It is a symbol that does not seem out of place at all. In central Shanghai, near the city’s nest of glittering skyscrapers, I spotted a time-worn brick building adorned with a Star of David. This Jewish emblem is small enough that few passers-by will notice it. Yet it bears witness to one of the most extraordinary stories in Shanghai history, which took place here in the Tilanqiao district.
This multicultural oasis was among the very few places where Jewish refugees were guaranteed to be accepted
For thousands of desperate people in the 1930s, this Chinese metropolis was a last resort. Most countries and cities on the planet have restricted the entry of Jews trying to flee violent persecution by Nazi Germany. Not Shanghai, however. This multicultural oasis – which included British, French, American, Russian and Iraqi residents – was among the very few places where Jewish refugees were guaranteed to be accepted, visa-free.
Although Shanghai is over 7,000 km from their homes in Germany, Poland and Austria, more than 20,000 stateless Jews fled to China’s largest city to escape the Holocaust between 1933 and 1941. Shanghai Shanghai was not just a haven of peace. It was also a modern city with an established community of Russian Jews, who a decade earlier had built the structure that housed this Star of David: the Ohel Moshe Synagogue.
At first, life in Shanghai was peaceful for its new residents. The Jewish refugees were welcomed by the people of Shanghai and they created a strong community with schools and a vibrant social scene. Some refugees started working as dentists and doctors, while others opened shops, cafes and clubs in the neighborhood.
The Shanghai Jewish ghetto was born
What the refugees couldn’t predict was that they would travel the world to fall into the clutches of the Nazi’s most powerful ally. In 1941, Japan captured Shanghai. Acting on instructions from the Nazis, Japanese troops rounded up all of the city’s Jews and confined them to Tilanqiao. The Shanghai Jewish ghetto was born.
This dark story swirled through my mind as I pulled up to a stone sign in Huoshan Park in Tilanqiao, a serene little green space with paths winding through lush greenery. A group of elderly Chinese men seated on benches stared at me with puzzled expressions as I photographed the plaque. Although Tilanqiao’s Jewish history attracts a trickle of international visitors, this area remains well removed from the city’s main tourist trail.
As the plaque explained (in English, Mandarin, and Hebrew), this area around Huoshan Park was the site of the Jewish Ghetto. Bordered on the north by Zhoujiazui Road, on the south by Huimin Road, on the east by Tongbei Road and on the west by Gongping Road, the ghetto measured approximately 1 square mile. More than 15,000 Jews lived within these borders in the early 1940s, and Huoshan Park served as a kind of public lounge where many Jews gathered during the day. Unlike some of the Jewish ghettos in Europe at that time, Tilanqiao was not fenced off. But it was a disadvantaged and depressed place, according to Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli journalist and expert on Jewish history from Shanghai, who has led Tilanqiao tours since 2002.
“Imagine being a doctor, lawyer or musician living in Vienna and suddenly you are unemployed [ghetto] from Shanghai, “said Bar-Gal.” So, it was not a happy place. But they tried to maintain Jewish life by practicing traditions like drama and music. They were earning very little by doing this but [Tilanqiao] flourished with Jewish life in the 1930s. “
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According to Bar-Gal, even before the Japanese invasion, many Jewish refugees from Tilanqiao lived in poverty compared to their comfortable way of life in Europe. Conditions worsened considerably after Japanese soldiers rounded up Jews from all over Shanghai and forced them all to live within the borders of this newly formed ghetto. Jews were prohibited from leaving the area, even for work, unless they received permission from Japanese officers, which rarely happened.
Disease and malnutrition were rampant in the many overcrowded group homes. “He went from a poor neighborhood to an extremely poor neighborhood,” Bar-Gal said. “Many people were unemployed and lived in collective housing with many more beds and shared bathrooms and kitchens. They had no privacy and almost no food.”
Yet, as six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and as many as 14 million Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed during their nation’s war against Japan from 1937 to 1945, the majority of Jewish refugees of Shanghai survived. This remarkable feat has been described by Holocaust historian David Kranzler as the “Shanghai miracle,” and according to Bar-Gal, they survived because Jews were not the primary target of Japanese forces.
Majority of Jewish refugees in Shanghai remarkably survived the war
In 1945, when World War II ended with the defeat of Japan and Nazi Germany, Japanese troops withdrew and most of Shanghai’s Jews quickly left, settling in places like the United States. United, Australia and Canada. But if Shanghai had not taken in these refugees, many of these more than 20,000 Jews may never have survived the Nazi death squads.
These days, Tilanqiao is a decidedly Chinese neighborhood with almost no foreign residents.. Fewer than 2,000 Jews currently live in Shanghai, up from around 4,000 before the coronavirus pandemic, Bar-Gal said. None of them, to his knowledge, are related to the Jews who once lived in this ghetto. But many descendants of those who sought refuge here, and who otherwise might not have been born, visited Tilanqiao.
Before the pandemic, Bar-Gal was showing Jewish visitors where their ancestors lived among the many low and dilapidated buildings in Tilanqiao. He misses that experience, having suspended his tours and left Shanghai last year due to the coronavirus outbreak. In his absence, however, the history of this unlikely Jewish ghetto has not disappeared, thanks to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, housed on the grounds of Ohel Moshe Synagogue. This Jewish place of worship acted as a Tilanqiao community center during WWII. Then in 2007, it was converted into a museum, which reopened last December after a major expansion and is dedicated to preserving the little-known history of how Shanghai acted as “Noah’s ark of modern times. For Jews, as it says on its website.
If the [people of Shanghai] hadn’t been so tolerant, our life would have been miserable
The synagogue’s prayer hall serves as an entry point to the museum and has not been altered since its regular use. Exhibits show how the Tilanqiao Jewish community was formed, as well as intimate personal accounts of Jewish refugees, according to Sophia Tian, director of the museum’s exhibitions and research department. I was particularly struck by the story of Dr Jacob Rosenfeld. This Jewish refugee arrived in Shanghai from Austria in 1939 and later joined the Chinese military in its war against Japanese invaders, working as a field medic and saving the lives of many wounded Chinese soldiers. After receiving several Chinese military medals, Rosenfeld returned to Austria in 1949 to reunite with his family. Another exhibit featured the emotional memories of Jerry Moses, who was only six years old when he and his family fled Germany to Shanghai in 1941.
“If the [people of Shanghai] had not been so tolerant, our life would have been miserable, “said Moses.” In Europe if a Jew escaped he or she had to hide, and here in Shanghai we could dance, pray and do business. . “
The museum also encourages independent walking tours of the Jewish Ghetto by providing detailed brochures that explain and map the historic Jewish sites of Tilanqiao, which are posted in English. Wandering its streets allowed me to imagine what Tilanqiao looked like 80 years ago as Japanese troops invaded Shanghai.
The first structure I encountered was the imposing old Tilanqiao Prison. During World War II, the Japanese jailed dozens of Jewish refugees and Chinese dissidents behind its thick stone walls. The brutality of the Japanese gave the Jews and the Chinese a common enemy and a shared experience. This connection remains strong, according to Tian.
“The Jewish community has established a certain relationship, cooperation and affection with the people of Shanghai,” she said. “They brought European culture to Shanghai and lived harmoniously and culturally integrated with the local residents.”
Then, on Changyang Road, I passed one of the former Jewish refugee shelters. Now functioning primarily as apartments, these seven multi-story buildings housed over 3,000 Jews in the early 1940s. Nearby, the area along Huoshan and Zhoushan roads was once known as Little Vienna and was the most popular part of the city. more prosperous Jewish quarter of Tilanqiao. By the late 1930s, these streets were the backbone of Shanghai’s Jewish community and were teeming with Jewish businesses and regular social events at the Mascot Roof Garden atop the old Broadway Theater. This graceful art deco building, which now functions as a small hotel, was a source of joy for the city’s Jews before WWII.
Such camaraderie was essential to maintaining the spirit of Shanghai’s Jewish community, many of whom still had relatives in danger of death in Europe. At a time when hopeful entrepreneurs around the world seeking to get rich had transformed Shanghai from a humble fishing village into the fifth largest city in the world, Tilanqiao offered neither wealth nor luxury to Jewish refugees, but something much more valuable: security.
Yet now, eight decades later, the world is hearing the gripping stories of survival that have taken place here. And if you search for a lonely Star of David, search for a small stone slab, and enter a sacred synagogue that still exists, you can learn the inspiring story of how China housed terrified Jews who had no rights and no hope in them.
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