Many Shanghai stories fall through cracks of history
By Doug Young
A growing number of Chinese and foreigners in Shanghai know the story of European Jewish refugees who fled to the city during World War II, thanks to frequent media coverage. But far fewer know that this tale which saw more than 20,000 Jews escape Nazi persecution in Shanghai almost had a far more sinister ending.
Strangely and sarcastically enough, it was the Japanese military, which brought so much suffering to others in China and Asia during the war, that prevented this ending from happening.
As people around the world observe the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, it seems only fitting that we remember not only the many tales of tragedy and bravery, but also the many smaller strange twists and turns that often can mean the difference between life and death during wartime
It was 1942 and the Japanese military had occupied Shanghai and soon forced most of the Jewish refugees who had set up residence in the city to move to Hongkou District, which was then the Japanese concession.
China was the only country willing to accept the many Jews wanting to flee Nazi persecution in Europe at that time, which is why many came to the country and ultimately took refuge in its most international city, Shanghai.
This community that would ultimately total about 24,000 would spend the last three years of the war living in a local Jewish ghetto set up by the Japanese, centered on the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue on present-day Changyang Road, which now houses a museum describing this chapter of Shanghai’s history.
Around that time, the German Gestapo’s chief representative in Japan, Josef Meisinger, proposed a plan for Shanghai similar to what the Nazis were doing in Europe, namely a systematic program aimed at killing all the city’s Jews.
He offered several suggestions on how to execute such a plan, including moving all the Jews to Chongming Island and working them to death, or putting them on ships and stranding them at sea until everyone starved.
The Japanese ultimately ignored the proposal, sparing the lives of thousands. There are several stories about what may have happened behind the scenes, though it’s unclear which, if any, are correct, according to Daisy Yang, a student at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. She is one of the young volunteers who took me on a tour of the museum and told me some of its many tales.
One story says the Japanese military consulted a local priest about the matter, and was advised not to execute the plan. In that story, the priest said that Jews are of Asian origin, so that killing them would be almost the same as killing Japanese. Another story is that the Japanese simply couldn’t understand why the Nazis hated the Jews so much, and simply ignored Meisinger’s request.
Then there are more modern stories that provide a link between the present and this unusual chapter in Shanghai’s past.
One of my favorites was a newer plan that’s aimed at trying to bring back some of the neighborhood’s old character as a center for Jewish life in wartime Shanghai. That plan centers on the reconstruction of a historically popular restaurant across the street from the Refugees Museum.
That restaurant, called the White Horse Inn, or Das Weiss Rossl, was a center of Jewish life during the war, but the building was razed around 2009 as part of a road-widening project.
Now the city is rebuilding a new coffee shop on the site, with an opening set for later this year. But a lack of photos and other records was making the job difficult, Yang said.
Museum staff traveled to Sydney last month to host an exhibit on the Shanghai Jewish refugees, when a local visitor came forward and said that one of his relatives was the owner of the White Horse Inn.
The person then provided a number of photos and other detailed materials, which are now being used to try and faithfully recreate the original look and feel of the old restaurant.
The White Horse restoration is a good start, but city officials still have a long way to go. Around the corner from the museum is a row of aging but relatively well-preserved houses in which many of the Jews resided during the ghetto period.
Among those is a row house which was the former residence of refugee Michael Blumenthal, who fled Germany with his family in 1939 and would later go on to become the US Treasury Secretary under then President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.
Shanghai has many such historical neighborhoods with unique and unusual stories, including another area of Hongkou around Sichuan Road N. that was home to some of China’s famous intellectuals in the early 20th century, most notably Lu Xun. Yet little effort has been made to restore these areas and tell their stories that are equally fascinating as the one involving the World War II Jewish refugees.
I’ve made several trips to the refugees museum over the years, and have noticed a marked increase in visitors over that time.
During my first visit shortly after it opened around eight years ago, the place was largely empty and most of the few visitors were foreigners. Fast forward to the present, the museum averages 150-200 visitors per day, and as many as 400 during peak times. Equally encouraging is the growing interest of local residents, with Chinese visitors now accounting for about half of the total, according to Yang.
Shanghai and much of China have been squarely focused on the future over the last two decades, laying foundations for a country that can thrive and become a global leader in the coming centuries.
Part of such a vibrant culture should also be firmly rooted in a well-preserved and publicly accessible past, which has been a difficult task not only for Shanghai but also for other cities in China.
The city has done a good job in saving and restoring many of our historic buildings, but hasn’t done as well in preserving the many stories which formed the city’s inner spirit.
As we observe the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, it’s important to remember that stories of bravery, suffering and celebration from the past are equally if not more important than actual buildings and artifacts. In that spirit, these stories should be kept alive, as part of a broader effort to preserve Shanghai’s long and rich history.