How Shanghai Saved the Jews
I spent National day in Shanghai with my family, our first leisure trip back since we lived there in 2007. Like Beijing, Shanghai has caught a serious case of fabulous in the past five years. The French Concession, already precious when I lived there, now has more coffee houses, boutique bakeries and fashionable bars per hectare than San Francisco’s Mission District, which is no mean feat given SOMA’s hipster factor.
Case in point: the street behind the apartment I lived in while I was in Shanghai used to be a wet market where you could have your Sunday chickens slaughtered and plucked while-u-wait (very convenient). It’s now a strip of coffee houses, boutique bakeries and fashionable bars. The apartment block itself is as dingy and miserable as ever, but I’m sure rents have gone up.
I have no philosophical objection to this transformation. Wet markets and Shanghai summers go together exactly like you’d expect a bunch of unrefrigerated animal carcasses, dismembered frogs and fish innards to go with 35C temperatures and relentless humidity. And I have a taste for coffee and fine baked goods. Anyway, such is progress.
My mom, who had never been to Shanghai, was in tow, so we made a round of The Sites, braving the staggering holiday crowds at the Bund, Luzjiazui, and so on. But one place where the crowds were not staggering was the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, in stubbornly un-fabulous Hongkou district. Jews, it turns out, have an extensive history in Shanghai, originating from the Iraqi Jews who established trading houses there in the 19th century. Although I’m not observant, I am mostly Ukrainian Jew by ethnicity — Moss comes from my great grandfather, Abraham Mosiusnik, who emigrated at the turn of the 20th century — so it seemed something worth exploring.
Before and during World War II tens of thousands of Jews fled Europe and arrived in Shanghai. Stateless, and disconnected from the established Jewish communities, they were settled in a ghetto in Hongkou, north of Suzhou Creek. Constructed in 1927, the elegant, brick Ohel Moishe synagogue served the Russian Jewish refugee community in the ghetto. About ten years ago it was converted to a museum with the support of the Shanghai city government.
I don’t generally hold Chinese museums in high regard (though there are some exceptions, such as the Shaanxi Provincial Museum in Xi’an). Many Chinese museums have spectacular artifacts, whether lacquerware or locomotives, but, regardless of language, they are often bad at explanation and storytelling and beholden to the imperatives of The Official Narrative. This is a minor tragedy. The Forbidden City should be one of the great museums of the planet. It’s not. It’s a glorious structure holding a bunch of disconnected and poorly explained stuff. And, no, it’s not because Chiang Kai Shek took a lot of the good stuff to Taiwan (although he did).
Following a Chinese volunteer docent on a tour, it didn’t take long to see that the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum suffers from a variety of the Chinese museum syndrome. Among other things, the tour led off with a comprehensive review of the awards and honors that have been bestowed upon the museum by Jewish groups and diplomats, and a recounting of the Chinese notables who have graced the premises. Always a worrying sign.
The museum does, however, have a very clear and effectively transmitted narrative. It is this: the east-European Jewish refugees were saved by the charity and benevolence of China, welcomed in Shanghai when the so-called leaders of the free world, the United States and the United Kingdom, turned them away. This point is drummed home by multiple exhibits, including a brief but eye-catching movie presented on multiple overlapping translucent screens.
The story is accurate, insofar as it goes, but as with many Chinese museums the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is interesting less for what it includes than for what it elides. For example, it is true that Shanghai accepted the Jewish refugees at a time when the US and UK shamefully didn’t. But that was because Shanghai didn’t require an entry visa, so anyone could (and did) land there. Left unmentioned is that the open borders were the result of Shanghai’s status as foreign treaty port under the infamous Treaty of Nanking (the same one that ceded Hong Kong to the British after the First Opium War – and we know how the Chinese felt about that).
Also absent is a full explanation of the reason why the Hongkou Jewish ghetto wasn’t liquidated late in the war, as the Germans were demanding. The decision to spare the Jews was made by the Japanese, who actually administered the city during the war. As the story goes, the Japanese were persuaded by the Shanghai rabbi Shimon Sholom Kalish. When asked by the Japanese government why the Germans hated Jews, the rabbi replied it was because, “we are orientals.” Or words to that effect; exactly what he said is a matter of dispute. But Chinese museums aren’t in the business of giving credit to the Japanese. It’s not their thing.
Finally, due recognition is given to Ho Fengshan, the Chinese diplomat in Vienna who defied the orders of his superiors and distributed possibly thousands of exit visas to European Jews, allowing them to depart Europe for Shanghai. Nowhere, as far as I recall, is it mentioned that he was a Nationalist diplomat (or that he retired to the United States). This strikes me as a missed opportunity, given that defying the orders of your Nationalist superiors in support of something the Communists claim as a triumph would seem worth mentioning. (It’s also possible I misremember that display, as I didn’t take notes when I was there.)
Whether or not the museum is worth a visit depends upon what you’re looking for. The ghetto is still there, in a row of tenements with graceful, Georgian facades, but it’s an unreclaimed Chinese ghetto now. The building housing the Ohel Moishe synagogue is beautiful, and some of the exhibits are interesting despite the layer of Chinese-style political correctness. The third floor is a sort of mini-Holocaust museum, which doesn’t add much to the story of the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, but does illustrate the perfidy of Europeans toward each other and explains why the refugees fled. The history of the Jews in Shanghai is genuinely interesting, and I was inspired by the museum to learn more about it, which is a good thing.
Ultimately the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum may teach you less about the Jewish ghetto in wartime Shanghai than about how the Shanghai government wants to use that part of history in service of its own agenda. Still, if you’re willing to read between the lines, that’s pretty interesting in itself.