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

Iris Pan Lu, Lecturer University of Hong Kong

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The Journey to the Far East: Jewish Refugees in Shanghai during WWII

The exodus of the European Jews to Shanghai merits attention, as it represents a special chapter in the history of their exile during WWII. For the refugees, the journey to a country that was an unlikely choice of destination for European Jews was extraordinarily long. During this period, China was not well known among Europeans, and it was battling its own war against Japan. The waves of persecution of European Jews in Germany, Austria, Poland, and other countries were motivated by the frantic racial policies of the Nazis and further aggravated by the violence during the Kristallnacht in 1938 and later by the murderous “Final Solution.” Consequently, millions of German Jews and their families were forced to leave their “homeland.” The early refugees were lucky enough to find shelter in the US and in other European countries, such as Switzerland. Unfortunately, not all German and Austrian Jews managed to find refuge abroad after several countries began to reject the immigration of the Jews who were fleeing Nazi Germany.

 Entrance to Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

Entrance to Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

Shanghai immediately offered a light of hope into this bleak “life or death” situation. The city held a special status at that time, as it was divided into different sectors under British–American, French and Chinese, and Japanese control. As the largest metropolis in East Asia, Shanghai was the only place in the world that did not require a visa to enter and stay for an indefinite period. [1] Moreover, the cost of living in Shanghai was extremely low; an adult refugee could eat with only Sh.$ 20 per month (or approximately US$ 2.70 at the then-exchange rate). Subsequently, the Tilanqiao area in the old Shanghai Hongkew (now Hongkou) district became the only place in the world that offered a safe haven for approximately 30,000 Jews, who had come all the way from central Europe to East Asia. Many of the refugees were well educated and had proper and respectable occupations as craftsmen, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, technicians, doctors, and musicians. On top of their status as refugees and the ongoing war between China and Japan, the abrupt change in their living environment created a huge backlash in their lives in various ways. Nevertheless, most of these “Shanghailanders” not only survived the war but also built a thriving community of their own with a vibrant economic and cultural life. The children of the refugees were born in Shanghai, and some of them were receiving proper education prior to the Japanese takeover of Shanghai following the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941. After the fall of Shanghai, the Jewish refugees were unable to leave the Shanghai ghetto and were only able to do so when Japan surrendered in 1945. The Jewish community began to vanish rapidly when the Communists in China won the Civil War against the Nationalists in 1949. The number of Jews in Shanghai dwindled down after 1950. The Jewish population in Shanghai dropped to 32,000 to 35,000 at the end of the Pacific War. This period in history later came under a veil of silence that lasted for decades.

Encounters between the Jews and the Chinese can be traced as far back as the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. [2] Jews from different parts of the world had already settled in Shanghai for different reasons even before the Jewish refugees from Europe fled the Nazi pogroms and came to this metropolis. The early contact between the Jews and the Chinese in the 19th century was marked by two strains of Jewish migrants.

The first was the famous merchant family of the Sassoons, who were originally based in Baghdad, Iraq, and then spread to Bombay, India, before settling in the newly opened treaty ports in China in the mid-19th century. The second strain was made up of the Russian Ashkenazi Jews, who came to China in the beginning of the 20th century, and of the white Russian Jews, whose population increased considerably after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Most of these migrants first fled to Harbin and to other parts of North China and then landed in Shanghai. The two strains were very different in terms of their backgrounds, professions, and financial status. Undoubtedly, the Sephardi Jews in Shanghai, including the famous Hardoons and the Kadoories, changed the urban space of the metropolis through the following contributions: the mansion of the Sassoons on the Bund, the Marble Hall of the Kadoories in the former French Concession, and the legendary Hardoon Garden, where the Shanghai Exhibition Hall (the former Sino–Soviet Friendship Mansion) now stands. These buildings are among the most significant architectural legacies of China’s pre-revolutionary era in Shanghai. Jacob Elias Sassoon erected the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, which was named after his wife Rachel, on Seymour Road (today Shanxi Bei Road) in 1920. In memory of his father Aaron, Silas A. Hardoon built the Beth Aaron Synagogue on Museum Road (today Huqiu Road) in 1927.

Despite the significant Jewish presence in Shanghai’s history, the interest in this part of local history only emerged in 1992 when China and Israel established diplomatic relations; in fact, “in the mid-1990s, the Shanghai authorities began to notice increasing pressure to recognize the Jewish history of the city.” [3] This newly won interest was illustrated by the decision of the municipal government of Shanghai in 1998 to extensively renovate and reopen the former Ohel Rachel Synagogue, the largest remaining synagogue in East Asia. Another synagogue in Shanghai, the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, was turned into the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum after the Ohel Rachel Synagogue received honored guests, such as the former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the former First Lady of the United States Hillary Clinton.

This study takes the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum as a case study and presents the subtle transformations of the war narratives in post-revolutionary China. The study also investigates the possible motivations behind the building of war memorial sites for “others,” namely, the foreign communities, rather than for local Chinese communities. The case is worth exploring because it can provide insights into the broad context of memory making, history writing, and transformation of urban space in China. Without denying the historical worth and necessity of the museum as an important part of World War II memory on a global scale, this paper focuses on some critical perspectives that intend to push further the discussion on commemorative spaces and the public and war memories in China. The study contextualizes possible reasons for the erection of the museum in terms of the political circumstances of contemporary China. Moreover, the study provides two critical perspectives on the narratives of the museum, particularly with regard to those that were excluded and the reasons for the exclusion.

 Former Ohel Moshe Synagogue

Former Ohel Moshe Synagogue

The Museum
Located at 62 Changyang Road, Hongkou District, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is now open to the public after it was fully repaired in 2007. It consists of three sections, namely, the renovated site of the synagogue and two exhibition halls. The ground floor of the main building was restored to its historical appearance in 1928. The second floor houses over 140 pieces of visual material, a multimedia installation, and a rich collection of artistic works relevant to the Jewish experience in Shanghai. The documentary Shanghai Ghetto (2002) by Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann is continuously played on a screen. The museum also displays duplicates of the passport of a refugee, the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle, and a large stone tablet engraved with the handwritten message of Yitzhak Rabin during his visit to the museum. A digital database of the Shanghai Jewish community was established on the initiative of the Israeli consulate in Shanghai in 2008. The database lists the names, genders, addresses, nationalities, exile itineraries, arrival–departure dates, occupations, final destinations of immigration, and photos and contacts of about 600 of the 30,000 Jews who fled to Shanghai. Visitors can search for and enter information into the digital portal located in the exhibition hall to “give a record of the community, where its residents came from, their stories and struggles, where they have since moved and even how they might now be reached.” [4] Prominent positions in Exhibition Hall No. 2 are also occupied by photos of the honored guests of the museum, most of whom are politicians and officials from Israel, Germany, and the US; staff of foreign consulates in Shanghai; and leaders of the Hong Kou District.

The third floor presents the history of the Holocaust and the Auschwitz Camp through archived and reproduced materials. Exhibition Hall No. 3, which is outside the synagogue, was erected in 2008 as a venue for past temporary exhibitions. Today, the hall displays the stories of 27 Jewish refugees and their lives in Shanghai. In the courtyard, the shop sign of Atlantic Café, which was run by Jewish refugees 70 years ago, was removed from the facade of the original building and now decorates the new Atlantic Café, the opening ceremony of which was attended by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his short visit to China in May 2013. Occasionally, the museum also hosts Jewish weddings and coming-of-age rites. “North Bank Suzhou Creek,” a musical stage play about the stories of Jewish refugees in Shanghai, premiered in the museum in March 2012.

The museum proudly displays the contributions of Shanghai and China to the anti-fascist movement in WWII even beyond the East Asian context. The People’s Government of Hongkou District allocated more than US$ 1 million in special funds to the full renovation of the synagogue in accordance with the original architectural drawings found in the city archives.

Commemorative Space in Modern China
From the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing to the Mausoleum of Mao in Beijing, the commemorative spaces in modern China have been carving out a new kind of public space for nation building. Built in line with various historical agendas modern China went through, these spaces play an important role in political education, the construction of Chinese national identity, and the establishment of new social norms and a specific kind of aesthetic environment for each historical context. [5] As a sub-category of modern national commemoration, war memorial sites represent the violence among human beings that is regarded as part of the founding myth of any nation state. As Nuala Johnson pointed out, “(w)ar memorials are of special significance because they offer insights into the ways in which national cultures conceive of their pasts and mourn the large-scale destruction of life.” [6] Narratives associated with commemorative spaces that serve as memorial sites for both the Second Sino–Japanese War and the Civil War strictly follow the socialist tradition of eulogizing these wars as “just wars,” which were waged against internal and external enemies. As the nation also largely relied on the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the post-1949 historical narratives in China overtly emphasize the role of the Communist Party in liberating the nation and its people from suffering and humiliation during the Sino–Japanese and Civil Wars. However, by the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and the student movement in 1989, the Chinese commemorative spaces and monuments no longer possessed an ideologically straightforward function as agencies in the construction of public memory. Since the late 1970s, the national agenda of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has turned from a fierce political struggle to an economy-oriented open-door policy. Consequently, the country has been experiencing an economic boom since the early 1990s. As a result of the firm political rule of the Chinese Communist Party, the political hierarchy of the PRC is confronted with the issue on the incorporation of Chinese national monuments into a revised national ideology that is still deeply entangled in the continuities and discontinuities of the PRC’s political vicissitudes.

The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum: A New Way of Commemorating WWII in China?
The conditions described above seem to indicate that the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is an unusual war memorial in China when compared with others of its kind that continue to create popular memory through orthodox political education, such as the Beijing War of Resistance Museum. [7] Particularly, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum is neither dedicated to overtly praising the Communist Party nor closely related to patriotism. The neutral and somehow detached point of view of the museum in narrating the war in Europe and the sufferings of the European Jews only vaguely corresponds to the long-term anti-fascist stance of communism and to abstract internationalism. The official commemoration of World War II in today’s China is deeply related to the political tensions not only between China and Japan but also between the PRC and Republic of China on Taiwan. The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum addresses neither area.

How can one understand the erection of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in the larger context of commemorative space making in contemporary China? Does it mark a true departure from orthodox war memorials in China? The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum commemorates the suffering of others, but how are China and its people featured in its narratives? In the following, the birth of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and its historical narrative are described in the context of the status quo of World War II memory making in China and beyond as they are represented in the country’s public commemorative spaces.

1. Reasons for Erection

 1st Floor Restored Synagogue

1st Floor Restored Synagogue

This study considers two major conditions that can account for the establishment of the museum and its current situation. The first condition is that this commemorative space was used as a tool for making specific diplomatic profile. The principal part of cultural memory in China is still largely shaped by the state in a top- down manner. Thus, the memory discourse on “Jews in China” must be endorsed by the government. The early 1990s represent a turning point, as they gave rise to a growing interest of Chinese research institutions in Jewish studies in China; this interest is logically associated with the establishment of Sino–Israeli diplomatic relations in 1992 after the Cold War. [8] As a result of mutual political recognition between China and Israel, the rise in the number of Jewish studies in China, especially in Shanghai, is understandable; “in the mid-1990s, the Shanghai authorities began to notice increasing pressure to recognize the Jewish history of the city”. [9] The motivation to rediscover the Jewish history of Shanghai does not entirely reveal an interest in understanding the city’s multi-layered past as such. The salvation of the “memories” of Shanghai was prioritized for international diplomacy and not for the public participation of users in the city. As with other religious relics in China, the restoration of a physical structure does not result in the restoration of the events that were once held in the space. “Despite the narrative of an ab initio humanitarian impulse in China, being Jewish is not an acceptable ongoing identity for Chinese nationals. Judaism is not a recognized religion in China.” [10] The website of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum proudly quotes the following comment of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about the museum during his visit to Shanghai: “To the people of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the WWII, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.” [11] Although it encourages local audiences to visit this commemorative space as a tourist spot that introduces the war experience of foreign communities in a “neutral” or even tenderhearted narrative, the museum is actually managed by the Foreign Affairs Office in Hongkou District; the primary target audience does not seem to be the local residential population. The entrance fee to the museum amounts to RMB 50, or approximately € 5, and is hence rather high for a visit to a museum of limited scale and may thwart a good many of local visitors. [12]

Shanghai has its own good reason for exploring the precious memory that can easily sensationalize not only the local people but also the whole world. Being a symbolic space of the rapidly developing Chinese economy and a symbol of its fast- paced modernization, cultural memory narratives about the past of Shanghai have usually been characterized by their eagerness to connect with their cosmopolitan past. A persistent wave of old Shanghai nostalgia for the interwar years when it enjoyed its alleged golden time has had its long-lasting influence on the cultural scene of the city since the 1990s. The image of Shanghai as a showcase of the post-Mao economic achievement of China and its rising role in a globalizing world finds the most suitable soil in the history of the Jewish refugees. The generosity of the nation and the practice of international humanitarianism in the city and nation, despite the change in regime, continue and deserve the respect of the world, as the scholars of the Shanghai Social Science Academy have suggested. They argue that this part of Shanghai’s history can serve as “a unique ‘cultural name card’ for Shanghai in foreign communication and exchange,” thereby suggesting that the city can be a showcase for a global audience. [13] The following is the comment of a Chinese expert on Jewish studies, Prof. Xu Xin from Nanjing University, on the launch of the database of Jewish refugees:

Academically speaking, the history of Shanghailanders is a part of the global research data on the Jewish diaspora around the world. It is therefore valuable to collect the data for the purpose of social statistics; in the meantime, most of the “Shanghailanders” have wonderful memories of China, their children would come to Shanghai for root seeking. This will increase their interest in and favorable impression of China, which will enhance mutual friendship and China’s soft power. This has been the first time for both China and Israel to collect and compile such data on a remarkable scale and in such an intensive collaboration. This project is valuable in multiple reasons: in consummating social statistics, rescuing historical materials and promoting diplomatic relations. [14]

For the creation of a cosmopolitan image of Shanghai (and thus of China) in the West, the unique Jewish experience during the Holocaust becomes a highly valuable cultural capital for the global profile of the city. Jeffrey Sichel, one of the directors of the stage play “North Bank Suzhou Creek,” claimed that the experience of Shanghailanders is “the Chinese version of ‘Schindler’s List.’” [15] Thus, the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum can be seen as a process with which Chinese authorities could present China as a mirror image of the West. The museum epitomizes a historical self that is eager to be affirmed in the eye of others, that is, by assertion from the West. In this sense, this endeavor to be in line with the West, discourse serves as a means of articulating the spectacle of China’s imagined modernity.