History: Shanghai memories

The Jewish Refugees and Shanghai exhibition aims to foster ties between the Chinese and Jews.

Shanghai Jews 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shanghai Jews 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In cold clinical terms the Jewish Refugees and Shanghai exhibition, currently running at Jerusalem’s House of Quality Gallery, does not entirely match up to the highest presentation standards. True, there is an abundance of enlightening information about the Jewish community in China in the 1930s and 1940s, but there is precious little in the way of original exhibits from the time and place in question.
But that technical perspective misses the point of the display. The official opening of the exhibition took place last Thursday. It was a wellattended affair, with a relatively large number of Chinese diplomats and cultural figures around as well, of course, as a number of Israelis who were born in Shanghai, in the 1940s, and several generations of their progeny.
The exhibition is taking place as part of a series of events marking the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and Israel. The few exemplars on show at the House of Quality Gallery came from the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which designed the event. They include a Chinese driving license which belonged to one Kurt Duldner and a catalogue for the “Grand Concert of Jewish Folk Music,” which took place on December 28, 1940, at the Shanghai Jewish School and featured Cantor S. Antman.
Shanghai museum director and curator of the Jewish Refugees and Shanghai exhibition Chen Jian hoped that the Jerusalem show would provide an opportunity for former Shanghai Jews to add some of their own mementos of their childhood in China to the display.
The official Chinese exhibition text expresses the hope that “based on the common history of the Chinese people and the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, and the significance attributed to it by Chinese and Israelis, this exhibition will increase the mutual understanding and cooperation between the people of both countries.”
The brochure also states, with optimism, that the Chinese authorities “look forward to your visit to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum!” One could add that the authorities were also eagerly anticipating additional contributions to the museum’s inventory, from former Jewish residents of the Chinese city.
AMONG THE survivors of that epoch in Shanghai Jewish history, at the official opening in Jerusalem, was 64-yearold Haifa resident Miri Hausman, and her Jerusalemite sister Hava Cohen.
Cohen certainly would not have looked out of place in Shanghai and Hausman’s facial features also suggested some Asian genes. That can be put down to maternal baggage, as Hausman and Cohen’s father was a German Jewish doctor and their mother was a Chinese army officer. But that crosscultural union was an exception.
Hausman not only took the opportunity of the exhibition opening to relate some of her story and meet up with other Shanghai-born Israelis, she also brought some of her own keepsakes from that time to add to the Shanghai museum’s collection.
There was a sizable Jewish community in Shanghai, with close to 30,000 mostly German and Austrian Jews managing to escape the clutches of the Nazis between 1933 and 1941. Other than around 10,000 Jewish children who were admitted to Britain, between December 1938 and August 1939, in the Kindertransport operation, there were very few escape routes open to the Jews of Europe.
In July 1938, an international conference was held by 32 countries in Evian, France, to discuss the problem of the large numbers of Jewish refugees, but none of the attending delegates was willing to take in any more Jews. At the time, however, no visas were required for entering Shanghai, although the Jews still needed a visa with a specific destination in order to leave Europe.
Dr. Ho Feng Shan, then the Chinese Consul General in Vienna, authorized visas to Austrian Jews who applied.
Jewish refugees began to escape to Shanghai from Germany and other Nazi-controlled countries in 1933. The exodus peaked in 1939, when about 18,000 Jews arrived in Shanghai. The massive influx ended when Shanghai was cut off from the outside world by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
The Nazis did not just do their utmost to annihilate European Jewry in the countries they occupied; they also tried to influence Japan, which controlled large parts of Shanghai, to allow the Germans to implement their extermination plan for the Jews in China too.
Although they did not accede to the Germans’ request, the Japanese authorities proclaimed a Designated Area for Stateless Refugees in the Hongkou District of Shanghai and forced all Jewish refugees – there were over 23,000 at the time – into this area.
The pressure from Nazi Germany and oppression by the Japanese made life for the Jewish refugees and the preexisting Jewish communities in Shanghai perilous. Ultimately, however, almost all Jewish refugees in Shanghai survived the Holocaust and the war, due mostly to the mutual support the Jews provided for one another, and to the great help they received from the Chinese people and Jews around the world.
The Jewish refugees did not exactly land in the lap of luxury. Hongkou district was already pretty crowded even before the European Jews began to turn up. But the original Chinese residents displayed great fortitude and generosity and the newly arrived Jews enjoyed a miraculously harmonious existence with the indigenous population in trying circumstances.
THE JEWS made their way to Shanghai via all manner of tortuous routes, which changed as the political conditions evolved, and with the progression of the war. From 1933 to June 1940, most of the refugees went to Italy first and then arrived in Shanghai by ship from Italian ports. Others made their way to France, the Netherlands, Belgium and other countries in Northern Europe, then took ships from various Atlantic ports to Shanghai. Some managed to get to some of the Balkan states by way of the Danube and then boarded liners to Shanghai.
From June 1940 to June 1941, however, passage from Italy to Shanghai became impossible when Italy joined in the war, so the fleeing Jews could only take a land route. They crossed Siberia and reached Shanghai by way of northeast China, Korea or Japan. That land route was also cut off in June 1941, when the Soviet Union declared war on Germany.
However, there were some exceptions.
Some refugees who had left Europe earlier and been stranded in the Soviet Union, Northeast China and Japan made their way to Shanghai, having nowhere else to go. Most of these refugees came from Poland and Lithuania, and included some 400 teachers and students from Mir Yeshiva in Poland. After the outbreak of the Pacific War on December 8, 1941, no more Jewish refugees could reach Shanghai.
THE MUSEUM in Shanghai contains items donated by former Jewish residents who dispersed across the globe after the end of the war. Vienna-born Eric Goldstaub, who moved to Canada, provided three family photographs.
Thanks to the efforts of the Chinese consulate in Vienna no fewer than 20 members of his family got to Shanghai and survived the war. Jerry Moses arrived in Shanghai in 1941, when he was seven years old, and lived there until 1947. He got out with his mother and two siblings and says he enjoyed a happy childhood in Shanghai.
Chen Jian happily noted that quite a few Jews who were born in Shanghai, or who spent part of their childhood there, have returned to visit the city over the years.
“Some of the Jewish refugees have come back to China several times, to return to their past and look back on their time there,” he says. “They have happy memories from the time they lived here.”
That was evident at the exhibition opening, and there was a warm and convivial ambiance between the former refugees, with some meeting for the first time and exchanging stories of their time in China.
The Jewish Refugees and Shanghai exhibition closes on August 25. For more information: 054-746-2384.