Shanghai remembers its Jewish past

Database being created to document Holocaust-era community.

china jewish museum 2248 (photo credit: Ezra Glinter)
china jewish museum 2248
(photo credit: Ezra Glinter)
SHANGHAI - There is little evidence today in Shanghai's Hongkou District of the 30,000 Jews who once called the neighborhood home. But thanks to the efforts of local government and business organizations, a nearly forgotten community is being remembered. In an effort spearheaded by the Israeli Consulate in the city, a database is being built that will document the thousands of refugees who found shelter in China during the Holocaust. "For me it's something very meaningful and very unique because it creates a historical document of a community that vanished. It gives tribute to what happened here during the Nazi persecution," says Israel's Consul General Uri Gutman. The database will contain the names of the "Shanghailanders", as they were known, as well as their professions and former addresses. A ceremony will be held this week with the participation of the Hongkou District government and the consulate to launch the database, which will available to the public at the Jewish Refugees in Museum in Hongkou. The ceremony is also an official celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary and will inaugurate a new "Israel-China Relations" exhibition at the museum. "Usually countries do a small cocktail where a few hundred people come, give some meaningful or less-meaningful speeches, and the next day no one remembers it. What I'm trying to do is to make a difference. To do something that really influences the relations, to do something that will be remembered," Gutman says. Funded by the Israeli Consulate and local Israeli-owned businesses, the database is part of a broader campaign to show gratitude to Hongkou's senior citizens for their hospitality to Jewish refugees years ago. Previous projects included the renovation of an elders' activity center and the donation of air conditioners, TVs, a piano and exercise equipment to a local nursing home. Though today Shanghai's Jews are mostly young professionals who have come to the metropolis to work, the city's Jewish community has its roots in the 19th century. Sephardic families such as the Sassoons and Kadoories moved their business interests to the booming city, where they erected local landmarks such as the Peace Hotel. A further influx of 7,000 Jews came to Shanghai following the Russian Revolution, but the greatest wave of immigration occurred in the late 1930s when tens of thousands of German, Austrian and Eastern European Jews found refuge in Shanghai from Nazi persecution. At the time, the city was the only place in the world that required neither a visa nor a passport to enter. Chinese officials such as Ho Fengshan, a diplomat stationed in Vienna, aided Jews fleeing German-occupied Europe by issuing thousands of exit visas. Ho died in San Francisco in 1997. Yad Vashem recognized him as a "Righteous Among the Nations" in 2001 and his daughter, Manli Ho, will help inaugurate the database. "No one knows about it," Gutman complains. "Everyone knows about Schindler, but no one knows about Ho Fengshan." The Hongkou District, where the many of the Jews settled and where they were eventually ghettoized by the occupying Japanese army, became known as "Little Vienna." Though poor, the community boasted a rich cultural life including newspapers, concerts and theaters. Following the war, nearly the entire community emigrated, going to places such as Israel, Australia, and North America. "This community disappeared - they all immigrated by the late '40s, so there is no collective memory of what was here," Gutman says. The lack of a continuous community and a scarcity of historical documentation have made research for the database difficult. While some help is provided by organizations such as Yad Vashem and the Sydney Jewish Museum, Gutman has put out a request to anyone who can help fill in the blanks. Currently the database contains only about 600 names, though organizers are confident that it will continue to grow. "It's accumulating slowly, slowly. It's a process that can take months and years but at least I feel satisfied that it could make a difference by making a historical document of Shanghai Jewry," Gutman says. "We're trying to find out as much information as we can," adds Lilian Yun, a graduate student in international politics at Tongji University who volunteers at the Jewish Refugees Museum. "But we still have a lot of work to do." For many years local authorities overlooked the Jewish history of Shanghai. The Ohel Moshe Synagogue, where the Jewish Refugees Museum is housed, was used as an office building and a mental hospital. But in 2007 the Hongkou District Government renovated the synagogue on the basis of its original blueprints and reopened it to the public. In addition to the small collection of artifacts housed in the synagogue, a more extensive multimedia exhibition is located in an adjacent building and features photographs of the old Jewish Ghetto as well as recorded interviews with its former residents. Though already completed, this portion of the museum will also be officially inaugurated. "This is a very important event," Gutman says, "for the Jewish people, for the Chinese people, and I would be presumptuous enough to say even for history."