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Shanghai Was Refuge for Jews when They Had Nowhere to Go

May 10, 2000
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Shanghai has arguably the strongest connection to Judaism of any city in Asia.

In the mid-1800s, Sephardi Jews, mainly from Iraq, came here to pursue trade in textiles and opium. They had names like Sassoon and Kadouri and became wealthy, leaving their mark on the city.

“The Sephardic Jews did very well,” said Tess Johnston, an historian from Charlottesville, Va., who remained in the city after retiring from her last foreign service posting at the U.S. Consulate here.

“Some of the major mansions of this town are from Sephardic Jews,” she said.

But Shanghai is probably best known among Jews today as a haven for those trapped in Europe following Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom in Germany and Austria in November of 1938.

“It was the only place you could go to without a visa,” said Rita Gerson, who first fled to Sweden from her native Berlin in 1938 and left there at age 12 with a group of other girls for Shanghai in 1940. By that time, “all the other places were closed.”

Shanghai remained open.

“Everyone thanks the Chinese for saving them, but technically that’s not correct,” said Johnston, from her comfortable, but cluttered living room.

In the 1930s, parts of Shanghai were run by a combination of the Americans, Europeans and the French, and the Japanese controlled other areas.

Still, Johnston notes, the Chinese could have kicked the Jews out and it is a tribute to them that refugees were allowed to stay.

The number of European Jews who made it to Shanghai varies, according to sources, but there were probably somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Jewish refugees in the city during World War II.

In the beginning, Jews were not confined to one area, but in 1943, when the German Col. Josef Meisinger, known as the “Butcher of Warsaw” arrived, things changed. Meisinger “earned” his nickname for the horrible atrocities he committed as Gestapo chief in the Polish capital.

By 1943 the Japanese controlled all of Shanghai, and Meisinger insisted that the Japanese apply Hitler’s “Final Solution” to the Jews in Shanghai as well. But the Japanese refused.

“Anti-Semitism is neither a Chinese nor a Japanese phenomenon,” Johnston said. The Japanese “did not agree to kill the Jews because they had no basic anti- Semitism.”

What Germany’s allies did do was force the Jews into a ghetto, known as a “designated area” in Shanghai’s Hongkou district, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Even though conditions were harsh, Jewish life flourished. Refugees opened bakeries, cafes, night clubs, newspapers and journals and there were weddings by the score.

After the war, the refugees dispersed — many to the West Coast of the United States, others to Australia or Israel.

Today, little remains in Hongkou of its Jewish past — just a plaque in a neighborhood park in Chinese, English and Hebrew and the top floor of a former synagogue that serves as a museum.

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