Shanghai's Forgotten Jewish Past

In the 1930s and 40s, the Chinese city hosted a large, vibrant community of refugees fleeing persecution in Europe. Can survivors, rabbis, and historians preserve this heritage?
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The Shanghai Jewish Refugees museum commemorates the city's large, vibrant community before and during the Second World War. (Wikimedia Commons)

SHANGHAI—When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Shanghai in May 2013 and hailed the city’s role as a “haven” for Jewish people fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1930s and 40s, his comments highlighted a part of the city’s history that many contemporary residents don’t know. Today, few would guess that this quintessentially Chinese city once played host to a bustling community of over 20,000 Jews.

While a Jewish community has existed in Shanghai since the late 19th century, the first large wave of immigrants came in the 1920s and 30s, as thousands of Russian Jews fled the Bolshevik Revolution for the more business-friendly foreign concessions in Shanghai. A decade later, the mainly Russian and Sephardic Jewish community was supplemented by tens of thousands of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, who fled during the early stages of Nazi rule in Germany.

Before Nazi policy turned actively genocidal in the late 1930s, exile was seen as a perfectly acceptable solution to the “Jewish problem” and German and Austrian Jews, stripped of their citizenship rights, property, and employment, were encouraged to emigrate to any country that would have them. Unfortunately, there were few options for these would-be emigrants:  At the Évian Conference in 1938, the great powers collectively decided to shut their borders to all but a small selection of Jewish refugees.

Aside from the Dominican Republic, Shanghai was the only place that remained open to these refugees, and 20,000 or so European Jews found their way to the city in the late 1930s. Shanghai at the time was a political anomaly: Control was split between the beleaguered Republic of China, an increasingly aggressive Imperial Japan, and France, Britain, and the United States, countries that operated self-governing “concessions” exempt from Chinese law or influence.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, more European Jews had taken refuge in Shanghai than in any other city in the world. One was Gary Matzdorff, who left Germany with his family in 1937.

“My father heard from a friend that it was possible to go to Shanghai without a visa, but only Shanghai, because for the rest of China we needed a visa,” Matzdorff, now 92, told me during an interview at the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum. “We took a train to Genoa, Italy and boarded the ship—the SS Victoria—and one month later we arrived [in Shanghai].”

“It was a shock, culturally, language wise, but being young you adapt very quickly, and I made it my personal business to integrate into Chinese culture, to learn the language, because I expected to spend the rest of my life in Shanghai.”

Matzdorff’s remembers a bustling, cosmopolitan city, not unlike London or New York. After days working at an import/export company, he was fond of exploring the city's night life.

“One of my favorite places was a dance hall at the Wing On department store. Up on the top floor there was a dance floor, big band.”

Shanghai was not without its problems. By 1937, Japan’s invasion of China was underway, and the Battle of Shanghai in November ended any remaining control the Republic of China had over the city. But despite being occupied, Shanghai’s Europeans did not bear the brunt of Japanese aggression: In the then-capital of Nanjing, Japanese troops murdered over 200,000 civilians that year, an incident now remembered as the Rape of Nanjing. 

In December 1941 the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War Two, and soon thereafter Japanese troops invaded Shanghai’s international settlements and took full control of the city. Like many residents of Shanghai at the time—including author J.G. Ballard, whose book Empire of the Sun is based on his experiences as an internee of the Japanese—Matzdorff’s first warning that the Japanese were taking control of the city came when he heard the explosions that sank the HMS Peterel, a British gunboat anchored in the Huangpu River and the only foreign vessel which refused to surrender to the Japanese.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says, “because we heard the bombing of the ship—we didn’t know what it was, but we heard the explosions.”

With Japanese control came more restrictions on Shanghai’s Jews, as well as an end to the flow of money from American organizations that had served as the lifeblood of many of the more destitute refugees. By 1943, the majority of Jews in the city were forced into the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees in Hongkou district, an area which would become known as the “Shanghai Ghetto.”

But had Japan’s German allies had their way, matters would have been even worse. Prior to the formal establishment of the ghetto, SS Colonel Josef Meisinger was dispatched to Shanghai, reportedly with a canister of Zyklon B gas in tow, to advise the Japanese on exterminating the city’s Jewish population. Though Meisinger was unsuccessful in implementing this policy, pressure from the Germans did inspire the creation of the ghetto.

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