A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit an exhibit from the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum that was curated at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, and met with a man named George Kalmar to interview about the project. George is a filmmaker originally from Czechoslovakia and the child of Holocaust survivors, and has a great interest and knowledge in the history of the Jewish refugees of Shanghai. He was hired by the Center for Jewish Studies and the UCLA Confucius Institute to create the video components to accompany “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai,” using historical photographs and the testimonies from Shanghai refugees provided by the Shoah Foundation.
As found on their website, the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum is currently the only museum in the world that is dedicated specifically to the events that took place in Shanghai. From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai became a modern-day “Noah’s Ark” accepting around 30,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe. The space where the museum is located is in the "Tilanqiao Historic Area”, where the original and only features of the Jewish settlement during the Second World War are still well preserved. In the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” in Tilanqiao area, about 20,000 Jewish refugees lived harmoniously with local citizens, overcoming numerous difficulties together. It is in the former site of The Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which is one of the only two synagogues in Shanghai built by Russian Jews and where the Jewish refugees gathered for religious rites during the Second World War.
Scrambling to get out
When I asked George why the Jews chose to go to Shanghai to seek refuge, he said what essentially happened was that Kristallnacht took place from November 9-10 in 1938, and that it was what had finally convinced the Jews that they had to get out of Germany. Kristallnacht was a pogrom (a series of coordinated attacks) against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria, carried out by SA paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians. Until then, especially with the older generations of parents, there was this thinking that there had already been anti-Semitism in Germany before and that things were just going to blow over. At that point there was a real panic and convincing of the need to get out, but the major problem was that nobody was willing to issue any visas and take Jewish refugees.
A place to go
About eighteen thousand Jews fled to Shanghai during WWII when it was discovered that there was actually a place on earth where they could go. Following the Battle of Shanghai in 1937, the army of Imperial Japan occupied the city, and the port began to allow entry into the Shanghai International Settlement without a visa or passport. The Shanghai International Settlement was one of the original five treaty ports established in China under the terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking after the Qing China was defeated by the British in the First Opium War. British and American settlements in Shanghai formally united to become the Shanghai International Settlement, and the French Concession dropped out of the arrangement.
George was mentioning that there was a ruling in the International Settlements and the concessions that there was to be no taxation or interference from Chinese government. The Chinese had no legal authority, and so the local British courts would decide any legal issues. Shanghai became a metropolis, and was booming with corruption, violence and prostitution. It was called both the Paris and hell of the east. It was an opportunity for British, American, German, Dutch and French businessman, who enjoyed a clearly colonialized lifestyle and enclave where anything goes as long as you’re a part of the group of internationals.
Passage into a new life
Jews had gone to travel agencies to buy passage to Shanghai on Italian, Japanese and German ocean vessels. Many got the tickets and used them to get out of concentration camps. The journey was a 3-4 weeks passage that would leave from a port in Trieste, Italy and through the Mediterranean and down to Port Said in Egypt, and then around the horn of India and into Shanghai. Some would take luxury lines and have first class tickets and others would have 3rd class.
When most German Jews arrived in Shanghai, there were around 2000 Jews from two other Jewish communities that had already settled in the city: the wealthy Baghdadi Jews, including the Kadoorie, Hardoons and Sassoon families, and the Russian Jews. The last ones fled the Russian Empire because of anti-Semitic pogroms pushed by the tsarist regime and counter-revolutionary armies as well as the class struggle manifested by the Bolsheviks. They had formed the Russian community in Harbin, then the Russian community in Shanghai.
George mentioned that as the Jews arrived in Shanghai, real estate would be given or leased to them by the Sephardic Jewish families. The Jews would be housed in large rooms that were full of beds, sometimes as many as 100. There were no walls and in some cases no running water or toilets that flushed. It was a really different life then most of the Jews were used to. It was a story of survival.
Way of life
Jews with money lived in the international quarters and were even able to recreate a European settlement similar to a little Vienna. There were cafes, bakeries and Jewish schools. The languages spoken were usually German and English. The Jews mostly kept in isolation largely because they didn’t speak Chinese.
Most Jews were destitute or nearly so. The local Iraqi and Russian Jewish community and American Jewish charities helped provide shelter, food, medicine, and clothes to those in the ghetto, though the flow of goods and money diminished once America went to war against Japan.
The Jews without money lived in Hongkou, which was the poorest part of international settlement. 100,000 Chinese refuges were already living in the Hongkou District dealing with a great deal of death and poverty, and couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. George recalled stories he heard from some of the Jews who had lived in Hongkou about having to walk over the dead bodies of the Chinese while crossing through the area. The Chinese families were so poor and often threw their babies out onto the streets and were eaten by dogs. There were testimonies of how the Japanese, who also housed their soldiers in Hongkou, were just killing Chinese with bayonets because there was some sporadic resistance by the Chinese. It was not unusual to see a Japanese solider angry and killing people. George heard a story about how there was this one time where a Japanese soldier had gotten killed, and the other soldiers retaliated by separating the Chinese pregnant women from a crowd, and warned the men that unless they came forward they would bayonet the pregnant women to death.
Restricted to the Shanghai Ghetto
After Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, the wealthy Baghdadi Jews (many of whom were British subjects) were interned, and American charitable funds ceased. It was in 1943 that all the Jews were forced to move from nice areas of Shanghai and were restricted to ghettos. They were allowed to take any and all personal possessions with them. According to a Jewish woman who had grown up in Hongkou at the time, evidently this was a compromise reached with the Nazis in 1942 who had wanted to have them killed.
The Jews were forced to relocate to the Shanghai ghetto, formally known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees, which was an area of approximately one square mile in the Hongkou District of Japanese-occupied Shanghai, to which about 23,000 Jewish refugees were relocated by the Japanese-issued Proclamation Concerning Restriction of Residence and Business of Stateless Refugees.
Perception of Jews being powerful
Sometimes the perception of the Jewish people as being powerful is a great danger, such as in Germany, but sometimes the perception is what has saved our people. The Jews were treated a hell of a lot better then the Chinese because the Japanese believed that the Jews are a powerful group, and that they could have a huge influence in helping them in dealing with the US. The Jews cooperated with the Japanese, not in brutality but other aspects.
The US liberated Shanghai in 1945, and people tried to get the right visas to go to America. The US sent ships. Certain countries had preferential treatment. If you were German you automatically got in. If you were Polish or Austrian it was much more difficult.
With all the challenges that the Jews faced, the beautiful truth is that by the time WWII ended in 1945, most of the Jewish refugees had survived.