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European Refugees Begin to Arrive in Shanghai, (circa) 1938

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

On This Day in Jewish History: October 19, 1938

On this day, 1938, a certain number of fortuitous Jews from mostly Central and Eastern Europe begin to arrive in Shanghai, China as refugees fleeing the impending Nazi onslaught.

While Jewish community leaders sought refuge for their people anywhere in the world that would welcome them, most countries, including Canada and the United States, completely shut their doors. Sadly, only a handful of nations actually opened their doors, offering safe havens for a limited number of Jewish refugees during and before the Holocaust.

One lesser-known place in the world to do so, was the city of Shanghai in China. Even while it would soon be occupied by the Japanese Empire, at the time allied to Nazi Germany, the Chinese people of Shanghai welcomed between 17,000 to 20,000 Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, putting the lives of their sacred guests before their own in a display of remarkable courage and human decency.

When delegates from 32 countries attended the poorly planned Evian Conference in France in July of 1938, all expressed sympathy for the plight of the Jewish people under Nazi oppression, but other than the Dominican Republic, refused to take in any refugees. As the world watched the shadows of Nazi tyranny loom larger and larger, they remained silent. By 1941, about 20,000 Jews had found refuge and settled in the coastal city of Shanghai, China. By 1943, however, the Japanese Empire was at war with the United States and China; Japanese troops occupied most of the east coast including Shanghai. Under pressure from Germany, they forcibly relocated all the Jewish refugees into a ghetto that was just one square mile known as the Hongkew District, today known as Hongkou.

Shanghai’s “Little Vienna” as it was commonly called, faced major problems of overcrowding and rampant disease. If that wasn’t enough, the people were under constant surveillance by Japanese soldiers. Their Chinese neighbors, on the other hand, treated the Jews kindly, helping them establish synagogues and businesses which helped the community survive in these troubled times. Most of the refugees were reduced to a destitute state of living, but they managed with what they could, seeing as conditions back in Europe were far worse.

Accounts from some of the survivors have been recorded by the Smithsonian Magazine. Doris Fogel was only 4 years old when her family fled Berlin, bound for Shanghai in 1939.

“Sharing one room with four other people for five years, going without tap water for nearly a decade, using a bucket as a lavatory; it made me tough, made me street smart. It made me learn how to take care of myself,” she recalled.

Judy Fleischer Kolb’s family, who managed to escape Germany about a year after Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass when Nazis attacked Jewish homes, businesses and places of worship, killing and beating people up in the streets, at the beginning of the Holocaust). Judy’s grandmother Martha somehow managed to save her husband Julius from Sachsenhausen concentration camp, selling their belongings to purchase tickets to Shanghai. “Basically, when they left Germany, my family had to give up everything,” said Judy.

Having made the 8,000 mile journey by sea, others surviving a perilous journey crossing all of Siberia just to get to China, they arrived in the ports of Shanghai where they were met with kindness from most of the Chinese people. Some Chinese officials, going out of their way to help the refugees.

One heroic account was that of Feng Shan Ho, the Chinese Chief Consul to Vienna, who risked his life and career, to issue thousands of visas to Jewish families in Austria, openly defying the orders of Nazi Germany. Mr. Ho is remembered as the “Chinese Schindler,” eventually losing his job for his actions.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Japanese forces shut down Shanghai to any further immigrations and simultaneously deported any Jews who had sought refuge in mainland Japan to Shanghai. Representatives from American Jewish organizations like the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee), were already on the ground in Shanghai setting up soup kitchens and providing whatever aid possible to the refugees. After 1941, American Jews were classified by the Japanese Government as “enemy aliens” and were closely monitored but permitted freedom until 1943 when American aid workers were rounded up and interred in detention camps. By then, they had already managed to set up emergency relief through kitchens that fed over 10,000 refugees every day. After the war, between 1946 and 1953, the JDC helped over 16,000 Jewish Refugees emigrate from China, most bound for Israel or the United States.

History is full of darkness, no doubt, but it is also filled with moments of courage. The light of human kindness that offers us some hope, that even in the darkest of times, we see the light at the end of the tunnel. That is the hope for a better world. Stories of survival like that of the Jewish refugees of Shanghai, demonstrate both our people’s resolve and prove that not everyone in the world went crazy, some people still cared enough to help however they could, some people remembered we’re all human beings, no matter who we are or where we come from.







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