Shabbat in Shanghai was one of the most memorable days I’ve had during my China trip, thanks to a visit to the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum. Since I wasn’t attending services anywhere, I thought it would be a fitting way to mark the day, and I was rewarded with a moving experience.
During World War II, Shanghai became the home of about 20,000 Jewish refugees who were saved from the Nazis by a compassionate Chinese consul general in Vienna. Ho Fengshan issued thousands of visas to Austrian Jews fleeing the Nazis, allowing them passage to Shanghai, one of the only places open to them. (Yes, our “broadminded” Western countries like the U.S., Canada and England wanted nothing to do with more Jews.)
When they arrived, they found an existing Jewish community in Shanghai that dated back to the 1850s when Iraqi Jews took part in the opium trade, in the fine tradition of robber barons through the ages. In the 1930s, a wave of poor Russian Jews escaping pogroms joined the Sephardim.
Although it was wartime and there were privations, the community pitched in to settle their brethren, and they settled in the Hongkou part of Shanghai. Their Chinese neighbours, who were in the midst of war themselves, made an effort to help them, too.
Today, the neighbourhood’s Ohel Rachel Synagogue is used as a museum commemorating their life in China and the horrors that they escaped. There is a Sephardic sanctuary that was re-consecrated about 20 years ago for a visit from Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and Madeline Albright, the former U.S. Secretary of State, whose family had converted to avoid persecution.
There are also photos of the neighbourhood as it was in the 1930s and 1940s and stories of the inhabitants, with current updates. Most of the Jews left China after the end of the war, not only because Israel came into being, but because China was going through its own upheaval that resulted in the Cultural Revolution and much pain and suffering for the average person.
Shanghai came under Japanese occupation during the war, but the Japanese weren’t interested in “liquidating” Jews – they had more important battles to fight. However, they insisted the Jews stay in a specific area.
The Jews who lived in Shanghai have returned for visits, and there was a reunion in 2010 that drew former inhabitants from all over the world. It’s a wonderful story, and one that warms my heart. With so many people quick to look down their noses at Jews without having any acquaintance with them, it is wonderful to think that the Chinese are different.
In fact, my young tour guide was quick to point out that both Chinese and Jews have strong family ties and other things in common. And the Chinese women at the ticket office saw my Star of David and made sure to wish me Shabbat Shalom!
I wandered the streets of the old neighbourhood and the local park where the children played. One of those children was the former U.S. Treasury secretary, Michael Blumenthal!
Shanghai has won a special place in my heart, thanks to the goodness of the Chinese people.