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Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum
Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrAlthough not often talked about in Chinese or European history, Shanghai offered Jews a place of sanctuary when they were being persecuted across Europe.
HistoryBefore World War II, there was a small population of Jewish people living in Shanghai, in the International Settlement and French Concession.
In 1933, when Jews first faced wide-spread persecution across Europe, it is estimated up to 17,000 Jews arrived into Shanghai, preceding thousands more who came after the horror of Kristallnacht in 1938. Unlike the Jews who were already living in Shanghai, most of whom had done well as small and medium business owners, those arriving from Germany and Austria had very few possessions and almost no assets.
Around the world, countries were prohibiting Jews from entering and denying Jews visas – however, until 1939 there were no requirements for Jews entering Shanghai, and it was one of the only places Jews were able to seek refuge. Both the United Kingdom and the United States prohibited Jews from entering their countries, although they are often regarded as having provided a haven for Jews. Shanghai was essentially the last remaining metropolis available for Jews to emigrate to, with almost all Jews travelling to Shanghai, rather than other parts of China. The presence of a Jewish community over there was significant in deciding where to emigrate to. Although tough at first, many Jews started businesses resembling those found across Europe, and bakeries, nightclubs, and cafés started springing up in an area that became known as ‘Little Vienna’.
Initially, the Jews settled in what became the poorest part of Shanghai, and aid began pouring in from other Jewish families as well as Jewish agencies abroad. This was a stark contrast from the three-week journey to arriving in Shanghai. With tickets bought for luxury steamboats, the three-week journey was the height of luxury – escaping persecution before being forced to live in a crowded ghetto, Jews described the journey as ‘surreal’. Many attempted to emigrate to Palestine, but the British were limiting the numbers of Jews entering the British Mandate State.
Shanghai is reported to have harbored almost 30,000 Jews, more than Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, and New Zealand combined. Jews had always lived in Shanghai, and it is thought that they reached China as early as the Ming dynasty . Similar to other places around the world, the Jews set up their own community, with synagogues, schools, hospitals, and even a small military unit (which came under the Shanghai Volunteer Corps). Throughout history there has been very little anti-Semitic behavior reported across Asia, and good relations have been maintained between the Jewish communities and Asian nations.
MuseumThe Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum was built to pay homage to the sacrifices and hardship the Jews were put through as well as highlighting the role Shanghai played in offering Jews some kind of sanctuary. The museum is housed in a former synagogue, known as Ohel Moshe Synagogue, and was a place where Jews often gathered to play games and celebrate their religion.
The museum provides a lot of information, all of which has been translated into English and gives a good insight into the role China played in protecting thousands of Jews. It is small, but it is useful to have a guide to explain the history, and the role Shanghai played in the history of the emigration of Jews. Dvir Bar-Gal is able to give you a full tour of ‘Jewish Shanghai’, culminating in a tour of the museum. Interesting for both Jews and non-Jews, the tour provides an insight into Jewish history and also visits some ‘off-the-beaten-path’ locations that would otherwise be difficult to find. The tour can be arranged through the museum, and your hotel should be able to assist you. The museum also provides a free guided tour, often given by Jewish university students.
The museum has been designated a protected culture relic, and the building has been restored. The museum is a three-story building, with a main hall, large engraved doors, as well as the original floor tiles. Much of the synagogue was paid for by wealthy Jewish business owners, and it is clear that the building was well taken care of. Nearby Huaoshan Park has also paid homage to Jewish refugees with a memorial and explanation of the history of Jewish persecution on a plaque in the park. The museum has been visited by a number of prominent figures, including Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, where he writes ‘The Israeli government, the Jewish people and I want to thank Shanghai for their help from the bottom of our heart’.
Getting ThereEntrance to the museum is 50 CNY and is open every day from 9.00AM to 5.00PM. To get there by subway, take subway line 4 and get off at Dalian Road Station. Take exit 3 to Changyang Road, and from there the museum is 1,640 feet down the street.
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Author: hannahbarkan. Last updated: Jan 10, 2015