Then, the sophisticated city was renowned as the “Paris of the East”. Some of Matzdorff’s memories of Shanghai have faded over the decades, but the image of the woman in a Chinese-style dress split high up the leg remains clearly imprinted on his mind.
“She looked like a princess,” he says. “She was just beautiful.” He scrawled a note on a napkin, asking the woman to meet him later in the evening, receiving an American “okey doke” in reply.
Cleo Wong, it turned out, ran her own lace shop and was not one of the “taxi dancers” available as temporary partners for the price of a ticket at the Wing On Department Store ballroom.
At the time Matzdorff, his parents and grandmother were trying to build a new life for themselves after sailing halfway around the world to a country he had known only through the movies as a boy in Berlin.
He experienced anti-Semitism first-hand in Hitler’s Germany, when he and members of his Jewish boy scout troop were beaten up on a camping trip, and lived through the notorious Kristallnacht, or “Crystal Night”, when gangs targeted Jewish businesses and landmarks, leaving the streets of his home city strewn with broken glass.
“In the morning on the bus I already noticed roving bands smashing store windows, some others painting the word ’Juden’ on the windows,” he told the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation.
Within a year his fur trader father and his mother, a lampshade maker, joined tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who found safety in Shanghai from persecution in Europe.
But his paternal grandparents perished in the concentration camps.
'Shanghai was a haven'Shanghai “was a haven for me”, he told AFP, his spry demeanour and firm voice belying his years. “It saved my life from Hitler or extinction.” On arrival, his family moved to the city’s Hongkou district, which in 1943 would become the designated Jewish ghetto on orders of the occupying Japanese authorities.
The 20,000 refugees living in it were never targeted for extermination despite requests from representatives of Nazi Germany, Japan’s wartime ally, but their movements were restricted.
A Japanese official known by his surname Ghoya, or sarcastically as “King of the Jews”, who granted the travel passes, was a feared thug.
“If he didn’t like your answers, he would get up from his chair and slap you in the face,” Matzdorff recalled.
But the hardships and lack of food of the later wartime years were still in the future when he met Cleo Wang in 1941.
The relationship lasted a year. He took her to meet his parents in their small rented room in Hongkou.
“My Dad was apprehensive, because in those days for a foreigner to perhaps marry a Chinese girl was a little bit misunderstood. It was not customary,” he said.
But any thought of marriage disappeared when she dumped him for a US Navy sailor.
He only saw her once more after the war, in Nanjing Road, a busy commercial street not far from where they first met.
“One day somebody tapped me on the shoulder. And she was trying to tell me what happened. But I was not interested anymore,” he said.
But now, after moving to the United States, becoming an American citizen, building a successful leather business and retiring, he thinks of finding her once again before he dies.
Back in Shanghai earlier this summer, he was amazed at the city’s gleaming towers, part of a transformation that is putting the future of the former ghetto itself into question.
Some buildings have fallen to the wrecking ball and the city has yet to set a comprehensive plan for re-developing the area.
“Personally, I would like to see it preserved,” said Matzdorff. His wife Nancy accompanied him on his quest.
'I have a movie in my head'“I’m visualising a movie in my head: refugee boy moves to America, gets rich, comes back to Shanghai, goes into a shop and there’s an old lady behind the counter. I can see it in my mind,” she said.
A 1948 Shanghai directory lists a Miss Cleo Wong of the Cleo Crochet Co., advertising “Handmade Crochet Work and Neckties”, but then the trail goes cold.
The story has captured the imagination of the Chinese press, but no leads have emerged. “If she is (in her) nineties then she’s still alive. But who knows?” Matzdorff said, his eyes glistening with tears.
“All I could ask is: ’Do you remember me?’"