It was all Chinese to me; really, well with a touch of Hebrew, and that’s
because I was standing in what was once a Jewish ghetto, in Shanghai,
Shanghai, a modern metropolis, is significantly different than
when it was a city of refuge for Jews escaping World War II. A city under
nonstop construction, where low buildings give way to skyscrapers, it’s a
conundrum; pricy hotels are around the corner from housing communities with no
bathrooms or kitchens. The energy is infectious, and while China is a communist
country, capitalism flows from every direction, from Shanghai Tang to TGI
Fridays; there is no escaping a myriad of places to spend money, even the
markets are overflowing with pearls, jade and silk.
A city of epic
proportions, population 20 million, Shanghai is currently hosting the 2010 World
Expo. The expo is a global event to promote the exchange of ideas and
development in economy, culture, science and technology, as well as to improve
international relations. It runs through October 31; organizers are estimating
70 million visitors.
Through the help of the Peninsula Hotel, I learned
about a tour of Jewish Shanghai with Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli who has been
living in China for years. Half the day was a tour of the Jewish areas, and the
other was a view into modern Shanghai.
My group was comprised of Jewish
people from around the world: Canadians, Australians, South Africans and
Israelis. We found our way to Huoshan Park in the Hongkou District, where tens
of thousands of Jewish refugees lived during World War II. The park has a small
plaque, written in Hebrew, Chinese and English, commemorating the suffering of
the European Jewish refugees. Bar-Gal started to explain the history while we
sat in the park on an unusually clear and sunny day and journeyed back in
Across the street, Bar-Gal pointed to a building where the Joint
once operated. (The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – JDC or Joint
– is a worldwide Jewish relief organization.
It was established in 1914
and is active in more than 70 countries.) “There are three reasons why Shanghai
saved more Jews during World War II. The first is it was an open port city, so
people did not need a visa or passport to enter the city,” Bar-Gal said.
“Second, Righteous Gentiles in Europe, such as Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese
consul in Lithuania, wrote thousands of exit visas, as well as Chinese
consulgeneral Ho Feng Shan, who also issued thousands of visas for Austrian Jews
during 1938-1940 against the orders of the Chinese ambassador in Berlin. [Yad
Vashem awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations to Sugihara in 1985 and
to Ho in 2001.] Finally, more Jews were saved in China because no other country
would let them in.” These people include former US treasury secretary W. Michael
Blumenthal, pop artist Peter Max and Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz.
short distance away, we walked into a small alley filled with crowded
apartments. Of what was once the ghetto, small remnants – such as nails on doors
where mezuzot once were or a design of a Jewish star made out of metal in the
door – can still be seen.
Seven synagogues were built in Shanghai. We
visited the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, now known as the Jewish Refugee Memorial Hall.
It is a small museum dedicated to the history of the Jewish experience in
Shanghai. Today, the only operational synagogue is run by Chabad, Beit
I nicknamed the city Shang-Hai, as during the 1930s when the
rest of the world was shutting doors on Jews, it was one of the few cities
welcoming people who were escaping the Nazis.
There was already an
established Jewish community as Sephardi Jews from Baghdad and Bombay arrived in
the middle to late 1800s, notably the Kadoories, Sassoons and Hardoons, who
built many of the city’s greatest business empires.
One of the premier
hotels is the Peninsula, owned by the Kadoories. The Kadoorie family, longtime
residents, built up the Jewish community, establishing important institutions
such as the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association in 1937.
established a Jewish day school and set up a fund with the Sassoon family to
help refugees escaping Europe set up businesses and become
Modern Shanghai The Peninsula’s rooms are opulent and
luxurious, and the staff provides first-class service. The subtle elegance is
inviting and warm and having tea in the lobby is a real treat, not to mention
the live music to accentuate the magnificent food.
Until World War II,
Shanghai was divided into three sections known as concessions; Chinese, British
and French. The former French concession is filled with restored colonial-era
buildings, gardens and shops. It’s a relaxing place to wander, shop for
souvenirs, custom-tailored clothing or have a cup of tea in a little
Also a trendy, happening area in the French Concession is
Xintiandi. This area is renovated, and hosts Shanghai’s signature stone-gate
homes, shops, bars and restaurants. Ironically, one of Xintiandi’s must-see
places is the meetinghouse- turned-museum where the Communist Party of China was
founded in 1920.
It was intriguing, it had a feel of China meets Rodeo
Drive, but for a more authentic old Chinese feeling, I spent time in Yu Garden.
Established in the 16th century, it is a classic Chinese garden, filled with
ornate pagodas, flowering trees, pretty ponds and the still operational
Huxinting Teahouse. Right outside the peaceful garden is the chaotic Yuyuan
Bazaar, a good place for memorabilia and inexpensive street food.
in the day, an Israeli friend, Ziv, who lives in Shanghai, joined the tour.
Hilariously, in China I found myself speaking more Hebrew than
We headed toward the Bund, a curving riverside boulevard lined
with marble- and graniteclad buildings. It was built up in the 1840s. The most
beautiful structures were built in the early 1900s, with the river port on one
side and the old foreign concessions on the other. Foreign magnates spared no
expense and imported Italian marble, Oregon pine and British bronze work. The
buildings were used as banks, private clubs and hotels.
One of the
must-see buildings is the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, formerly known as
the former Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. Stepping inside, you are transported to
Italy. It has shiny marble mosaic floors, an airy octagonal rotunda and eight
allegorical wall murals from the 1920s representative of the world financial
centers, such as Tokyo, New York and London.
One of Shanghai’s most
prominent pedestrian streets is Nanjing Road, and it will leave you wondering if
you are really in China and not Europe. It is an enormous bustling boulevard,
video screens flashing with advertising and alive with a mix of locals and
tourists wandering and shopping. If you want to go off the beaten path, walk
behind the road, and another slice of China awaits you, small stores selling
everything from mannequins to door knobs. Motorcycles galore are in the streets
and people on bikes pulling supplies from one area to the
Shanghai’s history is intriguing, and its present is propelling it
fast and furiously into the future.
Of course, even traveling solo, I
found my place, and my people, but no matter, at the end of the day, it was
still all Chinese to me.