Weeks ago, Retirement News Weekly ran a two-part profile of Hannelore Headley, a local bookstore owner in St. Catharines, who survived Germany on the brink of World War II and lived as a refugee in China for fourteen years. This issue, we take the opportunity to tell one more of her incredible stories.
During her time as a refugee in Shanghai, Hannelore Headley worked her first job. Her father was imprisoned at the time as a suspected German spy and the family was in dire financial need. A butcher located in Shanghai was struggling to entice European clientele to his shop, despite the European community being small and living nearby. So Hannah, with her wealth of knowledge on locals would fill two suitcases with sausages everyday and would go out into the community to make her sales.
Some people refused to buy from Hannah because of her father’s situation, but many were kind and bought the delicious treats from their German homeland. Her favourite customers, as she recalls, were a group of women who worked at a bar by the waterfront. She claims the bar was owned by the only black man in China.
“He had in his employ a group of young Russian girls who were waitresses,” she tells me, “possibly other things as well. Well anyway, they were good customers. I would arrive there and they would have a cup of tea for me. They thought of me as a young person out there selling stuff and they were very sympathetic.” It was on her way to such customers, lugging behind her two suitcases full of sausages, that Hannah almost met her end.
As she walked down a street, a police car pulled up behind her. Officers rushed out and arrested her on the spot. At the police station, a young Chinese man, who seemed to be educated in the West and who had a flawless grasp of English, asked her questions about her father.
“I was not in a position to say anything to him,” she tells me. “I mean, I didn’t know my father’s affairs.” As she proceeded to leave his questions unanswered the young man became increasingly frustrated.
At age 16, Hannah lost her cool and told him, “I don’t know about Chinese parents, but European parents, at least mine, are not in the habit of divulging, discussing, or talking about their business affairs with their children. I can’t answer your questions. So stop asking.”
A stern look crossed the man’s face. He leaned closer and said, “You know I can have you shot.”
Hannah snapped back, “Go ahead.”
The Chinese man dragged her outside and stood her in front of a brick wall. She remembers the wall being covered in bullet holes. Men came out with submachine guns and a large show was made as they lined up and set their sights on her.
Finally, the man returned to Hannah and asked, “What do you say now?”
“If this is the glorious Chinese revolution,” sixteen-year old Hannah replied, “I must tell you, I don’t think much of it.” He muttered some curses under his breath. Even today, Hannah remains cool about the situation.
“He wouldn’t have had me shot,” she explains. “The results of him shooting a young white girl would have been horrendous. He was likely unauthorized to do anything and was just trying to impress his superiors.”
However, Hannah recalls that while she was cool then and now, shortly after the incident she was very shaken up.
“When I was released,” she explains, “I got outside and I began to shake. You have an after reaction. I was thinking, ‘That was close.’”
Hannah never told her parents about the incident. She knew that if she did, one of two things would happen. Either her mother would get very upset, storm up to the police station, and get into trouble or her mother would ban Hannah from ever leaving the house.
“And that would have been worse for me. I was not a homebody,” she says with a smile.
As we know Hannah today, the blind bookseller and blond china doll, we are glad that she was right about the young Chinese man and that she would live on to sell more than just sausages.