Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum
By Monique Burns
Some stories can take you far. Take the Jewish Holocaust of World War II. From Germany, where the Nazis came to power in 1933, the long, checkered trail stretches across Europe from northerly Denmark and Norway to the western reaches of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and as far east as Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and the former Soviet Union. It continues to far-flung countries like the U.S., Canada, and Israel, the Jewish Homeland, where survivors finally were able to rebuild their lives.
Remarkably, from 1933 until 1945, China’s ultramodern metropolis provided safe haven to 23,000 Jewish refugees. In fact, Shanghai was one of only two locales in the world that agreed to take them. The other was the Dominican Republic. But since World War II made Atlantic crossings difficult, the Caribbean island only could accept about 700 refugees.
Hailing mostly from Austria and Germany, Shanghai’s Jewish refugees included some of Europe’s best educated and most highly skilled individuals. There were doctors and dentists; rabbis , schoolteachers and university professors; writers, artists and musicians; tailors and dressmakers; bricklayers and builders; shopkeepers and restaurateurs.
Among the Jewish refugees were children who later would make their mark. At age 13, W. Michael Blumenthal, U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Carter and director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, fled to Shanghai. Peter Max, the American pop artist, escaped from Berlin to Shanghai as an infant. Laurence Tribe, the Harvard Law School professor who taught future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Elena Kagan and President Barack Obama, was born in Shanghai in 1941.
Today, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum uses hundreds of artifacts and high-tech audiovisual monitors to recount the remarkable story of how the Jews came to Shanghai, their trials and tribulations, and their lives in Shanghai’s “Little Vienna,” a vibrant community of coffeehouses and restaurants, schools and synagogues, theaters and concert halls, shops and small businesses.
On the city’s northeastern edge, in Hongkou District’s Tilanqiao Historic Area, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is easily reached from the center city. On the metro’s green Line 12, the Tilanqiao Road station is a five-minute walk from the museum. On purple Line 4, the Dalian Road station is farther northeast, a pleasant 20-minute stroll away. At the corner of Changyang and Zhoushan roads, adjacent to a European-style red-brick tenement block where many refugees once lived, is the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
Once inside the museum’s heavy outer gates, you’ll see the long copper Wall of Names engraved with thousands of names of Shanghai’s Jewish refugees as well as evocative quotes from several of them. A large bas-relief depicts three generations of a Jewish refugee family, the grandfather holding a religious text, the mother clutching a menorah, and the father carrying a little boy with arms victoriously outstretched.
Steps away is the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, originally built in 1927 by Russian Jews who fled to Shanghai in 1902 to escape pogroms and later the 1917 Russian Revolution. In 1956, when most of that Ashkenazi community had left the city, the synagogue closed. A half-century later, in 2007, the Hongkou District government established the museum after painstakingly rebuilding the synagogue using original blueprints.
A handsome red and gray-brick building, the Ohel Moshe Synagogue is the museum’s heart and soul. Light floods into the simple but elegant sanctuary through stained-glass windows depicting gold menorahs, baskets of fruit and a sun-streaked promised land. Several rows of dark-wood benches face a reader’s lectern and a Torah Ark whose ornately embroidered purple velvet curtain was a gift from the Consulate General of Israel in Shanghai
In a corner, you’ll see the striking Dragon Menorah. Designed by Toronto artist Ian Leventhal , the bronze-like multimedia sculpture was a gift of fellow citizens Debbie and David Perkell. The menorah, symbolizes the light of home and the promise of a just future, says Leventhal. Its seven twisted arms epitomize the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, while the fierce dragon around the menorah’s base reflects the moral fortitude of the Chinese .
That moral fortitude was demonstrated countless times by Dr. Ho Feng-Shan. Known as “China’s Schindler,” Dr. Ho, the Vienna-based Chinese Consul General of Austria, issued tens of thousands of visas to Austrian Jews between 1938 and 1940. Many of them fled to Shanghai. In January 2001, the State of Israel awarded Dr. Ho the coveted title of “Righteous Among the Nations.”
The Chinese also had practical reasons to welcome the Jewish refugees. From the mid-19th century, when Iraqi Jewish traders like David Sassoon, Sir Ellis Kadoorie and Silas Aaron Hardoon set up shop in Shanghai, the Chinese came to appreciate their industrious neighbors. A century later, Shanghai’s Jewish refugees also would prove helpful, setting up medical and dental practices and small businesses. Some Jewish refugees even joined the Chinese Army.
One, Dr. Jacob Rosenfeld, is celebrated in an exhibit on the synagogue’s second-floor mezzanine. In 1939, after his release from Germany’s notorious Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps, the Austrian physician fled to Shanghai where he joined Chinese armed forces as a medical advisor during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Later, Rosenfeld became Director of the Health Department for Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army. “Driven by his passion for peace and his love for the Chinese people,” recalled General Chen Yi, Rosenfeld “saved innumerable wounded soldiers as well as civilians.”
Upstairs, on the synagogue’s third floor, another temporary exhibit space is devoted to Anne Frank, the teenager who hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam garret and recalled the experience in her famous diary.
From the synagogue, a side door opens onto a large, airy courtyard where visitors can relax at the Atlantic Café, enjoying coffee, tea and pastries at tables shaded by big maroon umbrellas. Vintage black-and-white photos show the original Atlantic Café and Mascot Roof Garden in Shanghai’s “Little Vienna.” Color photos depict Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at the café’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. From the courtyard, enjoy the synagogue’s beautiful rear facade, its ornate wrought-iron balconies festooned with flowers.
Across the courtyard, housed in separate low-slung buildings, are two high-tech exhibition spaces. The first hall, with a bust of Dr. Ho outside, is devoted to family, education and other key aspects of the refugees’ lives. One exhibit explores their participation in cultural and sporting events. German violinist Ferdinand Adler played in the Shanghai Municipal Council’s orchestra while Bavarian-born David Bloch later depicted his adopted city in the 1997 book, David Ludwig Bloch: Woodcuts. Shanghai 1940-1949.
On display is a 1941 issue of the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle, which the refugees founded, along with organizations like the Shanghai Musicians Association and the Association of Jewish Painters and Art-lovers. Refugees also competed in local boxing, soccer, tennis and table-tennis events. The Shanghai Jewish Football Team, a soccer team established in 1935, became one of the city’s top teams. Many refugees also came to love Chinese opera, Tai Chi and even Chinese food.
Most intriguing is the marriage exhibit featuring vintage wedding photos and other memorabilia. The crowning glory is Betty Grebenschikoff’s wedding dress. In 1948, the gown was custom-made at the Nanking Road shop of Betty’s future mother-in-law, Alexandra Vassilievna Grebenschikoff, known professionally as “Madame Greenhouse.”
Years later, Betty’s daughters, Nina and Irene, wore the full-length white satin gown, with lilies woven into the fabric, at their weddings in Massachusetts and New Jersey. But Grebenschikoff, author of the 1993 memoir, Once My Name Was Sara, gladly donated the treasured heirloom. “I decided that the dress should find a permanent home in Shanghai, the city where I was fortunate to find refuge and safety in 1939,” she explained. “I will always be grateful for that.”
Outside the second exhibition building is a bust of Dr. Jacob Rosenfeld in his Chinese Army uniform. Inside, exhibits explore the refugees’ later years in Shanghai. In February 1943, the Japanese, who had invaded China and were now allied with the Nazis, ordered all Jewish residences and businesses into one sector. Though it might have been as crowded and disease-ridden as the Warsaw Ghetto, the Shanghai Ghetto offered Jewish refugees far more freedom.
As former refugee Jerry Moses, shown on a video monitor, recalled: “In Europe, if a Jew escaped, he or she had to go into hiding, and here in Shanghai, we could dance and pray and do business…So, for me, the heroes are and always will be the Chinese people.”
On view is the Peter Max painting of the Chinese nurse who cared for him as an infant in Shanghai. Also displayed: the 2007 Hamburger Abendblatt article, “Chinese Saved Jews,” showing interviewee Josef Rossbach with the toy rickshaw he played with as a boy.
Japan surrendered to the Allies on August 15, 1945. Over the next six years, about 22,000 Jewish refugees left Shanghai. Most headed to the U.S. and Canada, South America, Africa and Australia. Some emigrated to the newly formed State of Israel.
Only a small number returned to Europe. A notable exception: The 295 idealistic German Left-wingers who returned to Berlin to establish a more egalitarian state on the ruins of the Third Reich. At the Berlin train station, they were met with thunderous applause.
Relatively few refugees stayed in Shanghai. Even fewer returned permanently. But one final exhibit tells of Sara Imas who left school to work in a copper plant, endured an unhappy marriage and finally emigrated to Israel. In 2002, the 42-year-old Imas returned to China. There she found true love–and marriage–with a professor.
Leaving on that happy note, head across the street to the White Horse Inn. The original Zum Weissen Röss’l , established in 1939, was torn down in 2009. But the café’s handsome brick and gray-stone building has been faithfully recreated right down to the wooden shutters, oriels, and flower-adorned French balconies.
Sit outside under the white umbrellas and have a cup of strong Viennese coffee and a pastry. Or go inside where period furnishings, including a gramophone and a colorful mural of an Alpine castle, take you back to the days when Jewish refugees remembered home in Shanghai’s “Little Vienna.”
IF YOU GO
Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. 62 Changyang Rd., Hongkou District, Shanghai 200000, China. 86-21-6512-6669. www.shanghaijews.org.cn
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.