Engineer Peter Engler Relives the WWII Shanghai Ghetto in the New PBS Series, "We'll Meet Again"
Peter Engler was four years old when his family fled Berlin in the wake of Kristallnacht, the infamous “Night of Broken Glass.” Stateless, their passports stamped “J” for Juden by the Nazis, the Englers made their way to Shanghai, one of the only free ports in the world at the time. Soon after arriving, they were confined to a mile-square Jewish ghetto by Japanese occupiers.
Despite their abrupt dislocation and strange new surroundings, the educated Englers, with viable professional skills, survived fairly well. And they made close friends, mostly notably with an Austrian couple, Fritz and Stella Adler, who became surrogate parents to young Peter, whose own parents were comparatively troubled and remote. While flying into Tel Aviv after the war, he played the Israeli National Anthem on the accordion the Adlers gave him for his Bar Mitzvah, bringing every passenger on the plane to tears. He still owns it.
In the new six-part PBS documentary series, “We’ll Meet Again,” which airs for the first time Tuesday night at 8 p.m. on PBS stations, Engler, a retired biomedical engineering professor, has been asked to relive those experiences as he is reunited with the Adlers’ daughter.
“The last time I saw Margaret in Shanghai in January 1949, she was getting her diapers changed; I was reunited with a 69-year-old grandma!” he says.
Reported and produced by Ann Curry, the show narrates the stories of people who lived through “momentous events in American history” and lost touch with people who were once important to them. Her team locates and reunites them. Some are friends, some family members and others are what the producers call “significant strangers.” Because of her age at the time they parted, Margaret falls into that category – Engler was eager to find her in order to reawaken his emotional bond with her parents.
“PBS contacted me as a Holocaust survivor. I told them my story and identified a person I would dearly like to meet again, but I did not know her married name and was not sure where she lived,” he recounts. “The crew at PBS did find her and on June 22 this summer, Margaret and I were reunited in a very theatrical and staged event on a pier in San Francisco Bay.”
As the rest of the nation, he will be watching the show for the first time Tuesday night.
But for those who wish to hear his story in person, he can sometimes be found on NJIT’s campus. Like his father, Engler went on to become an academic. He joined NJIT’s electrical engineering department in 1984, and in 2000 became a charter member of the newly founded biomedical engineering department. He retired as associate professor emeritus in 2002, but returns for get-togethers.