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Discussion Papers Series
Volume II

Discussion paper #6

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Shanghai: a Haven for Holocaust Victims

by Pan Guang, Professor and Vice Chairman of Shanghai Center for International Studies at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai accepted almost 30,000 European Jews who escaped from Nazi Persecution and the Holocaust. Excluding those who left Shanghai for other countries, by the time of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the city was sheltering 20,000 - 25,000 Jewish refugees. According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Holocaust Studies, Shanghai took in more Jewish refugees than Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India combined (1). Like “Schindler”, “Wallenberg” and “Sugihara”, the name “Shanghai” has now become synonymous with “rescue” and “haven” in the annals of the Holocaust.

Why Did Shanghai Become a Haven for Jewish Refugees?

The accepted historical account is that Jews came to China as early as the Tang Dynasty (around the 8th Century). The Jewish community in Kaifeng, which took shape during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), is known to all (2). In modern times, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tianjin and Harbin had become the places where Jews chose to live. Shanghai, in particular, had a Jewish community of about 5,000 people in the early part of the 1930s, comprised of Sephardic Jews who came to do business in the city from Baghdad, Bombay, Singapore and Hong Kong in the second half of the 19th century and Russian (Ashkenazi) Jews who came to make a living in the city via Siberia and Harbin after the pogroms, revolutions and civil war in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. The community had its own communal association, synagogues, schools, hospitals, clubs, cemeteries, a chamber of commerce, political groups, publications, and a small fighting unit (a Jewish company belonging to the Shanghai Volunteer Corps) (3). Several notable families such as the Sassoons, the Hardoons, the Kadoories became an economic power not just in Shanghai but throughout the whole of China and even East Asia. The important point is that although many Jews have inhabited China from ancient to modern times, no indigenous anti-Semitic activity has ever taken place on Chinese soil. That is why European Jews retain a friendly feeling towards the Chinese and cities like Shanghai.

Viewed culturally, most Chinese are influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism rather than Christianity, and Chinese and Jewish cultures share a great deal in common. For example, both lay great stress on family ties and educational values, and although both have absorbed various exotic cultures, their central core has never changed. On a stone monument erected in 1489, the Kaifeng Jews wrote: ‘Our religion and Confucianism differ only in minor details. In mind and deed both respect Heaven’s Way, venerate ancestors, are loyal to sovereigns and ministers, and filial to parents. Both call for harmony with wives and children, respect for rank, and for making friends’ (4). For this reason, the religious roots of anti-Semitism do not exist in China, and never have. No doubt, this environment was strongly appealing to Jews who had suffered untold tribulations in Nazi Europe.

The international environment of that time also accounted for Shanghai’s popularity among Jews. In the wake of the global economic depression and imminent threat of war, many countries refused to accept immigrants. In July 1938, representatives from thirty-two countries attended the Evian Conference on Jewish refugees, but, with the exception of the Dominican Republic, no country was willing to take in more Jews. In May of 1939, the British government issued the White Paper which imposed strict restrictions on the entry of Jewish immigrants into Palestine (5). The United States, which has the world’s largest Jewish community, also closed its door to Jewish refugees (6). It was in these desperate days that the European Jews found Shanghai, the only metropolis in the world at that time, which foreigners could enter without visas. These advantages were particularly important to Jewish refugees, most of whom were penniless and some of whom had just escaped from concentration camps.

All these factors conspired to turn Shanghai, a Far Eastern metropolis, into an ideal haven for Jewish refugees, adding a bitter but memorable chapter to the history of Shanghai.

“Final Solution” in Shanghai and “Hongkew Ghetto”

As Japan had declared war against the United States in December 1941, Nazi Germany assumed that Japan would be certain to begin implementing German-type anti-Semitic policies. In July 1942, eight months after the Pacific War broke out, Colonel Josef Meisinger, chief representative of the Nazi Gestapo in Japan, arrived in Shanghai and put forward a plan for ‘Final Solution in Shanghai’ to the Japanese authorities. It was designed to be implemented in two steps. Step one was to arrest all Jews in Shanghai in a surprise attack as they were spending the Jewish New Year with families. Step two was to ‘deal with’ the problem they were assumed to create in a decisive manner. The plan suggested three ways of ‘dealing with’ these Jews. They could be placed in old ships and set a drift on the East China Sea, so that they would eventually die of hunger; they could be forced to toil themselves to death in the abandoned salt-mines on the upper reaches of the Huangpu River; or the Japanese could set up a concentration camp on Chongming Island, where the Jews would be subjected to medical experiments and die of their sufferings (7). Although the ‘Meisinger Plan’ was not put into effect, the Japanese authorities established ‘the Designated Area for Stateless Refugee’, ordering all Jewish refugees from Central Europe to move into the area - Hongkew (8). The whole operation was similar to setting up a concentration camp.

Why did the Japanese not carry out the ‘Meisinger Plan’? There are four main reasons: (1) The lobby within Japan which advocated peace with the United States still considered the Jews in Shanghai to be a means by which good relations with the United States could be restored and exerted their limited influence over the Japanese leadership to this end. (2) Japanese leaders were still hoping to maintain non-belligerent relations with the Soviet Union. If the Jews in Shanghai were to be slaughtered as the Nazi demanded, no doubt this barbarism would involve Russian Jews and would have an adverse influence on relations between the two countries. (3) The Jews in Harbin and Japan, who spoke up for the Jewish community in Shanghai with Japanese senior officials in an attempt to persuade Japan not to carry out the ‘Meisinger Plan’, also exerted some influence. (4) As a result of the Confucian cultural tradition, East Asia did not foster the same religious, racial, and cultural prejudices against Jews, which were prevalent in Christian Europe. Even the Japanese and the puppet officials at the middle and lower levels in Shanghai found it hard to accept the ‘Meisinger Plan’ both intellectually and emotionally. For example, Mr Shibata, Japanese Vice-Consul in Shanghai, was arrested because he gave secret support to Jews.

All the factors mentioned above notwithstanding, the Japanese fascists were still Hitler’s allies, and the probability that they would take sudden action against Jews in Shanghai was an ever-present threat. The pressure and the capriciousness of Japanese policy towards Jews put the Shanghai Jews in a difficult, unpredictable, and sometimes dangerous position for nearly four years.

How were Jewish Refugees able to Survive in Shanghai?

Jewish refugees’ own struggle for survival. The move to the ghetto
imposed tremendous economic, physical, and above all psychological burdens on Jewish refugees. Malnutrition and disease brought the total mortality figures for 1943 to 311 (9). Everybody waged a vital, dire struggle to survive. Despite such difficult conditions, on the whole the community showed a surprising amount of solidarity. The majority of refugees maintained a remarkable degree of stability and equilibrium. They reconstructed dozens of shattered streets, using the rubble to erect the new building and shops, and Hongkew soon began to take on the appearance of a small German or Austrian city. Chusan Road, once a small, dingy, typically Chinese lane, now looked like a street in Vienna (10). Hundreds of business establishments were opened, catering mostly to refugee customers. There were groceries, pharmacies, bakeries, plumbers, locksmiths, barbers, tailors, milliners, cobblers and, of course, there were the inevitable Viennese "coffee-houses”. A few enterprising souls even established small factories, turning out such products as soap, candles, knitwear, leatherwear, and especially European-type food products like sausages, confections, soft drinks, etc. There were a large number of medically trained personnel among refugees, including 200 physicians. These doctors, dentists and nurses soon set up little clinics in Hongkew. They even established the first hospital for refugees with l20 beds (11). One of the chief factors which made life bearable for refugees was the amount and variety of recreation they could enjoy. Among the refugees, there were many professional, as well as amateur, entertainers and they quickly swung into action. Actors and actresses organized drama groups, even a Yiddish theatre; musicians set up bands and orchestras; several singers even formed a light opera company, which put on some highly successful operettas (12). Some musicians like Professor Alfred Wittenberg, a famous violinist from Germany, later became professors at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Refugees set up soccer teams and played annual tournaments before thousands of enthusiastic spectators (13). From l938 to l947, editors and journalists among the refugees ran more than ten German publications, and several Polish and Yiddish ones. They included the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle (later Shanghai Echo), Shanghai Woche, Acht Uhr Abendblatt, Die Gelbe Post, Yeddish Almanach, Unser Wort, In Weg, Dos Wort, Die Tribune, Medizininisch Monatshefte, Unser Weg and so on (14).

Secondly, Support from overseas Jewish communities. In the bleak ghetto period, various international organizations, especially Jewish communities and organizations all over the world, gave great support to Jewish refugees in Shanghai. The unremitting rescue efforts undertaken by the JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) should certainly be mentioned. The JDC set up its office with a resident representative in Shanghai in 1938. At regular intervals it wrote a report detailing the situation of the Shanghai Jewish refugees and collected donations in the United States for Jewish refugees in Shanghai with monthly donations averaging US$30,000. After the outbreak of the Pacific War, fearing reproaches from the American government, the JDC headquarters in New York had to discontinue posting money to Shanghai in May 1942. This was just at the time the JDC’s resident representative, Laura Margolies, was put into a concentration camp by the Japanese (15). Thanks to the efforts of Rabbi A. Kalmanowitz and Ms Margolies, who was later released and returned to the States by the end of 1943, the United States government granted permission for the resumption of communication with enemy-occupied Shanghai. In March 1944, the JDC was able to transfer the equivalent of US$25,000 to Shanghai through Switzerland. Because of the steadily rising inflation in Shanghai during 1944, the rate of relief sent by the JDC soon increased. Starting with US$35,000 per month, it reached a sum of US$100,000 by January 1945, a rate which continued until the end of the war (16).

Some other organizations and communities, which also played the important role in rescuing and aiding Jewish refugees in Shanghai, should also not be overlooked. They include: the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, the World Jewish Congress in New York, the Va’ad ha-Hazalah, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Polish Relief Committee for War Victims, the Jewish community in Kobe, the Jewish community in Harbin, Arbeitsauschuss zur Hilfeleisung für Europäische Juden in Stockholm, and the Comite Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa. Of course, they are too many to be listed in their entirety.

Thirdly, aid offered by Chinese people. When thousands of Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai between 1937 and 1941, millions of Shanghai residents themselves became refugees after the Japanese occupied part of Shanghai. However, in spite of this, the natives of Shanghai tried their best to help Jewish refugees in various ways. Chinese residents in Hongkew overcame all kinds of difficulties to vacate their own rooms to put up refugees. Before the hospitals for Jewish refugees was set up, Chinese hospitals treated a great number of Jewish refugees and saved many lives. In the hardest days in Hongkew from 1943 to 1945, Jewish refugees and their Chinese neighbours enjoyed mutual help and shared weal and woe. Though largely separated by linguistic and cultural barriers, they found themselves bound together by mutual suffering. Wang Faliang, who lived in Hongkew throughout the war, said: ‘The Japanese persecuted us; Hitler persecuted the Jews, we were all subjected to great hardship' (17). Lilli Finkelstein wrote: ‘We noticed that the Chinese in the neighbourhood behaved very well towards us. They knew how precarious our situation was, and they did not take advantage of it. They let us live our life unmolested. … I even formed a kind of friendship with one or two of those women. Once a family invited us to their festive meal at their New Year’s celebration' (18). Especially worthy of note is the close co-operation between Chinese and Jews on 17 July, 1945, when American aircraft accidentally bombed the refugee area in Hongkew. Some memoirs described how Jewish refugees were ripping up the last of their treasured table and bed linen to make bandages, how the Chinese helped carry the wounded through rubble, and offered to transport heavy loads of cots, mattresses, and buckets of water to the clinics, and how the poor Chinese in Hongkew brought food and even money to the emergency clinics (19).

These pages in history, composed on Chinese soil by many ordinary Chinese and Jews and cataloging the traditions of Sino-Jewish friendship, form a chapter in the history of human progress that will forever shine.


(1) Alex Grobman and Daniel Landes (ed.), Genocide, Critical Issues of the Holocaust, Los Angeles, 1983, p. 299.

(2) There are many books about Kaifeng Jews. For a general picture, see Sidney Shapiro (ed.), Jews in Old China, New York, 1984.

(3) See Pan Guang (ed.), The Jews in Shanghai, Shanghai, 1995 and 2005.

(4) Chen Yuan and Ye Han, Study on the Israelite Religion in Kaifeng - Commentaries on the Stone Inscription of the Israelites, Shanghai, 1923, p. 2.

(5) H.H. Ben-Sasson (ed.), A History of the Jewish People, London, 1976, p. 1034.

(6) Alex Grobman and Daniel Landes (ed.), Genocide, Critical Issues of the Holocaust, Los Angeles, 1983, p. 299.

(7) Marvin Tokayer and Mary Swartz, The Fugu Plan, The Untold Story of the Japanese and Jews during World War II, New York and London, 1979, p. 223.

(8) David Kranzler, Japanese, Nazis and Jews, the Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai 1938-1945, New York, 1976, pp. 489-490.

(9) Comprehensive statistics according to materials from oral interviews and the International Red Cross’s report (1943) about Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

(10) (Oral) interview with Michael Blumenthal, New York, June 17, 1996.

(11) Annual Report of Shanghai Municipal Council, 1940, p.472.

(12) (Oral) interview with William Schurtman, New York, Jan. 17, 1989 and with Heinz Grunberg, Shanghai, April 26, 1998.

(13) (Oral) interview with Schurtman and Grunberg.

(14) See Rena Krasno, “Jewish Publications in Shanghai during First Half of 20th Century”, Points East, Vol.6, No.1, March 1991, Seattle. See also Abraham Kaufman, “Jewish Journalism in the Far East”, Our Press, No.8, Tel-Aviv, 1991, World Federation of Jewish Journalists.

(15) Laura Margolis, “Report of Activities in Shanghai, China, from December 8, 1941 to September 1943”, Shanghai Jews Memoirs, ed. by Pan Guang, Shanghai 1995, pp. 18-34.

(16) (Oral) interview with Laura Margolis, New Jersey, February 24, 1989.

(17) (Oral) interview with Wang Faliang, Shanghai, May 5, 1997.

(18) Lilli Finkelstein, ‘Four Decades of My Life’, Shanghai Jews Memoirs, p. 163.

(19) (Oral) interviews with Schurtman, Wang Faliang and B. Lumenthal.


Discussion Questions

  1. Persecuted by the Nazis, European Jews attempted to flee the continent. What was the reaction of the countries that attended the Evian Conference? Why did Jewish refugees choose to go to Shanghai?
  2. According to Professor Pan, unlike in Europe, anti-Semitism was not present in China.  Why not?
  3. What was the ‘Meisinger Plan’? Why was it not implemented?
  4. What factors contributed to the survival of Jewish refugees in Shanghai?
  5. What was the attitude of the local population in Shanghai towards the Jewish refugees?

The discussion papers series provides a forum for individual scholars on the Holocaust and the averting of genocide to raise issues for debate and further study. These writers, representing a variety of cultures and backgrounds, have been asked to draft papers based on their own perspective and particular experiences.
The views expressed by the individual scholars do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.

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