Generations: Inna Mink

Shanghai? Probably not a place that would first come to mind as a vital Jewish community. But for Inna Mink, born in 1928, it was home for her first twenty years.

“My parents came via the Trans-Siberian railroad to Harbin,” Inna says as she sits next to her little white dog, Rumi, surrounded by Shanghai art in her lovely Larkspur home. “There was trade between Russian and Harbin—one way teas, the other way furs—and so when the persecution became severe, lots of Jews came on that path. Harbin had never had whites living in that area, so facilities were very very limited.”

Inna’s grandfather, a mechanical engineer, built Harbin’s first public baths. “They became a meeting place for the all the white people,” she says, “and they would congregate and exchange stories and help each other out, and try to do the best they could. The Jews actually did very well there, because they came with a lot of knowledge with how to survive.”

Inna’s father was also a mechanical engineer, and built a factory that had 100 employees at its peak. His success afforded the family a lifestyle to which many Russian Jews at the time became accustomed.

“It was the lifestyle in Shanghai. The household was run by servants. Servants for children, servants for the kitchen, servants for washing laundry because everything was hand washed. Clothing was made by a tailor who came to the house and measured you.”

Inna was educated in a French school. “There were certain standards of Russian Jewish parents — if you had children, they had to speak French, know French culture, play piano, take ballet. That was the thing to do if you could afford to do it.”

Inna’s family was orthodox. “We would buy live fish at the market each week and keep it in the bathtub until it was time to make Shabbas dinner,” Inna recalls. “My grandmother boiled all the pots, kept them from year to year for Passover.”

Each week, Inna and her parents would attend shabbat services, an experience she remembers vividly. “My father sat downstairs and my mother and I sat upstairs. My mother had her hand on mine, and every time I moved, she gave me a zetz. All I wanted to do was go to the courtyard and play with the kids. I had a very Jewish life, but the boys had religious education. There was no such thing as a bat mitzvah. Jewish girls didn’t have a Jewish education.”

In time, Shanghai became a thriving Jewish community. “Shanghai was an open port,” Inna explains. “It never required visas or anything to come in, so when World World War II broke out and the Jews were trying to escape, they could come Shanghai with bare bones.”

And bare bones is indeed how they came. “These people came with nothing — they came with a salami under their arm. They had no money, they had no clothes, they had nothing. They sold whatever they could. I know of a lady who used to collect old neckties, turn them inside out and make new neckties, sell them on the street. There was desperation.”

What they found was immense support. “There was an enormous Jewish community that took care of everybody. There were soup kitchens everywhere, Chabad houses, all focussed on giving people food and shelter.”

Inna eventually emigrated with her husband to San Francisco in 1949 on a memorable 21-day journey on the USS Gordon. “The women were housed together in the hull of the boat. There were 100 hammocks, stretched out as far as you could see. If one person threw up, everyone threw up. So I didn’t see much of the Golden Gate Bridge when we crossed!”

Although their visas were for South America, Inna and her husband got out and stayed in San Francisco. Their first US home was on O’Farrell street, in a building they shared with prostitutes. “There were big metal bars in front of the one and only window. There was a bathroom and a sink and stove, all in one room. Life was hard. We had $100 between two of us and it wasn’t enough.”

Fast forward more than a decade, and Inna was remarried and living in Marin with her son, Barry. The family joined and became very involved with a young congregation — Congregation Rodef Sholom.

“The temple was a wonderful place,” Inna says. “We were all very good friends, and when you’d come in, you knew everyone. It opened up a whole world to me. My son went to Hebrew school there, was bar mitzvahed by Rabbi Hoffman, our original rabbi. And eventually, my parents, who had moved from Shanghai to Australia, eventually retired in Corte Madera and went with us to synagogue.”

Inna spent those early years of Rodef Sholom running a second hand clothing store that the Rodef Sisterhood opened on fourth street. “People, mostly members, would drop off their clothes, we’d clean them up and sell them, and then the proceeds would go to the synagogue.”

How has the role of Judaism evolved in her life? Inna laughs at the question. “I learned more about Judaism from Rodef Sholom than I ever learned in Shanghai. It was first time in my life that I could sat in a synagogue where I could understand what was being said. In Shanghai, it was all in Hebrew, I had no idea what they were talking about. I just sat there, and I had to be forced to be still and be quiet, and in the all the years that I was being still and quiet, I never learned anything about Judaism except that the men were downstairs and we were upstairs.”

Although Shanghai was Inna’s first home, America remains a lasting blessing to her. “America was a whole different world. America has always felt like home, becaue I always really appreciated it. I’ve always appreciated the life that I have. What America has given me. I have been educated more here than I was anywhere else, been given opportunities that I never would have dreamt of. Life in America has exposed me to art, to culture, to music, to people, to job opportunities, to my God, it’s endless!”

Inna speaks five languages, including Russian, English, French, German, and a dialect of Chinese, called  Shanghainese  “It has has opened up all kinds of worlds for me.”

These days, as a young 90 year old, Inna is as busy as ever with friends and family and commitments. The phone never stops ringing. The appointments and meetings are constant. But Judaism remains a priority in her life. “Judaism is extremely important to me, and I am very concerned about it’s future. I find that the young people of today…somehow religion has become unimportant, they don’t feel the necessity of connecting to it. They feel the outdoors is their religion.”

Besides Judaism, Inna sees cultural openness as an essential ingredient for a meaningful life. “It is very important to not walk with blinders, to open yourself up. To listen, much more than to speak. One should be really and truly exposing oneself to cultural things. One should expose oneself to reading a lot. I find museums are extremely enriching. Music. Ballet. It all enriches your life.”

There’s one more thing that enriches Inna’s life. She puts her hand on Rumi’s soft, white head as he lounges in the sun at her feet. “He’s something else.”