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A Revisit of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum

Expansive, expanded – a recreation of a poignant chapter in Shanghai's history.
2021-02-08 12:00:00
Photos: Brandon McGhee

There are few stories from Shanghai’s history that have the feel-good resonance of the about 20,000 Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Europe and coming here. The availing open port of Shanghai and the help of transit documents issued by Ho Feng-Shan and other sympathetic Chinese diplomats gave way to waves of European Jews. Entering the city between 1933 and 1941, the refugees settled in a section of Hongkou (at the time called Hongkew) District, next to the Tilanqiao Prison and the Xiahai Temple.

One of the most surprising aspects of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, which reopened in December after a massive year-long expansion, is how un-romanticized it can be. Shanghai provided a safe port, but hardly an easy one: poverty and overcrowding, with bombings in 1932 and 1937 presaging the Japanese occupation from 1941 and the forcing of “stateless persons” into a few Hongkou blocks between 1943 to 1945. Japanese generals ruled capriciously, and an estimated thousand Jews, mostly elderly and infants, died from the awful conditions.

Shanghai’s Jewish residents from Allied nations were sent to internment camps like the Longhua one famously memorialized by J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. On July 17 1945, American aerial bombs missed nearby Japanese targets and killed 31 (40 by some accounts) Jews and hundreds of Chinese citizens within the Jewish Quarter. Still, a global application of the “final solution” was resisted by Japanese officials and Chinese collaborators, and most families made it to safety after the war.

The glitzier side of Jewish Shanghai gets a quick nod at the museum, with pictures and models of landmarks built by affluent Sephardic businessmen such as the Sassoons and the Hardoons, alongside the long-assimilated Jewish population in Kaifeng from the 10th Century. In 1939, Sun Yat-Sen’s son, Sun Ke, proposed to set up an area in Southwest China for the Jews fleeing the Nazis; sadly, it never came to fruition.

The museum focuses through the experiences of the refugees, many of whom fled Europe stripped of funds or assets. The community had set up several Heimes (海母 in Chinese), dorm-like accommodations for new arrivals, which slept around 30 to 200 people per room. The East Seward Road Heim was set up in a bombed-out former school, and the ground floor residents of the Ward Road Heim had recalled heavy rain soaking all of their belongings with their shoes being carried off, showing the weather here at least hasn't changed.

The Expanded Museum

The Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum started out as a small exhibition in the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, which was built in 1927 and is one of only two remaining of the four that Shanghai once had. (The other, Ohel Rachel, will sometimes open for Jewish Holidays.)

It opened as a proper museum in 2007, but the space within the synagogue began to fill as more relics and items were donated by the now-elderly children and descendants of Hongkew's erstwhile Jews. The new facility has taken over the adjacent historic residences, expanding to a now spacious 4,000 sqm, showing a collection of about a thousand artifacts from the 1930s and ‘40s.

The Exhibitions

The museum opens up to a stairwell with a succession of signs running along the ceiling, chronicling the rise of Nazism in Europe.

It enters into a somber hall playing a looped film in Chinese (with subtitles) about Kristallnacht. It's an allowable example of the bombast one expects from historical museums in China, as it delivers a message that still needs to be communicated: the Nazis were bad and the Holocaust was real.

Signs at the entry declare that photography is prohibited, but a staff clarifies that this rule only applies to films, which are copyrighted, and the horrific depections of Auschwitz, out of respect for the victims. It's a place people would definitely want to photograph the information, some of the relics and the beautiful reproductions of spaces; take those selfies somewhere else.

The first room of exhibitions remembers Ho Feng-Shan, and documents the various routes and passages to Shanghai from Europe. A boat nerd could spend an hour just deep-diving into the materials about vintage ocean liners.

After a quick primer about prior Jewish history in China, which also includes large settlements in Harbin and Tianjin, the museum leads guests into the history of the Heimes. One wall memorializes the charitable organizations that kept newly arrived refugees fed and housed, as well as the activists who had kept those endeavors running.

Surviving transit documents and food coupons join the photographs and interactive exhibits. There is a reproduction of the cramped dorm rooms and an intimate dinner table.

The refugees settled in, found jobs and homes, started families. There were a few cheerful rooms that celebrate the apex of Jewish-Shanghai, with dedicated sports clubs, nightclubs, cafes and schools. Enlarged pictures of families in lanes and reproductions of business signs transport visitors to Jewish Hongkew.

There are museum documents of musical legends like brothers Otto and Walter Joachim, who both joined with Chen Gexin to pen the pop song "Meigui, Meigui, Wo Ai Ni (玫瑰玫瑰我爱你)". The song would be translated into English and became the global sensation Rose, Rose I Love You.

Hongkew’s heyday was brief. From February 18, 1943, about two square miles of the area was fenced off and the district became the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees”, with the population of the area climbing to upwards of 20,000 Jews and 100,000 Chinese citizens. There is a huge interactive map showing how the neighborhood had transformed over time.

A pair of old wooden stairs lead back to the first floor, and segue into how, after V-J Day, Shanghai’s Jews would learn about the horrors they had escaped back home.

After 1945, the Jewish communities decamped en masse to either Europe or to new shores in Israel or the Americas. Only a handful of mostly half-Chinese Jews stayed in Shanghai after 1949. The remaining two rooms of the museum trace the resumption of international ties in the 1980s, and the museum visits of Hongkew’s former residents.

Unless detouring into the gift shop, the sojourn exits onto a courtyard where walls of names of Shanghai’s refugees flank a café and the restored synagogue. It is a nice spot to stop for reflection, and to put our current turbulent times into the context of greater history.

Remnants of Jewish Hongkew

It is worth visiting the remaining old neighborhoods of Shanghai’s former “Little Vienna”. The demolished White Horse Café has been rebuilt and sits right across the museum. Just around the corner on Zhoushan Lu (near the museum), an old sign for Chusan Leigh remains above one lane. At Number 59, a plaque marks where Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, arguably Hongkew’s most famous alumnus, lived as a child. Old Shanghainese men still play the European game Carrom on the sidewalk. At the end of the road is Huoshan Park, which was rebuilt on the site of a recreation area in the 1930s and 40s. A memorial rock was installed in the 1980s, and for two decades, it was the only tribute to the district’s history. Just west on Huoshan Lu is the Art Deco-designed former Broadway Theatre and Roy Roof Garden Restaurant. The building still stands, albeit empty, so perhaps a revival is waiting to happen.

Visiting Information

Entrance to the museum is 20rmb per adult, 10rmb per child and 15rmb per senior. Guests are able to purchase their tickets either at the museum itself or online at their website. The museum is open daily, from 9am-5pm. Admission is not accepted after 4.30pm. Guests can have an accompanied audio-guide device, but it will be in Chinese. It's only 10rmb to borrow, with a 200rmb deposit – digital pay is only accepted. It's suggested that visiting time should take up two to three hours. It can be even longer, if guests linger over the interactive exhibits. If exploring the historic neighborhood is included with the visit, then allow an extra 30 to 60 minutes.


If interested in knowing more about Shanghai's many museums, click here to be redirected to our Museum Directory Page.