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Shanghai Ghetto is established, 1943

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

On This Day in Jewish History: February 18, 1943


On this day, 1943, the Shanghai ghetto is established. Urgent Jewish emigration from Europe to Shanghai at the dawn of Nazi controlled Germany is often an understated faction of Holocaust and World War II history. For many thousands of Jews, this was a life-saving historical occurrence if they could make the journey across the world to east Asia. Despite the hardship of foreign displacement, disease, lack of resources and poor living conditions, Jews that found refuge in Shanghai escaped the horrors of the Nazis. Prior to 1943, Jews had poured into the international zones of Shanghai. These were delegations of Britain, the United States of America, France, the Republic of China, and Japan. This international division was out of economic interests in the area as a port city that was bustling after the Opium Wars. Jews had come in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s from Baghdad (Iraq was a British mandated zone) followed by Jewish people escaping Communist persecution in the Bolshevik Revolution. As Shanghai did not require Passport or Visa for settlement, this allowed for thousands of Jews from pre-genocidal Nazi Germany and Europe to go to China if they could get there with their own financial means. Until 1938, travel consistently flowed from Germany, Austria or Czechoslovakia down to Italy by train and then via ship (for around a month sailing) to China. Many of the world’s larger powers, in 1938 at the Evian Conference, stopped offering immigration programs, drastically effecting where Jews could go from Europe. War raging across the Pacific led to the Japanese taking control of Shanghai and many other parts of China. While the Japanese were a German ally during World War II, their attitude to the Jewish community was different than the Nazis. Ironically, the Japanese view of Jewish people were similar stereotypes that Nazis had used to scapegoat Jews, but Japanese viewed Jews as human resources to “keep around.” This did not mean that Japanese treated Jews kindly, but that their genocide was not on any agenda, as it had become in Europe. On this day, February 18, 1943, the Japanese issued a formal Proclamation that “stateless refugees” had to settle in the Hongkou area of Shanghai. “Stateless Refugees” was primarily referring to the Jewish people that had settled across Shanghai. Prior to the US entering World War II, Jews were aided by American programming in settling around the city in better areas. Hongkou had been one of the pourer, less thriving areas of all the delegations in the city. Wherever Jews had settled in the several years leading up to this day, they then had to move again into what became known as the “Shanghai Ghetto,” or “Hongkou.” This was a restricted area and Jews were now in confined, unsanitary spaces in close proximity to the scared Chinese, who were frightened for their lives from the Japanese. It was not uncommon in this area to develop illnesses from diseases (such as Typhoid) because of the amount of people in a tiny area. Water could not be consumed without boiling for purification, etc. Food was brought in to the living camps for refugees and curfews were enforced as this was all during wartime. Leaving Hongkou for any purpose was not permitted under Japanese rule if you were a person without citizenship (aka Jewish refugees). Despite the hardship, the Jews in Hongkou managed to find light amidst the darknessm, putting on shows for each other, entertaining and dancing when they could. In 1945, American and British troops liberated Japanese controlled Shanghai. The Jews in the Shanghai Ghetto were given the resources and the ability to leave and move onward. Under Truman’s America, immigration for Jews fleeing post-Holocaust Europe was easier and that included these Jews that had been in China. While many Jewish people of the Shanghai Ghetto then immigrated to the United States, large numbers went to the new State of Israel and also to Australia. For around 20,000 Jewish people in Nazi Germany during the late 1930’s, Shanghai was the only option for their survival. There was no communication with loved-ones left behind once Jews departed Europe for China. The end of the war was the learning point for several in Shanghai of their family or friends that could not escape Europe and faced extermination. The Shanghai Ghetto, or Hongkou, for the first half of the 1900’s was a crucial geographical point in the Second World War, Jewish and Chinese histories.


United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/polish-jewish-refugees-in-the-shanghai-ghetto-19411945 The Atlantic, Shanghai’s Forgotten Jewish Past: https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/11/shanghais-forgotten-jewish-past/281713/ Interview Recordings with Ruth Sherman (Lived in Shanghai Ghetto for 8 years, from Berlin, Germany originally) – Primary Source, family interview Film: “Shanghai Ghetto” – 2002

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