Even in China, it’s all Hebrew to me

Shanghai once gave refuge to Jews fleeing Nazis.

China 311 (photo credit: MASADA SIEGEL)
China 311
(photo credit: MASADA SIEGEL)
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, China.
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 time.
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.
A 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 Menahem.
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.
They also established a Jewish day school and set up a fund with the Sassoon family to help refugees escaping Europe set up businesses and become self-sufficient.
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 cafe.
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.
Later in the day, an Israeli friend, Ziv, who lives in Shanghai, joined the tour. Hilariously, in China I found myself speaking more Hebrew than English.
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 next.
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.