The 1938 pogroms in Germany known as Kristallnacht was an existential turning
point for German Jewry. Immediately following the pogroms, about 30,000 Jewish
males were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps, released only upon
producing a visa for foreign travel. The Nazi regime moved, in practice, from a
policy of segregation of Jews from the general German population to a policy of
complete severing of Jews from society and economic life, intended to force them
These new circumstances brought about a shift from gradual
emigration to an urgent, mass flight of refugees who could no longer afford to
be particular about their destination. Many were forced into decisions that
split their families, especially in cases in which children and youth were sent
to places looking for young people (mainly to Israel through youth movements and
to the UK through the Kindertransport), or in cases where men went ahead of
In Germany in the late 1930s, the name Shanghai was
associated with crime, prostitution, corruption and illness. It was considered
the end of the earth, the worst possible option for émigrés. Nonetheless, under
the harsh conditions that arose, between 18,000 and 20,000 Jews from Germany and
Austria were bound for the Chinese city. This wave of emigration started in the
summer of 1938, in the wake of Adolf Eichmann’s policy of forced emigration of
Viennese Jews. Beginning in November 1938, large groups of German Jews joined
The largest number of Jews – between 14,000 and 15,000 –
arrived in Shanghai from central Europe between December 1938 and June 1939.
Both the Japanese who occupied the city and the city council recoiled from this
large Jewish influx, especially once World War II started, resulting in a
significant drop in Jewish immigration to the city. The last group of Jewish
refugees to arrive came from Eastern Europe and numbered about 1,500. Among them
were rabbis and students from the Mir Yeshiva, who had been in Japan and were
sent to Shanghai in 1941.
The Jewish community of refugees in Shanghai
was characterized by its relatively older age and predominance of men over
women. Young people, even those whose families went to Shanghai, tended toward
other destinations. Only about 10 percent were below the age of 15. Most
immigrants thus found it difficult to adjust to their new surroundings, both
professionally and in learning new languages, mainly English, which was
The preponderance of males among the Jewish immigrants had
resulted from the apparently greater urgency of rescuing men, given the mass
arrests of Jewish males during Kristallnacht. The female minority adapted more
successfully to the harsh life in Shanghai; the males experienced a greater blow
to their social and professional standing, and the city’s widespread
unemployment made it difficult for them to find work. The women, on the other
hand, found more options for employment and some even reinvented themselves
What were the international conditions that enabled this
large immigration of Jewish refugees to Shanghai? The city’s unique
international status in the late 1930s derived from the combination of a
colonial legacy and the Japanese conquest of the city in 1937. None of those
involved in Shanghai’s international arrangement recognized the Chinese puppet
ruler installed by the Japanese.
As a result, from 1938 the city was
under no jurisdiction, and until 1940 no passport control was enforced upon
those entering it.
Prior to the influx of Jewish immigrants from Central
Europe, there already existed two veteran Jewish communities in Shanghai: a
long-established community of Baghdadi origin, numbering 600-800 people, and a
Russian community numbering 3,000-4,000.
On October 19, 1938, as the flow
of refugees increased, the Committee for the Assistance of European Jewish
Refugees in Shanghai (CFA) was established.
The CFA provided refugees
with vital assistance, first and foremost in housing and food, and eventually
also in health and education. It was run by the Baghdadi Jews with help from the
Joint Distribution Committee in America.
The Jewish refugees in Shanghai
had to cope with basic difficulties. The harsh weather, with the high humidity
and heat of summer and powerful rainstorms in winter, was compounded by a poor
sewage infrastructure, which led to high rates of illness and death. Added to
this daily struggle were impoverished living and employment
Many refugees lived in hastily rebuilt structures that had
been destroyed in the Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese occupation and isolation
of the city also had wrought vast damage to its economy, severely limiting
Beyond the material hardships, the prolonged
stay in Shanghai presented a significant challenge to the spirit.
refugees expected to spend weeks, or at most months, in China, and were not
mentally prepared to accept Shanghai as a permanent home. As the war continued
and broadened, their future looked bleaker and less clear. They were cut off
from family left behind as well as from relatives who had reached other
Their interaction with the local Chinese population, themselves
oppressed by the Japanese occupation, was made difficult by the language
Most of the Jewish refugees had been respectable, middle class
wage earners in their old homeland and had given charity to the needy; now, many
were forced into a passive life, and in the daily struggle for survival had
become dependent upon charitable organizations and individuals.
attack on Pearl Harbor and its entry into World War II brought a tragic turning
point for the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, who became increasingly isolated from
the world. Worse, this isolation meant the cessation of the flow of aid from
America, which crippled the city’s charitable organizations.
18, 1943, the Japanese military rule ordered the concentration of all landless
refugees who had arrived since the Japanese takeover in 1937. Ostensibly a
general security measure, and devoid of the terms “Jewish” or “ghetto,” it was
nonetheless an obvious anti-Jewish act of German influence. The ghetto was not
hermetically sealed but the development had a disastrous effect – in one fell
swoop, half of the Jewish refugees lost their livelihood and their
The most tragic moment in the ghetto occurred ironically near
the end of the war in the East, on July 17, 1945. The Japanese radio station in
Shanghai was bombed by the Americans, and several stray bombs hit the ghetto,
killing 31 Jews and wounding another 250, in addition to killing hundreds of
Following the American liberation of Shanghai and the
renewal of communications with the free world, the refugees’ situation improved
significantly. Within two years, several thousand made their way to the United
States, Australia and other countries. Others, in particular older people,
returned to Germany. Shortly after the State of Israel was established, an
Israeli mission opened in the city and within a short period, about 10,000 Jews,
including some from the veteran Sephardi and Russian Jewish communities, arrived
The author is a professor at the Schechter Institute of Jewish
Studies. This article is based on a longer article published under this title
appearing in the journal
B’shvil Hazikaron, Vol. 13 (November 2012), pp.
English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.
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