Remembering the Pain of "Others": Reflections on the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and Beyond

Iris Pan Lu, Lecturer University of Hong Kong

Page 2

2. Critical Reflections
1) Missing Narratives

2nd Floor Exhibition Hall, Synagogue

2nd Floor Exhibition Hall, Synagogue

According to Pierre Nora’s famous concept of “lieu de mémoire” (site of memory), the lieux “are created by a play of memory and history” and “a schematic outline of the objects of memory.” [16] In this form, Nora argues that the commemorative spaces of our time lack spontaneous memory. Museums are built to remind people that they are unable to remember if they are not reminded. Memory becomes a passageway toward history; no “true memory” can be traced. Nonetheless, the endless birth, rebirth, and re-discoveries of numerous memories of past events are triggered not only by the forgetfulness of the public but also by the obsession with archives and “paper memories” of institutions and individuals. As a result, “what is being remembered is memory itself.” [17] The infinite re-discoveries reversely legitimize the ruptures in history and memory as well as the responsibility to “rescue” them from oblivion.

The timing of the reemergence of rescued memories from the stories of Jewish refugees was highly orchestrated and attempted to smoothly suture the rupture between the past and the present. The neighborhood in which the Shanghailanders lived turned from a milieu de mémoire, which refers to the real environment of historical happenings, into a lieu de mémoire, or the Refugees Museum. This past “on arrival” inevitably trims down twigs and branches that obscure the picture of a self- sustainable present and can be illustrated by what has not been elaborated on in exhibition displays. First, any controversial historical situations remain invisible. Examples of such situations include the subtle relation between Japan and Germany and its influence on the decision of accommodating the Jewish refugees in Shanghai as well as the postwar conditions that the Jews faced and those that forced the Jews to leave China for further exile. In fact, the architectural design proposals of the museum that endeavored to explore the contested meanings of the historical period were all only partly successful. In The Carved History, foreign actors Choa and Bar-Galand emphasize that the design of memorials is a symbol of the relations between life in exile and memory. This notion largely echoes some of the ideas of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. The Shanghai–Toronto-based corporation Living Bridge reestablished a communal environment, instead of only gentrifying an individual architecture, of several other historical sites and cultural facilities in Tilanqiao as part of the North Bund Project. [18] Two projects that were proposed between 2004 and 2005 have yet to be completed.

No other contestation of China’s attitude toward the Jews during the war can satisfactorily reveal the monolithic nature of the museum narrative. As in most academic research findings on Jewish history of China, arguments that justify the possibility of the survival of the Jews in Shanghai usually produce a harmonious picture. For example, most claims assert that anti-Semitism is unknown in China, that Chinese and Jewish cultures historically have many aspects in common, and that China was very generous to accept the refugees who were denied a safe haven by all the other countries. [19] Shanghai was depicted as an abstract symbol of the tolerance of China toward Jewish refugees in the just cause of the fight against fascism. However, claiming that anti-Semitism did not exist in wartime China is inaccurate, although the majority of the Chinese population did not harbor strong resentments against the Jews. No large-scale persecutions occurred during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and the degree of hostility towards Jews, as exhibited by Japan or by the pro-Japanese Chinese government, was largely motivated by immediate political interests. Zhou Xun studied Chinese perceptions of Jews and claimed that anti-Semitism in East Asia, such as in Japan and China, differed from its counterpart in the Western cultural context, “which was, as Sander Gilman put it, ‘half of the dichotomy of ‘Aryan’ and ‘Semite’ which haunted the pseudoscience of ethnology during this period and beyond.’” [20] Despite the fact that Western anti-Semitism may have provided the raw materials, hostility toward the Jews in Asia was constructed through other kinds of dichotomies, namely, those of “‘East’ and ‘West,’ of ‘Japan’ and ‘America,’ and of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity.’” [21] Thus, such dichotomies also played an important role in Japan’s justification of its aggression toward China. [22] In Japanese-occupied Shanghai, the images of Jews were constructed in relation to capitalism and Western influence, thereby promoting the region’s attempt to build a “Greater East Asia Co- Prosperity Sphere.” [23] Nationalist Wang Jingwei had been a staunch follower of Sun Ke (son of Sun Yat-sen) but eventually collaborated with the Japanese in Nanjing to set up a “puppet government”; Wang also joined the Japanese campaigns against the Jews. For Wang, “the ‘Jews’ were the antithesis of nationalism and a representation of the ‘evil imperialistic West’; the ‘Jews’ were the ‘ancestors of all anarchists and communists.’” [24] The statelessness of the European Jews posed a threat to nationalism and was therefore used by Wang in his anti-Jewish arguments to defend his consistency in building a new unified Chinese nation. [25] Other researchers have revealed the Sun-initiated but aborted and unrealized plans of relocating the Jewish refugees to Yunnan Province in Southwest China. The objective of this project was to influence the Far East policy of the US and Britain by reinforcing the diplomatic power of China against Japan through the Jews. However, concerns were also expressed over the Jews’ statelessness, which would, it was claimed, negatively influence the nation building of the young Republic of China. Thus, the plan forbade the Jews from settling in inland China and being involved in political propaganda. [26]

Images of Visitors

Images of Visitors

2) Missing Chinese

If the absence of controversial images of the Jewish population in wartime Shanghai can still be seen as a continuation of the hardly reflective commemorative culture in China, it might be unsurprising to see that the narratives of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum also downplay the role of individual Chinese citizens and their wartime accounts. When Chinese scholars began to notice this period of history in the early 1990s, detailed descriptions in Chinese – not unlike Western narratives – soon began to include stories of Jewish refugees fleeing to Shanghai, of the refugees’ community life, and of their departure from Europe. [27] Chinese academia has been attempting to connect Jewish and Chinese cultures from a grand historical perspective to remind the people of Shanghai of their forgotten friendship with the Jews, “thereby introducing this history and the themes of their cosmopolitan humanitarianism to the local population.”See Jakubowicz 2009.165. Apart from the above academic contributions, the local mass media have also given the topic considerable exposure. World-renowned Chinese American painter and visual artist Chen Yifei even made a film entitled Flee to Shanghai (1999) based on the life story of the Austrian violinist Heinz Greenberg. In 2010, the first Chinese animation film addressing the Holocaust and Shanghailanders, A Jewish Girl in Shanghai, was co-produced by two major state- backed film producers in Shanghai, namely, Shanghai Animation Film Studio and Shanghai Film Group Corporation. The story and the main characters of the film are based on the account of an acquaintance of the director, Wu Lin, who was then living in Los Angeles. Wu was amazed to learn from the Chinese media about the previously unknown part of Shanghai and world history during the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII in 2005. A Jewish Girl in Shanghai was shown in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, the UK, and Israel. The movie was well received by both Chinese and Israeli audiences and the judges of film festivals at home and abroad. For more details about the film, visit The film was nominated for the Jewish Experience Award at the Jerusalem Film Festival. In 2010, the film received the Golden Cartoon Award for Best Chinese Film Prize at the China International Animation and Digital Arts Festival in Changzhou, Jiangsu, China.

These historical narratives echo those of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. In the museum narratives, “the Chinese people” are depicted solely as a humanistic and generous collective which aided the foreigners in surviving warfare and persecution. As described above, the rationale behind the database and its contents support the observation that Chinese academia has no interest in the living memory of Chinese individuals during the war and in the insights this could offer for the present. Chinese museum curators and historians do not consider the historical memory of the Jewish refugees as being a part of the troubled war memory of China and therefore worth “rescuing”. Similar to Western postwar studies, the post-1949 war narratives dealing with China are predominantly focused on the Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalists from 1945 to 1949. The memory related to World War II and the corresponding studies remain ambiguous given the ever-changing situation in domestic politics and diplomatic relations, such as the cross-strait Taiwan–China, Sino–Japan, and Sino–US relations. Therefore, the writing on World War II history in Chinese academia was carefully deliberated so as not to touch upon any possible “political incorrectness” in the official historiography. [28] Ironically, no historic relic related to any Sino-Japanese War experience is listed in Shanghai under the Conservation Unit of Cultural Relics, which is the Chinese preservation system for protecting the important cultural legacies of the nation. The neglect of Shanghai’s own spaces of war memories, e.g. Sihang Warehouse where one of the most famous battles between the Chinese and the Japanese troops took place in 1937, is set off by the application for UNESCO recognition of the Tilanqiao area, which covers the site of the Jewish community, as the only historic site of the Jewish refugees in World War II in China. This cosmopolitan stance has been largely institutionalized and therefore continues to be instrumental. The story of the Shanghailanders offers a theme that still generates little room for dialogue for both global and domestic speculations on new possibilities in understanding China at present.

Shanghailanders: A Jewish Experience Only?
This study has suggested that the major subjectivities in the pervading current narratives of the unique war experience of the Shanghailanders need to be revisited. On the one hand, this study suggested that the historical period of World War II be viewed from a perspective that integrates Jewish and Chinese experiences. The “war- ravaged Shanghai,” according to Vera Schwarcz, “was a world in which Jewish as well as Chinese refugees tried to preserve themselves and their cultural identity. For the Chinese, the predicament of having become refugees in their own country was particularly painful…The pathos of Chinese dislocation, however, touched the lives of Jewish refugees only lightly…” [29] The similar ordeal of Jewish and Chinese lives during the war is remains partly in the shadows.

On the other hand, this study raised the following questions for the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and for other commemorative spaces in China: how can a winner, benefactor, or victim of a war construct a monument commemorating the war and their experiences? How will the audience perceive it and benefit from it? A plaque that is dedicated to the Jewish refugees from Hamburg at the entrance area of the museum offers an interesting contrast in this regard: the plaque illustrates the gratitude of the municipal government of Hamburg as the “perpetuator” of the persecution of German Jews. Does the museum only provide its local audience with a place where they can identify themselves with the images of Chinese people in an appreciation from the wrong-doer and feel proud? After all, what is there to be proud of? The people of Shanghai who tolerated their poor neighbors from Europe but are invisible in the museum or the city faced with a complex political situation that actually made the landing of Jewish refugees possible? The extent to which a modern commemorative space can further our understanding of WWII and its long-term influences remains an intriguing issue in contemporary China.

Thus, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum narrates history in a manner that separates China and its people from the realm of reflexive and reactive subjectivity. The majority of the local Chinese, however, appear to be unaware of and not participating in the official commemorative culture as prescribed by the Chinese government – a culture that is supposed to warn, and encourage reflection as well as contemplation. The museum can be an example of memorial site in contemporary China, where cultural remembrance is created for a specific non-Chinese community under the purview of the agents dominating China’s historiography. The aim of this site is not (necessarily) nation building but rather “destination branding” and fostering transnational partnership. The goal of monuments is not only to remind people of the past or, in many cases, of the excluded narratives, but also to provide people with a space where they can observe and contemplate on their own reactions to the past. Reiterating the value of the anti-fascist spirit of China and the generosity of its people places the memory narrative of the genocide and of political persecutions in Europe during World War II at an observational distance. Despite its effective restoration of architectural relics and attempts to re-invoke public interest (at home and abroad) in this period of history, the museum provides the local public only with an opportunity to acquire factual information rather than an opportunity to contemplate on the relations between memory, history, and the present and the visitors’ personal place therein.



Lu Pan received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Hong Kong. Before moving to Hong Kong, she studied literature and cultural studies in Shanghai, China and Bayreuth, Germany. Her current research interests include visual culture, urban space, war memory, and theories of aesthetics. Pan was a visiting fellow at the Center for Metropolitan Studies, Berlin Technical University (2008 and 2009) and the Harvard-Yenching Institute (2011–12). She currently teaches history, culture and creative industries at the University of Hong Kong and HKU SPACE Community College.


[1] Of course, circumstances changed when the Pacific War broke out in 1941, as Japan began to fight directly with the US. The lives of the Jewish refugees were largely dependent on the Japanese policy. See more in David Kranzler Japanese, Nazis & Jews: the Jewish refugee community of Shanghai, 1938–1945 (New York: Yeshiva University Press; distributed by Sifria Distributors 1976).
[2] See Xun Zhou. Chinese Perceptions of the “Jews” and Judaism: a History of the Youtai. (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2001), 7
[3] Andrew Jakubowicz, “Cosmopolitanism with Roots: The Jewish Presence in Shanghai before the Communist Revolution and as Brand in the New Metropolis.” In Branding Cities: Cosmopolitanism, Parochialism and Social Change, ed. Eleonore Kofman et al., (New York: Routledge, 2009), 165
[4] Edmund Klamann “Database to chronicle Shanghai Jews who fled Nazis,” last modified Fri Jun 6, 2008,
[5] See Hung Wu, “Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monument” Representations. No. 35 (1991): 84–117
[6] See Nuala Johnson. “Cast in stone: Monuments, Geography, and Nationalism,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 13(1) (1995): 51–65
[7] See Rana Mitter, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum: Nationalism, History and Memory in the Beijing War of Resistance Museum, 1987-1997.” The China Quarterly. Vol. 161 (2000).
[8] The mutual recognition between the PRC and Israel was smooth between 1948 and 1949. However, the bilateral relations experienced a long deadlock after the Korean War broke out and froze in the Suez Crisis when the Cold War upgraded. Consequently, the gap between the PRC and the pro- US Israel deepened. China’s own reform of the Middle East policy after the death of Mao largely set the future tone of the normalization of the Sino–Israel relations.
[9] Jakubowicz 2009: 165
[10] Ibid.
[11] Overview of the museum provided by the official website of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, last modified in 2010,
[12] New measures were taken to attract local visitors during the researcher’s last visit to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in May 2013; discounted entrance fee is provided to visitors who complete the visitor’s survey question form.
[13] Yichen, Dai, and Guojian Zhou. “Protection and Development of Jewish Sites and Characteristic Architectures in Shanghai” (论上海犹太遗址及特色建筑的保护和开发 Lun Shanghai Youtai Yizhi Ji Tese Jianzhu De Bao Hu He Kaifa). She hui ke xue 11 (2006): 181
[14] Background information on the chronicle database of the refugees provided by the official website of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, last modified in 2010, Original text in Chinese; the quotation is the researcher’s own translation.
[15] “Play about Holocaust Debuts in China,” last modified on March 23, 2012.
[16] Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.” Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 19
[17] Nora 1989: 16
[18] Jakubowicz 2009: 167–170
[19] As background information for the Chinese public, academic research on Shanghai Jews is often accompanied by a brief introduction to the Chinese–Jewish community and its acculturation in ancient China or to the commonality between the Jewish and Chinese cultures in different aspects. See Pan Guang, “Shanghai Jewish Refugees During the Second World War” Shanghai Academy of Social Science Quarterly 2(1991); Pan Guang, “The Rise and Fall of Zionism in Shanghai and Its Characteristics,” Historic Review 02(1994). Tang Peiji, “On Shanghai Jews 7,” Tonji University Journal Humanities and Social Science Section (1994). ———, “On Shanghai Jews 9,” Tonji University Journal Humanities and Social Science Section 6, No. 1 (1995). Dong Liying, “Jews in Shanghai in the WWII,” Journal of Tibet Nationalities Institute (Philosophy and Social Sciences Edition) 26, No. 5 (2005). Tang Peiji, “Shanghai –Noah’s Ark of the Jews,” Shanghai Studies on Ccphistory and Construction 04(1995).
[20] Zhou 2001: 141
[21] Ibid.
[22] In Japan’s propaganda, Japan came to help China restore its lost cultural confidence and promote “Asia self-awakening”; preserving the Chinese traditional classics and cultural heritage from the West was essential. “Western values were defined as liberalism, individualism, capitalism and communism as oppositions to ‘Asian’” (Zhou, 143). The image of the Jews was characterized not only by western capitalism and imperialism but also by communist thoughts. Thus, they easily fell prey to the attacks of Japan-sponsored Chinese organizations such as Xinmin Hui as part of the war propaganda.
[23] This attempt to free Asia from western assimilation and violation also echoed the Pan- Asianism ideas of China in Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the People.” See Zhou 2001: 144
[24] Zhou 2001: 146
[25] Zhou 2001:148. 151–152
[26] Dong, “Jews in Shanghai in the WWII.” Yin and Zhao 2007.
[27] Wang Qinyu, “Jews in the Old Shanghai,” Shanghai Academy of Social Science Quarterly 2(1987). Xu Buzeng, “Jewish Musicians in Shanghai (1),” The Art of Music (Journal of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music) 03(1991). Tang Peiji, “On Jews in Shanghai 3,” Tonji University Journal Humanities and Social Science Section 5, No. 2 (1994). Tang, “On Shanghai Jews 9.” Jianchang Fang, “German Jewish Refugees in Shanghai During the WWII,” Deutschland-Studien 13, No. 3 (1998). Tang Yading, “Music Life of Shanghai Jewish Refugee Community” Art of Music (Journal of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music) No. 04 (1998).
[28] See additional information on the vicissitudes of the making of the memorial for the Sino– Japanese War in postwar China in He Yinan, “Remembering and Forgetting the War: Elite Mythmaking, Mass Reaction, and Sino-Japanese Relations, 1950–2006.” In History & Memory, Volume 19, No. 2, Fall/Winter (2007): 43–74
[29] Vera Schwarcz, “Who can See a Miracle? The Language of Jewish Memory in Shanghai.” In The Jews of China, ed. Jonathan Goldstein (Armonk, N.Y. ; London, England: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), 293