Obituary: Kurt Wick

Holocaust refugee who found safety in his “little Vienna” in Shanghai



From his memories as a four year old in Shanghai during the Second World War, Kurt Wick recalled the gigantic U shaped school for Jewish refugee children, and wading home through three feet of water during the typhoon season.

He was taught English by Czech, German and Austrian teachers, and remembered them all his life. He also studied Hebrew and Jewish history at the local Talmud Torah school.

Wick and four members of his family were among the last Jewish refugees who fled Nazi persecution in Vienna on a luxury liner to Shanghai on August 2nd 1939. Wick, who has died aged 87, told his story to the Association of Jewish Refugees’ AJR Refugee Voices series.

Kristallnacht had proved a turning point for Jews trying to leave Vienna but they soon discovered no country, apart from England, which accepted 10,000 children on the Kindertransport, would allow them in.

“And even though the Kindertransport was a kindly gesture, can you imagine being a parent and sending your young child away to a country where they don’t speak the language? Can you imagine saying that sort of goodbye? The tragic outcome was that in most cases, they never saw their parents again,” Wick reflected.

Kurt Wick was the second son of Josefine Koslitschek and Moritz Wickelholz, a leather goods manufacturer. His brother Sigmund was born in 1934. In early 1939 the family discovered that the luxury shipping line Lloyd Triestino was taking German and Austrian Jewish refugees every month to Shanghai, and the numbers increased dramatically after Kristallnacht.

“It was a strange thing having all these people who lived in fear for their lives on a luxury shipping liner,” Wick recalled.

“My parents took a sewing machine so they could start making bags again once in Shanghai, and they also took our badewanne (zinc bath).”

But leaving Vienna meant abandoning Wick’s maternal grandmother, and other close relatives. The trauma of leaving her beloved mother destroyed Josefine.

On arrival, three prominent, philanthropic Sephardi families, the Sassoons, Kadoories and Hardoons – who had come to Shanghai in the 1850s and made money from the opium trade before expanding into banking and property – took care of the new influx. They set up food kitchens and bought warehouses to provide homes, divided with curtains and blankets, which was their only privacy.

“We made a little Vienna there, cut off from the horrors of Europe. It was pretty safe for us, as long as we didn’t annoy the Japanese.”

Soon charities were set up which lent refugees money for their own homes, and eventually the family acquired half a house with enough space for a working table and their sewing machine to make handbags.

“At the corner of our lane was a shop which sold hot water, as no-one had hot water at home. “A few houses down and the lane turned into a slum where there were two open sewers. That’s where the very poor Chinese lived, in makeshift houses. There were always fights going on in the slum.

“There were a few synagogues in Shanghai. Our family went there some weekends and on the High Holydays. The more pious Jewish refugees spoke Yiddish, but we spoke German at home, interspersed with some Yiddish words. I never learned to speak any Chinese. We used to have special Friday night dinners when we lit the Shabbat candles and would invite guests to eat with us.”

Josefine shopped at the market every day, because nobody had a fridge. They mainly ate fish and chicken, which was familiar to them from their Vienna days. Josefine also made Wiener schnitzel, and as a treat Wick would go to the shop and buy 100 grams of broken biscuits.

His parents opened a shop on East Yuhang Road, selling their handbags but without much success. The influx of Jewish refugees put a great strain on the small Sephardi community, which then sought financial help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. But money from the Joint stopped when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941. The Sephardi Jews were interned because they had British passports, so they could no longer help the refugees.

In July 1942 Colonel Josef Albert Meisinger, chief representative of the Gestapo in Japan, and known as the Butcher of Warsaw, brought his Final Solution to Shanghai: he suggested putting the 20,000 Jews of Shanghai on ships destined for demolition and sinking them in the Yangtze.

The Japanese refused, and instead created a Jewish ghetto in the Hongkou district of the city, where Wick’s family lived. They built an underground shelter outside their house where they could go during the bombing raids towards the end of the war.

But Josefine’s life changed for ever in 1943 when she learned from the Red Cross that her mother, her sister and her brother had been murdered in Auschwitz. “My mother never, ever got over that. She was traumatised for the rest of her life. She only wore dark clothes and I never saw her smile again.”

After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, China emptied of Japanese overnight. The Americans arrived bringing food and jobs, but also news of the terrible price Europe’s Jews had paid during the last six years. With thousands of lost people, there was nothing to go back to.

In April 1948, the family left for England. Moritz found a job in a leather handbag factory in Clerkenwell, and they lived in West Hampstead. Wick attended Hasmonean Grammar School and gained seven GCEs. He was urged by his headmaster to enter law, but finally rejected this in favour of joining the family handbag trade.

He and his brother Sigmund launched Mondaine Handbags, supplying some of the top shops in Bond Street and Knightsbridge. Wick would proudly show off his photograph of Queen Elizabeth carrying one of his bags.

Their biggest customer was Mappin & Webb, for whom they made a special lizard bag popularly called the ‘Mappin bag’ which sold in 33 of their shops. “I worked 100 hours every week, making every bag by hand.”

Wick married Caryl Granville in 1964 at Dennington Park synagogue and they lived in Hendon, then moved to Mill Hill. After the birth of their two daughters, Amanda and Chantal, they shortened their name from Wickelholz to Wick. He visited Vienna with Caryl and his brother and sister in law in 2009.

“ I don’t blame the Austrian people of today for what their parents and grandparents did to the Jews, but it’s still unbelievable to me that people should stand by or laugh to see their neighbours abused, beaten and murdered.”

Wick also returned to Shanghai in February 2019 and found much of the area where he lived barely changed. The synagogue became a museum dedicated to the 20,000 Jews who were saved in Shanghai and who are named on a wall. The museum opened a library in October 2020 and Wick, ever passionate about books, donated 8,500 books from his collection to the library, which is dedicated to his late parents. He had also begun giving talks about the Jews of Shanghai to community groups.

Michael Newman, CEO of the AJR, said: “The AJR is deeply saddened to hear about the passing of our much-loved member, Kurt Wick…..We are grateful to have had the opportunity to capture Kurt’s testimony.”

Kurt Wick is survived by Caryl, their daughters, Amanda Solomons and Chantal Lehrer, four grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

​Kurt Wick: Born 26 October 1937. Died 29 February 2024

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