Time.news – Salvation fromHolocaust in the heart of Shanghai: the Chinese metropolis represented a safe haven for Jews fleeing Nazi persecutions between 1933 and 1941. 20,000 of them landed there from European cities under the control of the Third Reich, escaping concentration camps.
A recently refurbished museum recalls this little-known page of the Second World War, when Jewish refugees – who could enter Shanghai without a visa as “refugees without a homeland” – formed friendships and solidarity with the Chinese, sharing their adversity of resistance to the Japanese invasion.
Reopened to the public in December, the museum is located in Tilanqiao, the neighborhood of Shanghai Jewish ghetto, on the same ground as the the synagogue of Ohel Moses, built in 1927 by Russian Jews who lived in the city even before the arrival of European refugees: enlarged and enriched with new finds, the museum presents from its web pages a Shanghai that was “a modern Noah’s ark”, in which Jews and the Chinese “helped each other in adversity and together prevailed over difficulties”.
A modern metropolis
To welcome the Jews fleeing from Nazism, before the Japanese invasion, was one modern and multicultural metropolis, in which the newcomers could rebuild their lives as retail traders or cafe managers, or continuing, as in the case of doctors, to carry out their professions.
Their story is told to the BBC by Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli journalist who has studied the history of the Jews who fled to the Chinese metropolis to escape concentration camps.
The Jews who arrived in Shanghai “tried to maintain a Jewish way of life, maintaining traditions such as theater and music. They earned very little, but Tilanqiao thrived on Jewish life in the 1930s.”
The role of some of them in the history of those years has not been forgotten by China. Jacob Rosenfeld, a doctor, had left Austria in 1939 to take refuge in Shanghai: he was alongside the Communist troops against the Japanese, and earned medals and awards as a field doctor. Rosenfeld also participated in the march on Beijing, and a few weeks after that Mao Zedong proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of China, in November 1949, he returned to Austria, to be reunited with family members who had escaped the Nazi persecution.
Another memory of those years is that of Jerry Moses, who at the age of six, in 1941, fled with his family from Germany and landed in Shanghai. “If they weren’t so tolerant, our life would have been horrible,” quotes the BBC.
“If a Jew ran away in Europe, he had to hide; here in Shanghai we could dance, pray and do business.”
The arrival of the Japanese invaders
Living conditions quickly deteriorated with the invasion of the city by Japanese troops. Shanghai Jews were confined to Tilanqiao, and many of them shared the same fate as the Chinese held in the local prison. More than 18,000 lived in the ghetto (18,578, according to the latest estimates) in the 1940s, but their number could exceed twenty thousand.
Tilanqiao, “from a poor neighborhood became extremely poor”, continues Bar-Gal, marked by precarious hygiene conditions and malnutrition. “Many had no jobs and lived in communal houses with many beds, and with shared bathrooms and kitchens. No privacy and almost nothing to eat.” Jews were forbidden to leave the ghetto, even for work: they could do so only with the authorization of the occupying forces, which was rarely granted.
The Jews of Shanghai, however, escaped extermination and many survived: they were not the primary target of the Japanese, and with the retreat after defeat in World War II, they were able to return to Europe or seek new life elsewhere.
Today 4,000 Jews in the city
Today there are about two thousand Jews living in Shanghai. Their number has halved after the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic: none of these, as far as we know, is related to the 20 thousand who escaped Nazi barbarism, Bar-Gal still explains, but Tilanqiao is still the destination of the descendants. of those who found salvation from persecution and extermination camps in this area of Shanghai.