“Jewish Refugees and Shanghai”  by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

A reader wrote:

I spotted this exhibition (“Jewish Refugees and Shanghai”  by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum) on the first floor corridor of the main building of the University of Basel the other day. Apparently the Confucius Institute at the University of Basel organised the exhibition here (the Jewish Museum of Switzerland, which is only two blocks away from the University, is not involved). Do you know anything about this exhibition?

I do. And as you may expect, I have some very strong feelings about it.

My problem with the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and that traveling
exhibit is that they both rest on a narrative of saviorism. And that narrative is false.

When the Central and Eastern European Jewish refugees began arriving in Shanghai in 1938, they were allowed in not because the city’s governments wanted nothing more than to save the Jews, but because the city lacked a united government that would be able to keep them out. By 1938, the city existed as three separately governed polities with Great Britain, the United States, France, and Japan as the main power holders. All three governments attempted to devise exclusionary policies, but the divided nature of the city governance created a situation in which neither these policies nor passport control
could be enforced to effectively keep Jewish refugees out of the city.

The Communist Party of China won the Chinese Civil War in 1950. Under the rule of Mao Zedong, most evidence of the Jewish refugees and their built environment was erased, their cemeteries built over, and their buildings re-purposed. The Jewish refugees and their historical experience in Shanghai had no place within the new post-imperialist Chinese state. This began to change in 1991.

In 1991, China officially recognized the State of Israel. In 2004, the government of Shanghai designated the Ohel Moshe synagogue—built by the Russian Jewish community of Shanghai in 1927 and later used by the WWII-era refugees—as an architectural treasure. In 2007, the People’s Government of the Hongkew District budgeted for a full renovation of the synagogue in accordance with its original architectural drawings. When the renovation was complete the government installed in the space the brand new Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. In 2008 the museum featured an exhibit dedicated to developments in the Sino-Israeli relationship; its website boasted:

“Mr. Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister, commented during his visit to Shanghai, ‘To the people of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.’”

In 2012, historian Irene Eber wrote:

“Chinese interest in Jews and Israel as well as in Jews who once lived among them is
widespread today. Not only scholarly works, but also a number of recent popular publications support this interest. Several universities have Jewish Studies Institutes and visiting professors teach courses on Jewish topics. Translation work is flourishing and books on Jewish topics and fiction by major Israeli novelists are being translated. A new and very different chapter in Chinese-Jewish relations has begun.”

This is the context in which the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum must be understood.

The Museum’s website reads:

“From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai became a modern-day ‘Noah’s Ark’ accepting…Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe. In the ‘Designated Area for Stateless Refugees’…about 20,000 Jewish refugees lived harmoniously with local citizens, overcoming numerous difficulties together…Dr. David Kranzler, a noted Holocaust historian…commented that within the Jewry’s greatest tragedy, i.e. the Holocaust, there shone a few bright lights. Among the brightest of these is the Shanghai haven…the original features of the Jewish settlement are still well preserved. They are the only typical historic traces of Jewish refugee life inside China during the Second World War…[Hongkew] was the place where Jewish refugees lived in greatest concentration during the Second World War…in those days. Mr. Michael Blumenthal, ex-Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and the present curator of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, once lived in a small garret at 59 Zhoushan Road.”

As geopolitics move China and Israel together, the history of this refugee community suddenly has a place within the history of the Chinese state; it is no longer a forgotten moment in the imperialist chapter of Chinese history, but a piece of history which demonstrates China’s enduring interest in and care for the Jewish people.

The museum’s narrative is clear: Shanghai was a Noah’s Ark, not a city which, by accident of its history, had on opening into which ~20,000 Jews could squeeze; the Jews and the Chinese lived in harmony, not in separate communities which rarely interacted; the Chinese government is the preserver–the savior–of the history of the WWII-era Jewish refugees, not the Mao-era destroyer.

In the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, Shanghai is legitimized not simply as a place where Jewish refugees spent the years before, during, and after the Second World War, but as a space in which the refugees were actively saved. This museum, then, neither serves the memory nor speaks to the experiences of the refugees, but instead speaks to and serves contemporary Chinese political interests.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum currently has a traveling exhibit making the rounds with the cooperation of a variety of non-profit organizations. This, of course, is what you encountered at your university.

I attended the Capitol Hill kick-off event for that exhibit; one of my professors got me on the invite list. The event really had nothing to do with the historical experience of the Jewish refugees who spent ~1938-1950 in Shanghai. To be quite honest, it made me angry and upset, especially on the behalf of several former Shanghai refugees present. The event was filled with giggling Congressional staffers and interns who were only there for the free wine and food, and the exhibit got several simple facts wrong.

And then the speeches started. They had nothing to do with history. But, they did have a lot do with the relationships between the United States, China, and Israel, with a
little Japan thrown in as well.

Was it naive of me to be as taken off guard as I was? Yes. Should I have been surprised considering what I already knew about the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum? No. Am I well aware of the fact that the identities of and relationships between modern nation-states in the context of global capitalism are all about narratives and myth making? Yes. Am I still annoyed by that exhibit? Absolutely.

I’m glad that more people are becoming aware of this history, and I am glad that, despite the motivations, the Chinese government is preserving the history of this community and offering resources for researchers. I love that so many people in China are becoming more aware of and demonstrating a growing interest in Jewish history in China.

But I’m a historian and this is my research. I want to see those refugees and their memory put out there because they’re an important and fascinating piece of Holocaust history, not because they’re politically useful. But, here we are.

And those are my feelings on that museum and that exhibit.

What do you know about Jewish perceptions of the Japanese between 1938/39 and 1943? Once they were confined to the ghetto it seems like they pretty much feared/hated the Japanese especially Ghoya. What about when they lived in the French Concession?

Before they were restricted to Hongkew, their attitude toward the Japanese was mainly based on how the Japanese treated other groups who lived in Shanghai.

After Pearl Harbor, Japan stepped out from behind its Chinese puppet government of Shanghai and declared rule over the whole city. They interned “enemy nationals,” which tended to mean the French, British, Americans, and other Europeans. This negatively impacted the Jewish refugees in two ways: those “enemy nationals” ran and taught a lot of the schools refugee children attended, and they provided jobs and a client base for many of the refugees. And of course friendships had formed over the years. So it was a bit of a personal blow as well as an economic/cultural one.

After the Japanese took control of the city, many of the refugees remarked on how horrified they were by how the Japanese treated the Chinese, many of whom had fled to Shanghai from the interior years earlier to get away from the Japanese. One person vividly remembered seeing a Japanese soldier ram a bayonet through the stomach of a pregnant Chinese woman. And having spent between 5-8 year in Hitler’s Germany before booking passage to Shanghai, I’m certain that witnessing this treatment was doubly traumatic.

As for the 1943-1945 Hongkew period, Ghoya was kind to children. And he was kinder in general than Okura, the other officer in charge of issuing passes in and out of Hongkew. However, he clearly loved his power over the refugees and loved making them wait in line for hours in the summer and lorded it over them whenever possible. I mean the guy once looked at a picture of Napoleon and said something along the lines of “That was a great man, but I greater. I am King of the Jews.” So like. Okay, Ghoya.

The big thing with him was that he was extremely violent and hostile towards refugee men who were taller than him. And many of those men had done time in Dachau before a family member sprung them, so Ghoya’s behavior was definitely, as we would say today, triggering.

While a lot of them probably would have been like “I hate Ghoya so much” between 1943-1945, they didn’t learn about the Holocaust until after the war, as they had been isolated from the rest of the world since 1941, and Hitler didn’t implement the Final Solution until that year. So, when they learned about the Holocaust, their first general response (I mean after the shock, grief, and disbelief) was “well the Japanese could have killed us but they didn’t we died of infectious diseases and parasites and suicide and starvation and temperature related stuff but no one tried to kill us, so SHANGHAI SAVED US.” That’s why you see so many memoirs with titles like “Shanghai Haven/Refuge” etc.

I don’t believe that life in the French Concession had any particular effect on Jewish attitudes towards the Japanese. Though they did develop some antipathy towards red centipedes.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Shanghai

Turn of the century Shanghai was a hotbed of imperialist engagement, capitalism, revolutionary politics, crime, and intellectualism. Therefore, it is no coincidence that it was in Shanghai that the 1905 anti-American boycott was conceived, and that it was in Shanghai that a work of American literature gave Chinese intellectuals a new vernacular.

The United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This Act prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country for ten years, and required every Chinese person traveling in or out of the country to carry an ID. In 1888, Congress passed the Scott Act, making re-entry into the United States after a visit to China impossible, even for long term US residents. In 1892, Congress passed the Geary Act, extending exclusion for another ten years, and in 1902, Congress extended Exclusion Act indefinitely while expanding it to cover both Hawaii and the Philippines in addition to the mainland US.

This Act, combined with the humiliating treatment Chinese immigrants and laborers received once on American soil, were met with widespread anger in China. On May 10 1905, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce called for a boycott of American goods. They sent telegrams to merchant guilds across China urging them to take part. The boycott officially began on July 10, 1905. It received an enthusiastic response as Chinese merchants ceased to order or sell American goods.

The boycott was not merely a creature of the merchant class. People of all levels of Chinese society partook. Students, writers, artists and intellectuals turned to literature to illustrate and find new ways to understand the suffering of Chinese in the United States.

In 1901, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into Chinese and titled “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens.” By 1905, “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens” was so popular in Shanghai that it existed in multiple reprints, was included in numerous anthologies of fiction, was frequently referenced in other works, was adapted into an opera, and performed by traveling theater groups.

The story gave Shanghai-based Chinese intellectuals a language to use to understand and discuss American imperialism, race-based oppression, and European imperialism. Through the plight of the characters in “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens,” they saw the struggle of their countrymen and women. Through the treatment the characters received as a result of their skin color, they saw their own treatment under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Historian Meng Yue refers to this as “compassionate association.” This association, however, was part of a larger pattern. Chinese intellectuals looked to the experience of Indians under the British Raj, the diasporic Jews, the Poles under Russian rule, and the Cubans under American rule to understand the experience of their own overseas. The boycott lost momentum by September 1905 as the Chinese government feared that it would turn into an anti-government, rather than an anti-American, movement, and it was over by the early months of 1906. However, as the boycott died, the language of compassionate association only grew stronger.

“Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens” traveled from Shanghai to Japan, where an amateur Chinese theater group performed an adaptation of the story in Tokyo in 1907. Not only was the performance praised by Japanese journalists, writers, and critics, but it was quite possibly the vehicle through which Japan first encountered the story of American blacks. It was through these performances that the language of compassionate association first nurtured by intellectuals in Shanghai traveled outside of China.

It is interesting to note that Japan declared an imperial protectorate over Korea in the same year as the Chinese anti-American boycott, and officially annexed the peninsula five years later. I can’t help but wonder what those Tokyo based writers and critics thought of this imperialist aggression in light of the new language the Shanghai actors introduced to them in “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens.”

That Time Song Dynasty China Invented Paper Currency

This is the story of how Song Dynasty China invented paper currency while Western Europe was still trying to figure out how 2-dimensional perspective worked.

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A first edition of Song paper currency. Image courtesy of PBS; original source unknown.

Song Dynasty China (960-1279 CE) saw the population reach 100 million people. This population tended towards urban and dense settlement patterns. Their relative proximity to one another created a situation in which farmers were able to produce primarily for the market, rather than for subsistence. They used their profits to buy products such as tea, oil and wine. This burgeoning market economy gave rise to vibrant inland and coastal shipping industries.

As trade intensified, merchants became increasingly specialized and organized. They set up partnerships and joint stock companies with shareholders. In large cities, merchants organized into guilds. With this increasingly complex economy came major technological breakthroughs. Papermaking flourished to complement the Song’s moveable type printing industry, engineers began to make use of gun powder, and the iron industry’s output grew by 600% between 800 and 1078.

Of course, all economies (at least, those which have moved beyond the barter setup), no matter how great or small, require some manner of currency. Tang China (618-907) briefly flirted with the idea of easily transportable currency in the form of bolts of silk, but quickly abandoned that system. The principle form of currency in the early Song period was copper coins—by 1085, Song China was producing 6 billion coins per year (up tenfold since the Tang period).

However, this coinage system was extremely cumbersome for those making large purchases. To alleviate the load, merchants, beginning in the Late Tang period, began to trade receipts from deposit shops where they left money or goods in lieu of exchanging copper coins. Seeing that these receipts were backed up by real currency and goods with real value, the Song authorities issued a small set of these shops a monopoly on the issuance of these certificates of deposit. In the 1120s, the government took over the system, producing the world’s first government issued paper money.

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Song paper currency. Image courtesy of Wikipedia; original source unknown.

The achievements of Song China range far beyond the creation of paper currency, from the comparatively high literacy rate, to the idea that there should be some sort of level playing field when it came to the exam system, to the feats of engineering which baffle modern engineers. Song China’s achievements were such that many historians will argue that it was the most advanced society in the world in its time (although I’m sure historians of the Song Dynasty and historians of the Golden Age of Islam have fights about this).

Ban Zhao: Women’s Education Advocate, Historian, Educator, and Librarian

Confucian thought, in its most simplistic form, holds that the balance of the universe rests upon the upholding of relationships—the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, parents and children, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, mother and daughter in-laws, and reverence of elders and the deceased. Each relationship has a dominant and a subservient half, and if one half begins to act outside of their role, then the order of the universe is disrupted, plunging the world into chaos. Within these roles, wives, daughters, and daughters-in-law functioned as the subservient halves.

This said women, were able to achieve great status and power even within their assigned roles. Ban Zhao (45-116 CE) is one of these women. She is the first known female Chinese historian, and was an influential advocate for the education of women and girls.

Born to Ban Biao, a successful official and respected intellectual, she married Cao Shishu at the age of fourteen. Though her husband died when she was very young, she was known at court as Venerable Madame Cao. She never remarried, devoting herself instead to a life of scholarship.

Her father died in 54 CE, leaving his life’s work, a history of the Western Han dynasty, unfinished. Ban Zhao’s older brother Ban Gu took over the project, but he too left it unfinished when he died in prison in 92 CE. The emperor then called on Ban Zhao to complete the work.

She not only completed it with distinction, but began to teach the palace women—one of whom was Empress Deng Sui—subjects such as the classics, history, astronomy, and mathematics. When Deng Sui became the regent of the empire in 106 CE, she often turned to Ban Zhao for advice on government policy.

Her experiences teaching the court ladies inspired Ban Zhao to begin her advocacy for female education and to write arguably her most influential work: Admonitions for Women. In this work, she objects to the fact that families teach their sons to read while neglecting the education of their daughters, while urging women to be submissive to her husband and male relatives. She emphasizes what she perceives to be the inherent differences between the natures of men and women, and advises her readers that nothing is more worthy than obedience, humility, and self-sacrifice, especially in marriage.

Her advocacy for female education, then, came from the view that an educated woman could serve her husband—and thus the realm, if we keep her Confucian socialization in mind—more effectively than an uneducated woman would be able to. Admonitions became one of the most commonly used texts in the education of girls, and remained popular for centuries as a guide for women’s conduct.

In addition to teaching, history writing, and educational advocacy, Ban Zhao also worked as a librarian at court. As such she supervised a staff of assistants, and trained younger scholars; she rearranged and edited Liu Hsiang’s Biographies of Eminent Women in the course of her library work. She maintained a lifelong interest in math and astronomy, and was also known for her varied writings.

Upon her death Empress Dowager Deng Sui dressed all in white to mourn her passing.

The Warring States Period, or, A Wild Confucius Appears

In 771 BCE the Zhou Dynasty moved its seat from Hao, to the eastern city of Luoyang, precipitating a long period of gradual decentralization, spanning from 770-221 BCE. This period of Chinese history is divided into two segments: the Spring and Autumn Period (770-479 BCE), and the Warring States Period (479-221 BCE).

The Zhou kings retained their technical status as supreme monarchs during the Spring and Autumn Period. However, their once centrally governed fiefs increasingly began to function as independent, competing entities. Frequent intermarriage between the ruling families of various states made for messy succession disputes, and states constantly plotted with and against each other to maintain a balance of power. Sometimes the states would even attack the Zhou monarch.

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Map courtesy of Wikipedia; no further source material provided despite geographic accuracy.

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Map courtesy of East Asia: a Cultural, Social, and Political History by Patricia Ebrey and Anne Walthall.

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See attribution of first map.

The states of Qin, Jin, Qi, and Chu emerged as the most powerful actors as the Spring and Autumn Period drew to a close. They made official their dominance by styling themselves as kings, a direct challenge to the charade of a Zhou-centered power balance which had endured through the Spring and Autumn Period.

This new balance of power represented the fifth century beginning of the Warring States Period. This period saw dramatic changes in modes of warfare as chivalric codes of warfare fell by the wayside, as the increased use of defensive walls led to the development of siege warfare, as the states adopted the use of the crossbow, and as militaries began dressing in the style of nomadic groups to ease the transition to cavalry warfare. Where Spring and Autumn Period military campaigns typically lasted no longer than one season and battles lasted no more than two days, Warring States Period campaigns lasted for years, and were fought over many fronts.

However, changes more profound than pure military innovation occurred. The combined social and political instability of both the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States Period led to a flowering of intellectual thought, the impact of which has never truly been absent from Chinese thinking, culture, and subsequent history.

As various states fell, the nobility of each successive state lost its status. The lower ranks of these defunct nobilities, the shi, began to serve as advisers to victorious rulers. As the shi competed for influence within this ever-changing socio-political environment, they set into motion an intellectual movement known as the “Hundred Schools of Thought.”

The most famous and influential of the shi, Confucius, began his career in the state of Lu in the mid-sixth century BCE. Failing to gain much influence in his home state, Confucius wandered with a group of his students until he found a ruler interested in his philosophy, which put forth the idea that sets of interdependent relationships between superior and inferiors must be followed in order to maintain the balance of the universe.

The third century BCE founders of Daoism disagreed with Confucian thinking, focusing instead on the flow of the universe, and the effect of human action on that flow. The Legalist school of thought emerged in the third and fourth centuries BCE in response to the fear of various rulers that their polity may be next to fall. This school places emphasis on rigorous laws and obedience as necessary to the existence of a state.

Other schools of thought and thinkers which emerged out of this period included Mohism, a school of thought opposed to Confucianism founded by Mozi in the fifth century BCE. Mohism stresses universal equality and is opposed to decadence on the part of rulers; it was rediscovered in the twentieth century after falling into disuse a few centuries after its founding.

There was Mencius, a fourth century BCE Confucian scholar who rose out of a school eager to defend Confucianism against Mohism. He argued that human nature was inherently moral. The fourth century BCE Xunxi, a Confucian rival of Mencius who opposed the Mencian perception of human nature, argued that people are born selfish, and may only become moral through education and ritual.

Sunzi’s third century Art of War stressed the importance of discipline, spying, and manipulation in the course of warfare, and argues that great generals are not those who charge uphill against overwhelming odds, but those who advance only when positive that they will emerge victorious.

The Warring States Period ended as the state of Qin emerged victorious in 221 BCE. The Qin Dynasty was quickly supplanted by the Han Dynasty in 206 BCE. The Hundred Schools of Thought came to an end alongside the Warring States Period as the First Emperor (the self-styled title of Zhoa Zheng, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty), a staunch Legalist, ordered a mass burning of scholarly works beginning in 213 BCE.

The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai: 1938-1949

January 11, 2019: This post represents a combined version of my previous posts on this subject, and was cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana. Further, I wrote this post before completing my MA thesis on the topic. You may read that here: “An Uncertain Life In Another World”: German and Austrian Jewish Refugee Life in Shanghai, 1938- 1950           

German Jews did not immediately begin to put their emigration papers in order after Hitler came into power, or after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws. As far as they were concerned, they were fully assimilated Goethe reading, WWI fighting German citizens. They could not believe, and would not believe, that the country they loved would turn against them.

Hitler introduced his anti-Jewish legislation slowly over the course of the 1930s, giving German Jewry time to rationalize each new piece; this especially held true for Jewish men, as they tended to work in traditionally Jewish occupations. Jewish women, on the other hand, through their regular contact with gentiles allowed to them through their place in the domestic sphere, became aware of the “social death” being imposed on them by Nazi legislation long before their husbands took notice.

In the wake of the mass arrests of Jewish men during Kristallnacht, it fell to these women to free their husbands, typically from Dachau. Nazi officials would not release men until their families provided proof that they would depart from Germany immediately upon their release. Thus, not only did women have to rescue their husbands, but they also had to navigate the emigration process by themselves. Due to the complex legal frameworks enacted by possible destination countries to keep Jewish refugees out, it was immensely difficult for Jews to secure visas out of Germany, made even more difficult when they were confronted with the massive exit tax forced on emigrating Jews.

There was, however, one destination which had not put up legal roadblocks to fleeing Jews: Shanghai; this had more to do with the decentralized and highly colonized nature of Shanghai than with any sort of altruism.

While the Chinese government had the right to demand to see emigration papers before new arrivals would be allowed to enter Shanghai, this was seldom enforced. Thus, to get to Shanghai, all fleeing families needed were boat tickets. For this reason—in accordance with the necessity to present proof of emigration to Nazi officials before male family members would be released—Shanghai became the only option available to some of the families of incarcerated men.

The journey to Shanghai began by train to an Italian port. From these ports, refugees boarded luxury liners serviced by German and sometimes Japanese crews, sailed across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, into the Indian Ocean, and around to the east coast of China. Their ship then made its way down the Whangpoo River until it docked at the Bund, Shanghai’s harbor-side financial district. This route was in use through Italy’s entrance into the war on June 10, 1940—although a few ships full of refugees did depart from Portugal and Marseilles before the Mediterranean was fully closed to passenger traffic. After the Mediterranean route closed, Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai via the trans-Siberian Railroad. This overland route took them across Russia, through Siberia, and into North China, where they boarded a ship for Shanghai. The overland route was in use until December 7, 1941. After that date, all escape routes to Shanghai were closed.

Though I’ve focused on German and Austrian Jews, about 1,800 Polish-Lithuanian Jewish refugees—including a large population of yeshiva students—too found refuge in Shanghai. This population of yeshiva students and their families first fled to Vilna, and then to Kovno, Lithuania after the German invasion of Poland. The Dutch and Japanese consuls in Kovno collaborated to grant the refugees visas to the Dutch Caribbean holding of Curacao; the trip to Curacao involved a stopover in Kobe, Japan. Both consuls were aware of the fact that it was not possible to cross the Atlantic during a time of open warfare, meaning that they illegally granted the refugees admittance into Japan.

This group of refugees remained in Kobe until 1941, at which point the Japanese government sent them to Shanghai. The Dutch consul, Jan Zwartendijk, was later fired in disgrace, while the Japanese consul, Chiune Sugihara was merely asked to step down. Sugihara saved 10,000 Jews total and is listed by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations; it is probable that his actions were merely in line with general Japanese policy towards the Jews, which will be expounded upon below.

Map of Shanghai during this period from "Japanese, Nazis, and Jews: The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai 1938-1945" by David Kranzler

The first wave of refugees to arrive at the Bund in 1938 disembarked with little more to their names than the clothes on their backs, a suitcase or two, and the equivalent of about fifteen American dollars; Nazi policy forbade them to take much else out of the country. This poverty could be seen in each subsequent boat full of refugees. The visible poverty of these Jews embarrassed the established Russian and Sephardic Jewish communities of Shanghai; the Sephardic Jewish community was Baghdadi in origin, and had traveled to Shanghai as businessmen under the auspices of the British Empire, while the Russian Jewish community arrived in Shanghai in two main waves: first fleeing from the pogroms of 1905, and then from the violently anti-Semitic White Russian forces during the Russian Civil War.

One year before the refugees began to arrive, hostilities of the Sino-Japanese War were waged in the streets of the Hongkew district of Shanghai, leading to its partial destruction. Because land and property in Hongkew were thus so inexpensive, and because of the destitution of the new arrivals, Jewish relief organizations in Allied and neutral countries along with the Sephardic and Russian communities in Shanghai—the Hardoon and Kadoorie families in particular—collaborated to set up refugee homes based in Hongkew for the refugees. These homes (Heime), though obviously better than nothing, were crowded, unsanitary, and the time spent there was extremely distressing for the formerly upper middle class refugees.

While some refugees received money from relations in Allied or neutral countries, had smuggled money and/or valuables out of Germany, or had been able to quickly find gainful employment and relocate to the French or International Districts of Shanghai,  many were never able to accumulate the funds needed to secure housing outside of Hongkew. Some, so traumatized by Kristallnacht, leaving Germany, arriving with nothing to the Heime, and their loss of identity, became depressed and never left their Heim; this was especially true for those who had held high status professions in Germany.

Shanghai Jewish ghetto

Shanghai, China, 1944, An alley in the Jewish ghetto. Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Photo Archive.

Some refugees were able to establish a fairly normal life in Shanghai, complete with jobs, refugee schools founded by Horace Kadoorie, and synagogue attendance. However, in February 1943, the Japanese rulers of Shanghai announced that all “Stateless Persons” who had arrived in Shanghai after 1937 had to relocate to Hongkew—an area of about one half mile in length already populated by thousands impoverished Chinese refugees—by May 1943. This proclamation was directed at Jewish refugees as an attempt on the part of the Japanese to appease their German allies. The “designated area” to which the refugees were relegated is, and was, colloquially known as the “Shanghai Ghetto.”

Conditions within Hongkew were deplorable, with the available housing insufficient to shield the residents from the extreme temperatures reached in the summer and winter months, lack of access to adequate health care, a contaminated water supply, a barely sufficient sewage system, trash-lined streets, and targeted Allied bombing raids.

The refugees also had to contend with poverty, malnutrition, and health problems associated with a contaminated water supply. This said, refugee children were still able to attend school, adults could secure passes out of Hongkew to go to work, and the refugees were so vigorous in shaping their surroundings that, by 1944, the main thoroughfare of Hongkew looked more like a street in Vienna than a bombed out section of Shanghai. In fact, the refugees created such a rich cultural life in Hongkew that, when some groups of refugees began to stage theatrical productions, other refugees penned editorials in refugee-run periodicals complaining about the quality of said productions.

Shanghai, China, A sports class at the Jewish Youth Association school.  Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Photo Archive. Click for source.

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Men and women at a Shanghai bar. Courtesy of the Yad Vashem Photo Archive.

Despite having forced the Jewish refugee population to relocate to Hongkew, the Japanese took no directly aggressive or violent steps against this population despite the urging of their German allies. There are two reasons for this, both based in Jewish and Japanese isolation from each other throughout most of their respective histories. The first, is that the Japanese formed a positive view of the Jewish people after private Jewish American financier Jacob Schiff funded their efforts in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Though positive, this view characterized the Jews as a wealthy, powerful people. Not long after, Japan fought alongside the White Russians in the Russian Civil War. The White Russians circulated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion among the Japanese troops, and when this document reached the Japanese government, that body saw it as a confirmation of their prior characterization of the Jews. The Japanese then enacted a policy of appeasing these people with such control over the Western governments, thus refraining from abusing the Jewish refugees in their care.

American troops occupied Shanghai in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s 1945 surrender. After a year or so of peace, the refugees once again found themselves in a precarious political position. The economy was failing under the rule of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, and every day they received news of the progress made by Mao Zedong’s Communist forces. By 1949, the year in which Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, most of the Jewish residents of Shanghai—Polish, German, Austrian, Russian, and Baghdadi alike—had fled to the United States, Australia, or Israel. By 1956, 171 Jews were left in Shanghai.

A total of about 20,000 Jews (estimates vary) sought refuge in Shanghai. Others—though very few—made it to safety in such locales as the United States, Argentina, and Palestine. Many of the Jews who had fled Germany in the early 1930’s for other European nations ended up trapped in the late 1930’s, early 1940’s as those nations were invaded and occupied by the Nazis. Of the German Jews who escaped from Germany before 1941, only half of them survived the Holocaust.

Some more on the WWII Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai…

A month or two ago I made a post about the “Shanghai Ghetto,” the probable topic of my Master’s thesis. Since making that post I’ve done a large amount of research and spent about a month writing a research paper about a subset of life for the Jewish refugees in Shanghai. So, in light of that, I want to clear up a few things I got wrong, or over-simplified in my last post on the subject.

-German and Austrian Jews fleeing Germany first took a train from Germany to either Naples or Genoa. There, they would sail through the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, into the Indian Ocean, and all the way to the coast of China. Their ship would then make its way down the Whangpoo River until it docked at the Bund (Shanghai’s harbor-side financial district).

Jewish refugees flooded into Shanghai via this route from 1938 until it was closed upon Italy’s entrance into the war on June 10, 1940. After this closure, Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai via the trans-Siberian Railroad. This route took them across Russia through to Manchuria, at which point the majority boarded a ship for Shanghai. This route was open until December 7, 1941. After that date, all escape routes to Shanghai were closed to Jews.

And now we can celebrate the return of my mildly inaccurate MS Paint maps (both courtesy of Google Maps)! The first map shows the Italy-Shanghai route in use from 1938-1940, and the second shows the overland train route in use from 1940-1941. Obviously the ships did not sail over India or Japan; that is just me being incapable of drawing accurate lines on MS Paint.

-Also in Shanghai were Sephardic and Russian communities. The Sephardic Jewish community was generally Baghdadi in origin, and traveled to Shanghai as businessmen under the auspices of the British Empire. Members of this community—specifically the Kadoorie and Sassoon families—gave great sums of money to the Jewish refugee community. The Russian Jewish community had fled to Shanghai from Russia in the midst of the Russian Civil War; they were fleeing from the violently anti-Semitic White Russian forces.

When the refugees—many newly destitute as Nazi policy forbade them from taking many valuables or more than about fifteen American dollars out of the country—arrived in Shanghai, their impoverished status embarrassed the pre-existing Jewish communities who feared that the presence of these impoverished (white) Jews would take away from their own status within Shanghai.

-The “Shanghai Ghetto” moniker is a misleading one. The Hongkew District of Shanghai was home to the city’s poorest Chinese inhabitants. It was partially destroyed in 1937 by hostilities in the Sino-Japanese War, and had not been rebuilt when the refugees began to arrive in 1938. Jewish relief organizations in Allied and neutral countries along with the Sephardic and Russian communities in Shanghai set up refugee homes based in Hongkew for the newly arrived refugees, as structures were inexpensive in that location. These homes (Heime), though obviously better than nothing, were crowded, unsanitary, and the time spent there was extremely distressing for the formerly upper middle class refugees*.

Though some refugees received money from relations in Allied or neutral countries, had smuggled money and/or valuables out of Germany, or had been able to quickly find gainful employment and relocate to the French or International Concessions, many were never able to secure enough money to get out of Hongkew. Some, so traumatized by Kristallnacht, leaving Germany, and arriving with nothing to the Heime—so traumatized by their loss of identity—became depressed and never left their Heim.

In February 1943, the Japanese rulers of Shanghai announced that all “Stateless Persons” who had arrived in Shanghai after 1937 had to relocate to Hongkew by May 1943. Though it was not specified in the language of the proclamation, it was taken to be directed at the Jewish refugees, and was directed at them as an attempt on the part of the Japanese to appease their German allies. Thus, it was only a “Ghetto” for the Jews in the last two years of the war.

-Many dates are attributed to the time at which this refugee community was in Shanghai, a popular one being 1938-1945, but I prefer 1938-1949 because it was in 1949 that Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, and it was by 1949 that most of the refugee community had fled to the United States, Australia, or Israel. By 1957, only 100 Jews were left in Shanghai.

*I could tell you more about the conditions within the Heime and Hongkew as a whole which caused these refugees such existential distress, but I am not sure if you want a post about toilets, sewage, sanitation, etc. I personally find history relating to sewage and sanitation to be really interesting (if not gross) but I don’t know if you want to read about such things. Let me know if you do.

The Shanghai Ghetto

Welcome to one of those posts that is secretly derived from my thesis research. Contains mention of the Holocaust.

My research is still in its early stages, so this breakdown of its background may contain some vaguaries, and some theories which have not yet been thoroughly researched. These will be clearly marked.

My inquiry starts in the early years of the Third Reich. It’s easy to look at these years and wonder why German Jews didn’t start to get their emigration papers in order when Hitler implemented the 1933 boycott of Jewish businesses, but in asking this, we are ignoring the fact that these German Jews saw themselves as 100% German. They fought for Germany in WWI, read and valued and prized German art and literature and philosophy; the idea that their country would turn against them was inconceivable.

Because Hitler introduced his anti-Jewish legislation slowly over the course of the 1930’s, he gave German Jewry time to rationalize and get used to each new piece; with every new law they would think to themselves “Well this must be it; it can’t get any worse than this; what more can they do to us?”

German Jews did emigrate out of Germany over the course of the 1930’s (often, as previously discussed, at the urging of women) as they lost the ability to rationalize the legislation to themselves, but some were not able to see that it was going to keep getting worse until after Kristallnacht. By then, it was too late for many of them to secure the documentation and funds they would need to emigrate (in addition to the sheer amount of time it took to get emigration papers, and the fact that prospective countries had strict emigration quotas, the Nazis charged emigrating Jews a massive exit tax).

There was, however, one place that would accept these Jews without any papers or visa requirements: Shanghai. A sizable number of German and Austrian Jews fled to Shanghai in the late 1930’s and stayed there through the course of the war as Stateless Persons. While most of the Jews who had fled to Shanghai were German or Austrian, there was also the entire student population of the famed Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland whom had been rescued by a Dutch official in Lithuania*. Also present in Shanghai, specifically in the International Concession, was a community of very wealthy Sephardic Jews, many of Iraqi descent.

When the Japanese occupied Shanghai after declaring war on the United States (and thus the Allied Powers) in 1941, they forced the Stateless Persons to move into a very small area of crowded, low standard housing in the Hongkew district of Shanghai—this area became known as the Shanghai Ghetto. Though it was officially only the Stateless Persons who were forced to move into this area, the relocation was aimed at the Jewish refugees (as they made up the majority of the Stateless Persons). This was an attempt of the Japanese to appease their German allies.

While the living conditions within Hongkew were terrible, the Japanese took no further steps against the Jews, focusing more of their direct aggression and violence towards the Chinese population of Shanghai. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that in the Japanese government was given financial assistance against the Russian tsarist government in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) by American Jewish financier Jacob Schiff. This gave the Japanese—who hadn’t had much interaction with Jews—a positive view of the Jewish people, and may have influenced their decision not to persecute the Jews in their territory.

The second possible reason is that the Japanese—in their non-experience with Jews—had been exposed to anti-Jewish propaganda of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion variety by the White Russian troops they fought alongside against the Communists in 1919 and took it seriously. They feared that if they treated the Jews poorly, the powerful Jewish financiers behind Western governments would exact revenge on Japan. It also may have been a combination of the two.

Though General Ghoya—the often violent and unpredictable Japanese officer and self-styled “King of the Jews” who had been put in charge of issuing papers allowing people in and out of the Hongkew District—made no attempt to murder these Jews, poverty, malnutrition, lack of access to health care, unclean drinking water, disease carrying insects, Allied bombing raids, and exposure to unfamiliar climates were all effective killers.

After Japan surrendered in 1945, Shanghai was occupied by American troops. Some Jews stayed around for a few years, working for the American military and saving money for an eventual emigration to New York—most of the Jews who had fled to Shanghai did aspire to live out the remainder of their lives in the United States. Some returned to Germany to register with the new government and attempt to get government restitution for their property which had been seized by the Nazi government; this was often a traumatic and unsuccessful venture. Fewer still made their way to Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Palestine/Israel (depending on what part of the 1940’s we’re talking about). The few Jews who had remained in Shanghai through the 1940’s left as the Communist regime made its way to Shanghai, and by the Cultural Revolution, none were left.

And just a note about German Jewish émigrés, not all went to Shanghai or Palestine or New York or Australia or Argentina or England. Many traveled and settled in other Eastern and Western European nations, believing that Hitler would not invade those countries, and/or underestimating Hitler’s devotion to lebensraum. Many were trapped and murdered in these countries as they were overtaken by the Third Reich. Ultimately, of the Jews who escaped from Germany, only half of them survived the Holocaust. That figure of 50% does not take into account those who died or committed suicide after arriving in their émigré countries.

*After the invasion of Poland, the student population of the Mirrer Yeshiva fled to Lithuania. Knowing that Lithuania would probably be the next to fall to Germany, one student visited the Dutch consul in Kovno, and got the official to write in his passport that no visa was needed to travel to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao. The Japanese official in Kovno—Chiune Sugihara—gave the student a transit visa to cross Japan on his way to Curacao. This student’s Yeshiva colleagues were all given this allowance. Both officials knew that there was no way for these Jews to reach the Caribbean, meaning that they were implicitly and illegally smuggling these people out of soon to be conquered Lithuania into Shanghai through misuse of consular power. These students would later say that they had been saved by an angel. Both officials were later penalized by their respective governments for their actions.

The Kaifeng Jews

Late nineteenth century photo of two members of the Kaifeng Jewish community

When people think about Jewish Diaspora communities, they probably think of Fiddler on the Roof style Jewish communities. They forget that the Jewish Diaspora was not one singular event, and that it sent people in every direction across the globe, and not just to Europe. Many went east—there were vibrant, ancient Jewish communities across the Middle East up until the mid-twentieth century. And some went further east, to China.

There are many theories as to when and how Jews ended up in China. In my opinion, the most accurate theory is simply that some Jewish merchants followed the Silk Road as it rose to prominence in the third century CE, and ended up in China.

Two others theorize that the pre-1800s Chinese Jewish community consists of the descendants of either those who chose not to follow Ezra back to Judah at the end of the Babylonian Exile, or of the Jews who were expelled from Roman Judea after their failed first century CE revolt against Rome (the one chronicled by Josephus in The War of the Jews). However, it is my view that the latter two theories are not mutually exclusive to the Silk Road theory.

Either way, according to the records available to historians, the first Jews arrived in China during the Han Dynasty period between 206 and 220 CE. There aren’t many records of these people—a Muslim traveler, Abu Zayyd, reported that 120,000 people of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths were killed in a massacre during a rebellion in Canton between 878 and 879—and it wasn’t until between 960 and 1280 that the Kaifeng Jewish community–generally know as the premiere Chinese Jewish community–was founded.

We have three primary sources from the Kaifeng Jewish community itself in the form of three inscribed tablets. The oldest of the three dates back to 1489 and commemorates the 1163 construction of the Kaifeng synagogue. It states that the Jews came to China from India during the Han dynasty period—between 200 BCE and 200 CE—and received permission from the government to settle in the central Chinese town of Kaifeng. The inscription also lists the names of 70 members of the community, and discusses the transmission of their faith all the way from Adam to Ezra.

Ink rubbings of the 1489 (left) and 1512 (right) inscriptions

The second tablet dates back to 1512, and lists the details of their daily religious practices. The third, from 1663, commemorates the rebuilding of the synagogue. Many of the inscriptions address the “boundless loyalty” of the Jewish community to the Chinese government. .

The first outside documentation we have of this community is from the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. In 1605, Ricci met a man in Peking named Ai Tian. Tian saw an image of Ricci’s which depicted the Virgin Mary sitting with the baby Jesus, and believed it to be an image of Rebecca sitting with either Isaac or Esau.

Tian then informed a rather surprised Ricci of the fact that there were many Jews in Kaifeng, and that they had a splendid synagogue. Ricci traveled with him to Kaifeng, and saw for himself a copy of the book known as the Pentateuch, that the people in the community practiced circumcision, and that they refused to eat pork.

1722 drawing of the interior of the Kaifeng synagogue by Jean Domenge

Ricci, of course, responded by trying to convert them all to Christianity, got all pompous at the rabbi about the messiah, and finally concluded that they were heathens.

Over the centuries, the Kaifeng Jewish community became assimilated into Chinese culture, and has lost a lot of their sense of Jewish identity. Despite this, descendants of this community are still identifiable today. During the Ming Dynasty period, seven surnames—Ai, Shi, Gao, Jin, Li, Zhang,* and Zhao—were conferred upon the Kaifeng Jews, and all of these surnames may still be used to identify members of this community today. Many of them refuse to eat pig products, celebrate Chanukah, and remember being told by their parents or grandparents simply that they were Jewish and would “return to their land” some day.

It is only in recent years that ties have been formed between the global Jewish community and the descendants of the Kaifeng community. In 1985, The Sino-Judaic Institute was founded in Palo Alto, California “for the purpose of promoting understanding between Chinese and Jewish peoples and to encourage and develop their cooperation in matters of mutual historic and cultural interest.” In 2009, a family of Kaifeng descendants emigrated to Israel, and their experiences have been documented by Dr. Noam Urbach in the upcoming documentary, Kaifeng, Jerusalem.

Members of the Kaifeng Jewish community today

*By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Zhang clan had mostly converted to Islam.