Letter from Shanghai: City’s Jewish heritage blends glamour and compassion

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum was renovated in 2007 and gets up to 1,000 visitors a day. Photograph: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty

Shanghai is one of the world’s great Jewish cities, and the history of refugees in the Chinese financial hub is a tale of both high glamour and bitter struggle.

Shanghai’s most elegant Art Deco mansions along the Bund waterfront were built by prominent Sephardic Jewish merchant families like the Sassoons, while during the second World War, thousands of Austrian and German Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution found sanctuary in the city.

As trade links increase, the city’s Jewish population is rising, and now Shanghai’s role as a safe haven for Jews during the war is remembered with the opening of a memorial park in the city’s suburbs.

There has been a lively Jewish community here since the late 19th century, but groups of mostly Russian and Sephardic immigrants came in the early 20th century, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, as they fled the Russian Revolution, eager to rebuild businesses they had lost or start again.

The bar of the Peace Hotel, restored now to its 1930s splendour, bears testament to the great achievement of Sir Ellice Victor Sassoon, a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors came from Baghdad.

He was educated at Harrow and at Cambridge, and gave Shanghai its most glamorous Art Deco facades, as well as throwing excellent parties.

In his day, the Peace Hotel was called the Cathay Hotel. During its glory days, George Bernard Shaw visited its narrow Tudor-panelled stairwells and white Italian marble halls beneath intricate Lalique stained glass windows; Noel Coward finished off his play Private Lives in the penthouse suite in 1930.

Other prominent members of the Jewish community included Silas Hardoon, who had been Sassoon’s security man, a rent collector and an opium dealer. He created the shikumen lane houses beloved of the new rich in Shanghai and transformed Nanjing Road into an elegant shopping precinct.

Hardoon built the Beth Aharon synagogue in 1927, a modernist triumph, which was flattened in 1985.

Jewish ghetto
The Hollywood film producer Mike Medavoy was born in Shanghai, in 1941, and then you had the Kadoorie family, which started the China Light & Power Company and today owns the Peninsula Hotel Group.

They were also Sephardic Jews who began their careers with the Sassoons.

In the Hongkou neighbourhood, on Zhoushan Road, stands a building that was once the Jewish ghetto, where thousands of Jews, including the former US secretary of the treasury, Michael Blumenthal, once lived. It was once known as “Little Vienna”.

One of the reasons so many Jews came to Shanghai during the second World War is because of a Chinese diplomat, Feng Shan Ho (He Fangshan), who was in Vienna during the war and who issued exit visas to Jews, allowing them to travel to Shanghai.

This was despite the fact the Japanese, Germany’s Axis allies, were in control of the city.

A Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, also issued thousands of visas allowing Jews to escape.

The site was visited in 1941 by Josef Albert Meisinger, the SS officer known as “the Butcher of Warsaw”, who tried to get the Japanese to set up a concentration camp on Chongming Island.

The Japanese demurred, but eventually, in 1943, created a ghetto for any “stateless” people, and Hongkou was soon crowded with 20,000 Jews.

As the US had joined the war in 1941, the money from US aid organisations also dried up, and life got tough in this Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees.

After the war, most left, and when the Communists took over in 1949, the remainder departed, especially the wealthy ones who went to Hong Kong.

Zhou Jian, the head of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, said it was renovated in 2007 and gets up to 1,000 visitors a day.

“When we opened the museum, most of the people were Jews from all over the world who had some connections with Shanghai, families or friends.

“Very few Chinese visited here because there was not much publicity about it and people didn’t know about it.

“Now there are more Chinese people than foreigners, because we have collected a lot of documents, pictures, artefacts and stories and we have a team to manage it.”

Mr Wang is visiting from Gansu. “I’ve read a fair bit about it, so I thought I’d come and have a look. I’m curious to see how the Jews in Shanghai lived,” he says.

An Israeli family, the Levys, visiting the museum said they hadn’t known China had taken in Jews. “Of course we have to come here to have a look. And we have some family friends who used to live in Shanghai,” said one of the Levy brothers.

They are examining a wall of 13,372 names of people who used to live in the ghetto here.

Earlier this month, the Shanghai Jewish Memorial Park in Qingpu district in the suburbs was set up, cofounded by the Shanghai Jewish community, the Shanghai Centre of Jewish Studies and Fu Shou Yuan International.

The Israeli consulate says about 2,000-6,000 Jews live in Shanghai. “I believe the number will grow,” says Mr Zhou. “With China’s growing power and importance, trade with foreign countries will grow, and the number of Jews in Shanghai will increase again. They will do a lot of business with China.”


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