Saturday 21 July 2018

Hamburg, the Stolpersteine Project and the Chinese community.

"The Horror didn't start in Auschwitz, Treblinka or the other camps. It started in our neighbourhood, in our house, outside our door."

Woo Lie Kien's Stolpersteine outside his former home at 7 Schmuckstrasse (author's photograph)

Regular readers will know that I have something of a love affair with the German city of Hamburg, which began in the 1980s when, as a wide-eyed youngster working for a Merchant Shipping company, I made my first visit to the great port city on the River Elbe. I've actually lost count of the number of times I've been here now but we must be talking in excess of thirty visits, during which time, as with any city worldwide, there have been many changes - in the fortunes of the port, the currency, the architecture, the status of the city's football clubs and of the country's name itself (Hamburg was in West Germany for my first few visits.)

Something that I've noticed on my more recent visits to Hamburg and indeed, to German cities in general, is the advent of the Stolpersteine, literally translated to Stumbling Stones. These small, 10 cm square concrete blocks, topped with a brass plaque and inserted into the pavement, commemorate victims of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution in general. They form an ongoing project by the artist Gunther Demnig which began in 1992 and which are placed outside the home, or occasionally the workplace, of a particular victim from which he or she was deported to a concentration or death camp, or fell victim to euthanasia or eugenics. The plaques are made to a standard format and all begin with the words "Hier Wohnte" or "Here Lived" followed by the name of the victim, their date of birth and their ultimate fate. The first stone was laid in Berlin in 1996 and spread to Hamburg in 2002.

Obviously, the majority of the victims are Jewish but the categories of those persecuted by the Nazis were widespread and so there are Stolpersteine in existence for Sinti and Romani people (then called 'Gypsies'), homosexuals, those with physical or mental disabilities, black people, communists, Social Democrats, members of the Anti-Nazi Resistance movement, the Christian opposition, Freemasons, conscientious objectors, those who assisted Allied escapees or evaders, looters - the list is almost endless but basically covers anybody who did not conform to the twisted ideals of the Nazi movement.

The bright lights of the Reeperbahn pre-war (author's collection)

One of the lesser known categories who fell victim to this oppression was the small Chinese community living in Hamburg. They were mainly located in the St Pauli area of the city and had settled in the area as a result of the employment of Chinese seafarers in the German Merchant Navy in the early 1920s and at its peak, the community numbered around two thousand people. Many of their businesses were connected with the shipping industry, such as ships' chandlers and laundries but also branched out into other areas such as restaurants and food stores. They were hard working, industrious, well educated and in some cases, married to Germans and lived harmoniously with the local people. 

This harmonious existence ended abruptly with the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933. The Chinese community naturally did not fit in with the Nazis' Aryan ideal and so would become natural targets for their thuggery. Those who could, fled and the population rapidly dwindled. By 1944, there were fewer than 200 remaining, one of whom was Woo Lie Kien, who was born on 8 September 1885 near Guangzhou. He originally worked as a stoker on board British and German merchant ships and thus visited European ports on a regular basis but by 1926, was living in Hamburg. In the early 1930s, he moved to 7 Schmuckstrasse, a road which runs parallel to the Reeperbahn and which was at the heart of the Chinese district. At the beginning of 1936, he took over the running of the restaurant next door to his home and operated it with the help of kitchen workers and waiting staff, both Chinese and German. The restaurant was a meeting point for visiting Chinese seafarers and the local Chinese population.

The Reeperbahn in April 1945 (author's collection)

However, in June 1938, he was accused by the Gestapo of smuggling foreign exchange by buying up foreign money at an elevated rate and acquiring German Reichsmark at very favourable rates in the Netherlands by using intermediaries. Despite extensive investigations, insufficient evidence could be gathered and no conviction followed. Ironically, because of his excellent command of German, Woo worked as an interpreter for the Hamburg authorities but following his investigation by the Gestapo, this activity was curtailed because he was felt not to be a reliable interpreter. This was almost certainly trumped up nonsense encouraged by the Gestapo as a reprisal for not being able to obtain their conviction but ensured that one of his sources of income was cut off.

The coming of the Second World War saw an intensification of raids against the Chinese community in Hamburg and on 13 May 1944, came the infamous "Chinese Action" which saw 165 Chinese arrested - virtually the entire remaining community - under the pretext of collaboration with the enemy. Woo Lie Kien was not amongst those picked up initially as at the time of these arrests, he was in hospital in Altona suffering with a heart condition. However, shortly after his release from hospital in June 1944, he was arrested, once again on the pretext of currency irregularities. He was initially held at the Gestapo prison at Fuhlsbuttel and subsequently at the Wilhelmsburg "Work Education" Camp, part of the infamous Neuengamme Concentration Camp complex. Here he was undoubtedly abused and beaten as Gestapo Agent Erich Hanisch tried to extract a confession out of him for currency smuggling. His explanation that many of his restaurant customers paid their bills with foreign currency fell on deaf ears. Woo's partner, known only as "Annemarie B" a native German citizen, later said that Woo, who was 59 years old and already in poor health due to his heart complaint, was literally beaten to death by the Gestapo.

Woo Lie Kien was taken to hospital in Barmbek following this beating and died there on 23 November 1944. Annemarie was also persecuted and told by the same Erich Hanisch that her life was "forfeited" because of her relationship with a Chinese man but despite being placed in "protective custody" at the notorious Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, she survived the war and was liberated on 27 April 1945.

2018 view of Woo Lie Kien's former residence & restaurant at 7 & 9 Schmuckstrasse (Google Streetview)

Today, almost the only knowledge we have of the existence of Woo Lie Kien and his fellow Chinese expatriates in Hamburg is because of the Stolpersteine initiative. Ironically, although Schmuckstrasse in Hamburg has largely been redeveloped, his former residence at number 7 and the former restaurant next door are still there, although in a very run down condition.

There are already over 61,000 Stolpersteine at 1,200 locations across Europe. For those wishing to contribute to the initiative can sponsor a new plaque for the price of 120 Euros and can do so by visiting the website by using this link.

"A person is only dead when their name is forgotten" - Quotation from the Talmud.

I am indebted to Amanda Lars and the Stolpersteine Hamburg website for the background information on Woo Li Kien's life story.

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