In the 1930s and 1940s, great numbers of Jews fled Germany to the U.S. and parts of Europe, seeking to escape Nazi persecution. Rather less known is the exodus of 30,000 Jews eastward to Shanghai. The community they formed is the chief focus of the city's newly renovated and expanded Jewish Refugees Museum, tel: (86-21) 6521-6669. And while historical proof of the cosmopolitan nature of prewar Shanghai is everywhere, this 100-year-old building is among the more intriguing.
There had been a high-profile and wealthy Jewish community in Shanghai since the mid-19th century, but the Russian pogroms and World War II swelled its ranks with refugees lured by Shanghai's policy of visa-free access. The Japanese occupation of parts of the city from 1937 led to the creation of a Jewish ghetto in the Hongkou district as the Japanese sought to appease their Nazi allies. But while ghetto life was difficult, the refugees were able to establish synagogues, as well as schools, newspapers and even theaters. Most importantly, nearly all of the Shanghai Jews survived the war.
The Jewish Refugees Museum is housed in one of the city's two remaining synagogues, the Ohel Moishe. The main building comprises the original worship area and displays of some fascinating memorabilia. The renovation undertaken by the Hongkou district government at the cost of $1 million has seen the addition of two new exhibition halls, however. The first is a permanent display that takes visitors through Jewish history in Shanghai. Photos show Jewish girls holding Chinese dolls and families celebrating Passover. The second hall opened in June with an exhibit dedicated to Ho Fengshan, a diplomat known as the "Chinese Schindler" for helping hundreds of Jews flee Austria in the late 1930s.
During the postwar years, the city's Jewish population dwindled to nearly zero, as Jews fled the Chinese Revolution and sought homes in newly founded Israel or elsewhere. In the following decades, the Ohel Moishe became a factory and later a mental hospital before the local government recognized its historical significance. "This space preserves the memory of that time," says Andrea Zilberszac, an Austrian visitor whose relatives fled to Shanghai during World War II. "It reminds us not to forget."