Walkin, became one of the leaders of the new refugee community in Shanghai, helping many to rebuild their lives. Chaya and her younger sister, Esther, attended the Shanghai Jewish School opened by the Sephardic community.

In 1943, the occupying Japanese forces established a “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” which was later commonly referred to as the Shanghai Ghetto. The conditions in the ghetto, as Chaya remembers, were harsh. Her family was one of the lucky ones as they were given one room with 1 bathroom for all the occupants of their building which was about 40 people. There was very little food and diseases were rampant. It was normal to see dead bodies in the streets of Hongkou where thousands of Chinese refugees displaced by the Japanese assault also tried to survive.

Ghoya, the Japanese official who was put in charge of the ghetto was known for his brutality towards the residents. When Chaya came down with a serious illness and required a doctor outside the ghetto, she and her father had no choice but to go to Ghoya’s office to request a pass to leave the ghetto. Ghoya told Rabbi Walkin to lay his head on Ghoya’s desk. (No one would dare to disobey him.) Ghoya pulled his saber out ofits sheaf, raised it above his head, and in one quick swoop lowered the saber cutting off the Rabbi’s beard and laughing out loud at his own cruelty.

But despite all the hardships, Chaya still remembers her life in Shanghai with fondness. Her parents tried to make life as normal as possible. They had a strong family unit and close friends. Even though there was so little, everyone shared with those who had less. Rabbi Walkin and his wife took in a Chinese Amah. This was truly lifesaving for the Amah because they paid her with food which was very scarce. Although they could not speak the same language, the Amah became an integral part of the family. She cared for the children, taught them songs and made them dolls out of scraps. Chaya remembers her Amah with fondness. “She gave me warmth and security in an unstable time.” She says:“I would be so happy if somehow I could make contact with her again.” 

Chaya’s family left Shanghai in 1946. Out of many siblings Chaya’s parents were the only ones to survive the European Holocaust. Chaya now lives in Chicago, Illinois. She has created her own dynasty of children and grandchildren — a long and rewarding life that she feels could not have been fulfilled without the generosity and compassion of the Chinese people.