“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.

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.

Jewish refugees_cafe

Jewish refugees bar

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.