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Shanghai: The Old Jewish Ghetto

In 1943 the Japanese army required the 18,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai to relocate to a Ghetto: a 3/4 square mile area in Shanghai’s Hongkou district.

A piece of untold and widely unknown history: the story of the old Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai. Back in the early 1930s the rise of the Nazi Party caused thousands of European Jewish families to be forced from their homes in search of safety. While many European and Western countries had not yet opened their boarders to Jewish refugees, the International Settlement of Shanghai, China welcomed them with open arms. From 1933 to 1941 over 18,000 Jews escaped Europe in search of refuge in Shanghai.


Even though much of the architecture around the city remains the same to this day, Shanghai has changed a lot. Most notably, in 1937 China lost the Battle of Shanghai, leading to Japanese control over the region. With the Japanese in power, the lives of Chinese citizen living in Shanghai became increasingly difficult, experiencing poverty, hunger and hardship.


In 1940, Japan joined the Axis Alliance and became allies with Nazi Germany. From this point on, Jewish existence in Shanghai was threatened. After increasing pressure from the Nazis, in 1943 the Japanese army required the 18,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai to relocate to a Ghetto: a 3/4 square mile area in Shanghai’s Hongkou district. The Chinese residents who were living in this area before the Ghetto did not move out but Jewish refugees and Chinese locals lived in close quarters, side by side, under the tightening control of the Japanese occupation.

In 1943 the Japanese army required the 18,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai to relocate to a Ghetto: a 3/4 square mile area in Shanghai’s Hongkou district.

During this time, it’s reported that the Chinese residents living in the Hongkou district supported and helped maintain the survival of the Jewish refugees. Before the establishment of a Jewish refugee hospital, local Chinese hospitals accepted many refugees, providing them with medicine and medical services. In the Ghetto, there was limited access to food and the majority of the refugees were malnourished. In order to survive, the Jewish refugees learned how to cook using the techniques of the Chinese locals, cooking meals on a coal stove and bringing in hot water from the boiler.


The Chinese residents and Jewish refugee communities were brought together under the oppression of the Japanese army. Jewish families were invited to celebrate Chinese New Year and Chinese families crammed into already over populated Jewish homes to celebrate Chanukah; both communities desperately trying to keep hold of their own identities and culture, in a time where such identities were being eradicated.


Between 1943 and 1945, the Nazis increased their pressure on the Japanese to extradite the Jewish refugees, so that they could be sent to concentration camps. While the Nazis regarded their Japanese allies as ‘Honorary Aryans’, they were determined that Jewish refugees in Shanghai faced the same fate as those in Europe. However, it is documented that during this time the Japanese military governor of Shanghai sent for the Jewish community leaders, to discuss how to deal with the situation. The Japanese governor was curious and asked “Why do the Germans hate you so much?”


The leader and spokesperson of the Jewish community at that time was Rabbi Kalish. Without hesitation and knowing the fate of his community hung on his answer, he told the Japanese translator in Yiddish, “Tell him, the Germans hate us because we are short and dark-haired”. A modern translation of this phrase could be, “because we are Orientals”, but the Rabbi is unlikely to have used this word when speaking classical Yiddish.


Jewish families were invited to celebrate Chinese New Year and Chinese families crammed into already over populated Jewish homes to celebrate Chanukah; both communities desperately trying to keep hold of their own identities and culture.

The Japanese governor, whose face had been stern throughout the conversation, broke into a slight smile. Whether it was the realization that the Nazis would never truly see the Japanese as equals, some level of empathy he had with the Jewish refugees, or something else entirely, it was in that moment that he decided, in spite of the military alliance, he would not accept the Nazi’s demands and the Shanghai Jewish community would not be sent to the concentration camps.


History can be a peculiar thing. The fate of thousands can sometimes be decided in one decisive moment. It was during that conversation between the Jewish community leaders, the Japanese governor, and the translator which meant that 18,000 innocent lives were spared.


On September 3, 1945 the Jewish Ghetto was finally liberated. For a couple of years, the Jewish community remained in Shanghai, but by 1949 the majority of the Jewish refugees had left. By 1957, only 100 remained, and today you would be lucky to find one, still alive and living in the old ghetto.

However, eerily the ghetto remains. Buildings with old red bricks and arched windows, clothes hanging out on the streets to dry, families cooking on small stoves at the bottom of staircases, older residents cycling down the narrow streets. Look up, and you see modern sky scrapers towering over you, but look around, you see local Chinese families still living in much the same way they would have back in the 1940s. A slice of history, scared onto the city, for all of us to see. Lest we forget.






Information for this article was gathered at the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, Shanghai Hongkou district, and the Shanghai Ghetto Wikipedia page.

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