When doors around the world closed to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe on the eve of World War II, Shanghai accepted them with no visa required.
They created a thriving community in Hongkou District, with cafes, plays, synagogues, and even their own newspapers, but it is a community that has been all but forgotten by Shanghai. Now, as plans to revitalize the area are being drawn up, reporter Zhao Feifei looks at local Jewish legacy, and how it will be remembered In an intriguing corner of the city, Viennese gentlemen once sipped strong coffee outside Austrian bakeries. Some read the local papers, printed in German (there were also newspapers in Polish, Russian and Yiddish). Kosher butcher shops and German delicatessens stood nearby, and candles for the high holy days were sold at Abraham's Dry Goods.
Images of Shanghai's Jewish ghetto are still vivid in the mind of 84-year-old Wang Faliang, a resident of Hongkou District who befriended his Jewish neighbors, and whose recollections of the Jewish community are a rare insight into a world long gone.
Hongkou, which lies north of the Suzhou Creek, was the main asylum for Jewish refugees during the late 1930s. From 1938 to 1941, nearly 20,000 Jews fled Germany and Austria to Shanghai. Tilanqiao, an area close to the northern part of the Bund in Hongkou, was home to nearly 30,000 Jews during the World War II. A community thrived there, and more than 400 babies were born.
Today, after nearly four decades of ignoring its Jewish legacy, Shanghai is rousing itself to protect the area, whose memory is still held dear by those who were saved by the refuge here. Over the next five years, the Hongkou District Government will restore and revive the Jewish residential area in Tilanqiao, a project that is listed as one of the 12 key preserved areas under the auspices of the Shanghai Municipal Government.
A basic renovation plan will be revealed next month, says Zhang Zhilang, director of Hongkou District's Information Department.
Local historic building preservation experts have been working since last November to hammer out a blueprint that would accomplish the twin goals of preserving the old Jewish neighborhood's cultural heritage and developing its commercial potential. The project involves the reconstruction and embellishment of the district's old structures, in addition to new constructions for commercial use.
Due to its role in accepting Jewish refugees -- it was the only place that allowed visa-free access to fleeing Jews -- Shanghai is well-known to Jews the world over. As a result, the project has attracted interest from Jewish businessmen overseas, like Canadian Lan Leventhal, who wants to be part of the project, and has established a company called "Living Bridge" which has already created detailed plans in a bid to stay a step ahead of its competitors.
With this sort of interest, Tilanqiao might be well turned into another Xintiandi. But Ruan Yisan, a professor at Tongji University, an ardent preservationist and leader of the preservation team, cautions that the renovation should be focused on the protection of the historic sites rather than on exploiting its commercial potential.
"Some companies have put forward half-baked plans to build ridiculous fun fairs or high-rises around this area," he says. "If priorities are not set correctly, and much focused on profit, the project will flop." As professor Ruan intimates, there is plenty to protect there. Although most of the Jewish refugees left Shanghai at the end of World War II, their houses, synagogues, parks and cafes -- some, with the names still outlined above the doorways -- still stand here, a silent witness to history.
But most of these buildings have either been converted to other uses or fallen into ruin. The Ohel Moishe Synagogue, one of the only two surviving synagogues in Shanghai, is an exception. The synagogue, built in 1927 by a Russian Jew, was one of the city's four major synagogues of the period, and is today an exhibition center of Jewish history and culture. A small exhibition hall on the second floor tells of the Jewish experience in Shanghai, with pictures on the wall detailing why Shanghai became the "second hometown" for so many Jews.
Wang, the octogenarian who has been the museum's doorkeeper and tour guide for 11 years, has hosted many political figures, including former US President Bill Clinton and late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The legacy of the Hongkou ghetto is just one piece in what is a long, colorful history of the Jews in the city. Shanghai was settled by a succession of Jews, beginning with Sephardic Jews, who came seeking business opportunities in the 1840s, Russian Jews fleeing pogroms in the 1880s and early 1900s, and finally German and Austrian Jews escaping the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. During World War II, there were 20,000 Jews exiling to Shanghai from Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, along with the earlier Sephardic and Russian Jews, for a total of 31,000 Jews.
Shortly before the breakout of World War II, doors throughout world began closing to Jewish refugees -- leaving the Shanghai as the only place where they could enter without a visa. Thousands of Jews poured into Shanghai, helped by the established families, including the wealthy Sassoons, Hardoons and Kadoories. Over the next few years, the area north of the Suzhou Creek, particularly Tangshan, Gongping, Changzhi and Huoshan roads, were transformed into a European enclave, dubbed as "Little Vienna."
Pan Guang, a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and dean of the Shanghai Jewish Studies Center, points out that many of the exiles were highly talented professionals -- teachers, editors, reporters, writers, painters, musicians and sportsmen. They opened schools, organized playing teams, built up a moving library and even started bands and football teams. Even under the difficult conditions of the times, dozens of Jewish newspapers and magazines were published.
In his book, The Jews of Shanghai, the first of its kind about the community in both English and Chinese, Pan notes that the Jewish community began dissipating after World War II. They left Shanghai for Israel, the United States, Canada and Australia, until in 1948 the population dwindled to 10,000. After October 1949, the Chinese government began sending Jews back to their hometowns, so that by 1957, there were only about 100 Jews remaining in Shanghai. Most of them left during the decade of the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), and by 1976, there were only about 10 Jews left in Shanghai.
In modern days, interest in the city's Jewish legacy is being rekindled by the growing number of Jewish businessman who work in the city. "Shanghai used to be a colony encircled by different cultures in different times," says Sara Imas, a woman of both Jewish and Chinese origins who was born and raised in Shanghai. "The city's Jewish history is an integral part of its history. The government's effort to protect historic sites and remember the stories of that period is an act of respecting the history."
The Jews Of Shanghai
The Kadoories This family made its fortune in Shanghai and Hong Kong real estate and utilities industries. Their Hong Kong and Shanghai hotel chain, which includes the Peninsula Hotel, is among the finest in the world. Their family home, Marble Hall, is today the Children's Palace of the China Welfare Institute on Yan'an Road.
The Sassoons Once opium traders the Sassoons built and owned high-profile properties like the Cathay Hotel (today the Peace Hotel) and Grosvenor House (the old Jin Jiang Hotel), among others.
Morris Cohen Known by his nickname Two-Gun Cohen, he served as bodyguard and aide-de-camp to Dr Sun Yat-sen, considered China's greatest revolutionary, eventually becoming a Chinese general.
Michael Medavoy Medavoy, who lived in Shanghai until the age of 7, went on to a career as a Hollywood mogul producer at Columbia, Orion and TriStar Pictures.
Peter Max The influential American pop artist was born in Shanghai.
Eric Halpern The founder, along with other Shanghai Jews, of the Far Eastern Economic Review, and its first editor.
On The Trail: Shanghai's Jewish Legacy Ohel Rachel Founded by Sir Jacob Sassoon and consecrated in 1920 in his wife's memory. It is now the site of the Shanghai Education Bureau.
Address: 500 Shaanxi Rd N.
Ohel Moishe The original synagogue, for Orthodox Russian and German Jews, was founded in 1907, and moved to current site in 1927. At one time, it served as the isolation ward of the Shanghai Mental Hospital, but is now an office building with two small rooms reserved as a museum of Jewish life. Address: 62 Changyang Rd
New Synagogue Built and consecrated in 1941. Services continued until 1956. It is now a nightclub. Address: 102 Xiangyang Rd S.
The Shanghai Jewish School First founded in 1900 by D.E.J. Abraham on the grounds of Sheerith Israel, the new school was founded in 1932 by Horace Kadoorie on the grounds of Ohel Rachel. It is now occupied by the Shanghai Education Bureau. Address: 500 Shaanxi Rd N.
The Shanghai Jewish Hospital Originally the B'nai Brith Polyclinic, founded in 1934, the hospital adopted its new name in 1942. It is now the Shanghai ENT (Otolaryngological) Hospital. Address: 83 Fenyang Rd
(eastday.com March 3, 2004)