LATROBE, PA – Dr. Tina Johnson, professor of history and director of Chinese studies at Saint Vincent College, played an advisory role in the production of the upcoming PBS documentary, “Harbor from the Holocaust.”
The film explores the fleeing of more than 20,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe to Shanghai during World War II and will debut on Tuesday, Sept. 8, on PBS stations nationwide, including WQED in Pittsburgh.
“The documentary shows how people of many nations who were thrown together in Shanghai during World War II created and maintained their lies in times of severe hardship,” Johnson explained, “even producing music, art and literature. This lesson of human resistance, resilience and triumph over adversity is universal and timeless, an important example in our increasingly diverse multicultural and globalized world of how disparate populations can coexist and even thrive.”
Johnson served as a scholarly advisor to the production crew, providing research, contributing to grant applications, advising on the script and performing some translation work. Along with her role as an advisor, Johnson is also credited in the film for educational content, as she helped develop content for an interactive learning media curriculum on the PBS website for students in grades 7-12.
“My job was to advise the writers, producers and filmmakers to ensure the film is historically accurate,” said Johnson. “I secured a research assistant from Shanghai to work with the director in China and I was on location for some of the filming in Shanghai in Aug. 2019.”
Work began on the film in 2017, with Johnson becoming involved after being contacted by Michele Ferrier Heryford, the founder of the University of Pittsburgh’s Confucius Institute and member of the university’s Asian Studies Center.
“I’ve worked with the University of Pittsburgh’s Asian Studies Center for many years on several different projects,” Johnson said. “Michele reached out to me to get involved, since she knew about my work history and my extensive experience doing research in Shanghai.”
Johnson’s work with the project began in Oct. 2017, when she accompanied Heryford and the film’s executive director, Darryl Ford Williams, to China to meet with scholars and officials at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and other institutions.
Though she previously hadn’t extensively studied the Jewish refugee population in World War II Shanghai, Johnson has frequently visited Shanghai’s Jewish Refugee Museum and is well-versed in Shanghai’s history.
“I study the history of western medicine in China,” she said, “and as one of China’s first treaty ports, Shanghai has been a main center of western medicine since the mid-19th century. I’ve been going to Shanghai and doing research there regularly since 1999.”
Johnson hopes that the documentary will help viewers understand the plight of refugees around the world,
“In the words of Laurence Tribe, Harvard Law School professor and Shanghai refugee survivor who was interviewed in the film, I hope viewers will understand ‘the importance of being truthful, seeking justice, doing what you can to help others,’ as well as the importance of ‘a structure of laws, a system of rights and a system of commitments to the equal human rights of everybody.’
“China did not turn away these refugees,” continued Johnson, “while thousands of others perished during the Holocaust. These survivors have a story to tell that all of us should hear.”
For more information on “Harbor from the Holocaust,” visit the film’s official PBS website at https://www.pbs.org/show/harbor-holocaust/.
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