Shanghai’s Jewish History
Walk here along Zhoushan Road and you’ll stumble on a sign that signifies an otherwise unremarkable building at No. 59 as a landmark.
“During the World War II,” the sign reads in imperfect English, “a number of Jewish refugees lived in this house, among whom is Michael Blumenthal, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury of the Carter Government.”
The marker offers a clue to the hidden Jewish history of Shanghai and the incredible story of thousands of Jews who fled the Nazis and found refuge here in what was the Far East’s only Jewish ghetto. Among them was Blumenthal, who fled Europe with his family, spent part of his youth in Shanghai, then moved to the U.S. and served in the late 1970s under U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
The best way to learn about this unusual slice of Jewish and Shanghai history is on a tour with an Israeli expat named Dvir Bar-Gal. But be warned: This is no superficial glance at the highlights; this is a five-hour, $60 mini-course with Bar-Gal as professor. With his encyclopedic knowledge and intense passion, he brings to life a vanished world, attracting visitors from every continent, many of them descended from the Jews who only survived World War II because they found refuge in Shanghai.
“No other place in the whole world saved so many Jewish lives,” Bar-Gal said, adding that “there is no anti-Semitism in China.”
Bar-Gal begins the tour on the bustling Bund, explaining how Jewish merchants from Baghdad helped build Nanjing Road into the neighborhood’s commercial center in the 19th century. The landmark Peace Hotel, now owned by the Fairmont chain, was built in the 1920s by Victor Sassoon, part of a famous and wealthy Sephardic Jewish family.
Among the community’s rags-to-riches tales was that of Silas Hardoon, who started as a night watchman for the Sassoons and became a powerful real estate developer, helping to turn Nanjing Road into the “Fifth Avenue of China” in the early 20th century.
“Eventually he became the richest Jew in Asia, the real estate king of Shanghai,” Bar-Gal said.
The Kadoorie family, which founded the China Light & Power Company and today owns the Peninsula Hotel Group, is also descended from Sephardic Jews who got their start with the Sassoons.
A second layer was added to Shanghai’s Jewish community when several thousand Jews fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia arrived here at the turn of the 20th century. Many settled in Shanghai’s French Concession district and opened small businesses.
The third layer of Shanghai’s Jews consisted of European refugees fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s. Walking past small shops and tenements in Hongkou today, past street vendors and bicyclists, all of them Chinese, Bar-Gal said: “Imagine here a deli, a bakery, a grocery, a restaurant, a pharmacy,” run by Jews trying to recreate familiar rhythms of European life in their new city.
So many of the residents were Austrian that the area was known as Little Vienna. A Chinese diplomat who worked in Austria during World War II, Feng Shan Ho, is part of the story. Defying orders from his superiors, Ho issued lifesaving visas that allowed Jews to leave, most of them traveling by boat from Italy to Shanghai.
“Everyone else rejected them,” Bar-Gal said, referring to the limits other countries — including the U.S. — placed on admitting Jewish refugees. “In the late 1930s, Shanghai was the only option.”
Shanghai was open to Jewish arrivals despite the fact that the city was under control of the Japanese, who were Nazi allies. A Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, also issued thousands of visas that allowed Jews to escape Europe for Japan or China.
But eventually Japanese officials forced all “stateless” people living in Shanghai to move to Hongkou, and turned it into a ghetto. Some 20,000 Jews were crammed into the neighborhood, living as many as 30 to a room, Bar-Gal said. Disease and starvation were rampant, though the Jews tried to help themselves by setting up clinics, soup kitchens, schools and shelters.
“Where we walk today, we are in the heart of the ghetto,” Bar-Gal said.
A stone monument in Huoshan Park, a peaceful place with trees and benches, offers a description of the neighborhood in Chinese, Hebrew and English as a “designated area for stateless refugees” bordered by Gongping, Tongbei, Huimin and Zhoujiazui roads. But many buildings that once housed the refugees have been torn down, and more are slated for demolition.
Bar-Gal’s tour also stops at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and Ohel Moshe synagogue, where artifacts like passports, photos and a newspaper produced by the refugees are on display. The tour ends inside a tiny, dark apartment that once housed Jews and is now inhabited by several Chinese families. Here Bar-Gal, who is writing a book, describes another of his projects — an effort to find “the lost Jewish cemeteries of Shanghai” and create a memorial. He has found tombstones from the destroyed graveyards in towns and villages, in one case being used as a washboard.
His tour attracts visitors from around the world — Europe, Australia, North America — many of whom had family members living in Shanghai during the war. “They talked about the poverty, the starvation, the sickness,” said Chaya Medalie of Johannesburg, South Africa, who took Bar-Gal’s tour last year. “When you stand in it, you see it from a different perspective. It’s unbelievable.”
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