Between 1933 and June 22, 1941, when Germany declared war against the Soviet Union, roughly 20,000-25,000 Jewish refugees escaped Nazi persecution and the coming Holocaust by fleeing to the Far Eastern port city of Shanghai. Because of its extra-territorial status prior to Japanese occupation in 1941, Shanghai was one of the few places in the world that would accept Jewish refugees without requiring hard-to-get immigration visas.
This fascinating period of history is the subject of the current exhibition at the Jerusalem House of Quality called “Jewish Refugees and Shanghai” which opened last Thursday and is set to close this Saturday, August 25.
”We sincerely hope that, based on the common history of the Chinese people and the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, and the significance attributed to it by Chinese and Israelis, this exhibition will increase the mutual understanding and cooperation between the people of both countries,” reads the curator’s introduction. And it is through this lens that the exhibit provides visitors with a snapshot of Jewish refugee life in the Hangkou district of Shanghai around the time of World War II.
“Jewish Refugees and Shanghai” was developed by the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, founded in 1997 in what was once the main synagogue in the Jewish Shanghai ghetto, known as Ohel Moshe. The current exhibition in Jerusalem isn’t the first time it has been shown in Israel this year, previously having a short run in Haifa in February, followed by a stint in Be’er Sheva. The Israeli city tour, as well as stops in Germany and in the United States, can be viewed as part of a larger effort by the Chinese government to strengthen people-to-people ties between Israelis, Jews and the Chinese with special events marking 20 years of normalization between the two countries in 1992.
The central focus of the exhibit, and its most interesting element, is the testimony of 20 or so former residents of the Shanghai Jewish ghetto. Photographs and official documents accompany the words, capturing the essence of Jewish life in the ghetto leading up to, during, and after World War II. The exhibit divides the material into six separate periods in the Jewish refugee experience in Shanghai: Fleeing to Shanghai, Refugee Life in Shanghai, The Hongkou Ghetto: Striving for Survival, Affectionate Neighborhood, Leaving Shanghai and Unforgettable History.