Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, Shanghai

Since the late 19th century, the Hongkou district of Shanghai was home to a number of Russian and German Jews. Migrating from Europe for various reasons, including asylum, a Jewish Quarter evolved in the 1910s and 1920s. As the community expanded, a new synagogue was built in 1927 within the walls of an existing three-story home. Named the Ohel Moshe synagogue, it became the central meeting point for the Jewish community and in the surrounding streets, many aspects of European culture began to materialise.

When the Nazi Party took power in Germany in the 1930s, many hundreds of Jewish citizens were forced to emigrate to other countries. Shanghai at that time did not require a visa to enter or settle in the city. As a result, the city accepted 20,000 European Jews seeking refuge. Most of the families who arrived settled in the Hongkou area and began the process of working and living in a foreign city.

In 1941, the Japanese occupied Shanghai and two years later in 1943, forced the Jewish families into the ‘Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees’ or locally known as the Shanghai Ghetto. Whilst the Jewish people, and many local neighbouring Chinese, were forced to live in terrible conditions and on restricted rations, their plight is considered far less horrific than those living in the Jewish ghettoes of Europe. Following the end of the war and the success of the communist party, most of the Jewish families left China all together.

Once the Jewish community had altogether disappeared from Shanghai, the Synagogue was converted into a psychiatric hospital, and later on a space for offices. However, throughout the 1990s the significance of the synagogue was again realised and it was reopened for visitors and those seeking a space for prayer. In 2007 it was officially opened as a museum and over the next few years, additional buildings were added to host exhibitions and showcase collections.

Restored to its original three-story form, the Ohel Moshe synagogue now hosts a prayer hall on the ground floor and exhibition space on levels two and three. Displays describe the livelihoods of the Jewish refugees living in the Hongkou area and their experiences moving between Europe, China and beyond. Photographs and personal possessions, such as furniture, artworks, books and a sewing machine, bring to life the individual stories of those living in the ghetto during World War II and a short documentary film provides a historical context to this rather unique space.

In 2008 an interactive database was launched to list the refugees who lived in Shanghai during the 1930s and 1940s. So far, the names and details of almost 15,000 individuals have been inserted into the database. A few years later in 2014, a memorial was erected within the grounds of the museum that lists almost 14,000 of these names and an assortment of personal quotes.

Collected from the surviving refugees who lived in Shanghai and the Israeli consulate in Shanghai, the names are etched on a 37-metre long copper wall. At one end stands a sculpture of six Jewish people, a symbol of the 6 million Jews who died during the Holocaust. It is the aim of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum to correctly collect the names of all the refugees who sought protection in Shanghai and in time, have these, along with a vast collection of archives, listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.