A Dragon Boat, Shanghai, China. (ca. 1919-1929)
"Life was difficult in Shanghai, but infinitely better than anything they had left behind. From lower-middle-class comfort, the Tobias family was reduced to poverty but not to starvation. There was always food, always something to eat, always shelter even when the Jewish community was ghettoized shortly after Pearl Harbor. Thus even under terribly difficult conditions Moses Tobias was able to take care of his family but under the Nazis the conditions of the Jews were far worse than merely 'terribly difficult.'
"Shanghai was a multiethnic city and the Japanese controlled the city's Chinese populations. There were elite Sephardic Jews from Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East who had long lived and prospered in Shanghai, as well as the new immigrants from Germany. They were later to be joined by Jews from Lithuania and Poland. The British ruled the International Settlement. The more comfortable Jews had built a community in Shanghai replete with synagogues and schools ..." From p. xvi —Strange Haven: A Jewish Childhood in Wartime Shanghai by Sigmund Tobias
Rabbi of the Orient. (1901-1906)
The anecdote above is one of many harrowing yet hopeful tales of the Jewish people living in Shanghai during World War II. Many of their stories remain to be told. As the Nazi Empire sent shock waves to the Jewish community in Germany, many abandoned their belongings and fled to China for safety since Shanghai was an open port: no visas or passports were required.
From the 1930s, approximately 20,000 refugees escaped the destruction wrought by the Nazis while leaving behind their memories of life, traumas and experiences of war. However, as history reveals itself, Shanghai was suddenly under attack and occupation by the Japanese. The Japanese forces relocated Jews to live in their own ghettos known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees (or Shanghai Ghetto) where many were cramped into tiny living spaces, and starved but not deprived of food. In this setting, the Japanese permitted a bit more flexibility for the Jewish communities compared to the Nazis. However, both were still ruthless empires of the 20th century.
The cultural and social histories of Jews living in Shanghai are remarkable: schools were established, theater plays were produced and newspapers were published. The Jewish community also built their own synagogues and many are still around in Shanghai today.
Once the war ended in 1945, the ghettos were officially liberated; a few stayed in Shanghai while a majority migrated to the newly established state called Israel in 1948.
Sample Catalog Record of a Recording in the Oral History CollectionLuckily for researchers, at NYPL we have several interesting oral histories documenting the lives of Jewish refugees living in Shanghai. Susan Stamberg, an American radio journalist who is currently a Special Correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) interviewed several Jewish people who lived in Shanghai during that time.
This special collection is part of the The New York Public Library: American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection which contains over "156,000 pages of transcripts, 6,000 hours of taped interviews, 2,250 informants: this incomparable repository of unique and unpublished primary source material is for the study of what is often called 'the American Jewish experience in the 20th century,' is the mother of all American Jewish oral histories and one of American Jewish culture's most substantial monuments." See here for more information.
Ohel Moishe Synagogue in Shanghai by HBarrison on FlickrListening to some of the interviews was deeply fascinating and transformed my sense of reality into the past, envisioning how they lived in Shanghai: their thoughts about Germany, China and Japan; their social lives; what they were eating, thinking and feeling in Shanghai when it was a developing and poor city. Today Shanghai is a major cosmopolitan city and now part of an international economic hub.
To find this oral history collection, it is highly recommended to contact The NYPL's Dorot Jewish Division in The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building since they require an appointment.
Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and Ohel Moishe Synagogue by HBarrison on Flickr
The Dorot Jewish Division: Reading Room