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How Shanghai Became A Refuge For Jews During Hitler’s Reign

“It is gratifying to learn from reports of various sources that the Jewish people have during recent years made great progress in rebuilding their ancient country and restoring it to its former position of importance.

The people of China are also undertaking the task of reconstruction, and have therefore profound sympathy for others who are working towards a similar goal. I highly admire the Jewish race for their past contribution to civilization and on the occasion of the 12th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, I wish to express my sincerest and best wishes to their success in the upbuilding of a modern and greater Palestine.”

These were the words of Dr. C. T. Wang, Minister of Foreign Affair of the Republic of China, on the 12th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in December 1929.

Four years later, on Nov. 9, 1933, his words could have echoed for a Jewish homeland, and Shanghai would have played a role in it. On that fateful night, known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis in Germany orchestrated a pogrom of what would happen to Jews if they did not leave the country. The next day, Jews rushed to foreign embassies to obtain exit permits or visas to any destination that would grant them entry. Not many countries admitted them and the Germans made it impossible for the Jews to make timely arrangements to leave. Thus started the “panic flight” of German Jews to Shanghai.

Some Jews had heard about Shanghai as a far away place in China with a tropical climate, hot and humid. What attracted them there was that they could disembark without papers, without documentation, and no visa was required. That was the only place on earth where they could land, and be in transit until permanent arrangements were made.

Geographically, Shanghai was a part of China in 1933, but politically it was virtually a separate city under the control of foreign powers. European powers forced China to open her ports to trade in the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. The Chinese called it “unequal treaties,” it had to concede territory and make concessions, consequently carving up the city of Shanghai among the French Concession, the British Settlement and the American sector, more commonly known as the International Settlement. It was beyond Chinese jurisdiction.

Matters turned even more complicated when 90 years later, the Japanese invaded China and by 1939 were at the gates of Shanghai.

With so many different masters, Shanghai was an open city, as some 18,000 Jews found out. It was a safe harbor once they got there.

Upon arrival, the Jews found a social hierarchy replicating the European aristocracy. The white Europeans currently living there represented the wealthy elite under the protection of their governments. They lived by their European dreams of the upper class, where “white men do not do work.” They did not mix with the refugees socially, and snubbed the Chinese. Included in this social strata were diplomats, teachers, traders, merchants and medical professionals.

At the top of the Shanghai social pyramid were the Baghdadi / Sephardic Jews who had established businesses in Shanghai since the 1840’s. They played an active role in financing various programs for the refugees. Entire educational and cultural activities, theaters, arts, music, sports and schools were supported by the Sephardic Jews. Numerically they were in the minority, only about 700 members, but they were the largest benefactors to the refugee community. They also constituted one-third of the 99 members of the Shanghai stock exchange.

In their footsteps came the White Russians, including many Ashkenazi Jews who had fled the Communist Revolution in 1917. They were the “lucky” ones as the League of Nations issued them “Nansen Passports” recognized by most nations, granting the holders certain rights within the members of the League of Nations. In addition, the French Concession issued travel cards to the Russian emigres. No such passport or travel cards were issued to European refugees. The Russian expats capitalized on their status by opening pawn shops side by side with “Chinese moneylenders” and preyed on the refugees who had few belongings and no money.

With low social standing, the refugees formed the bottom layer of the social pyramid and they were shunned by white foreigners. The two rarely interacted. Once in Shanghai they were forced to accept any conditions and menial work that the “white foreigner” found unfit for their status. Gradually, Jews from other European countries poured into Shanghai (Though one group of Polish Orthodox Jews inadvertently disembarked in Kobe, Japan and spent the war years there).

Below this social hierarchy were the native Chinese who did all the menial work. In the eyes of the white men, the Chinese were inferior and were there to serve and do the manual labor.

The population of Shanghai in 1939 was about 4 million people, of whom 100,000 were foreigners with special status, as they were under the jurisdiction of their own government and subject to their laws. Between 1939-41 approximately 18,000 Jewish refugees surged into Shanghai including 1,500 gentiles whom the Nazis classified as Jews according to their racial laws.

Shanghai in 1939 was an economic and political island. The surrounding territory was under the control of the Japanese army, while the largest section was the extra territorial district under the jurisdiction of the International Settlement. Economic conditions were favorable to those with money who could do practically anything without restrictions.

When the refugees disembarked in Shanghai they were led straight to the Hongkew district, which was under Japanese control, that the refugees nicknamed “Little Tokyo.” Initially, Japanese authorities were quite sympathetic to the European refugees, and only after Pearl Harbor the conditions became strained, prodded by German pressure. Until then life was relatively bearable, rooms were available for rent, basic necessities were available and even economic and cultural opportunities flourished. Only the Russians who had come to Shanghai some 20 years before feared that the newcomers would trespass in their domain of small shops, special groceries, restaurants. Economic instability and fear of competition turned the tension between the old established White Russians and the German refugees to hostility. They distanced themselves from the refugees.

The European refugees faced a social stigma that was detrimental to the white community. In Shanghai the da bizi “Big Nose,” (as the Chinese called the “white men”) did no manual labour, only “coolies” (the term white men used for the Chinese) did manual labor. Between the two were the refugees who were left with no choice but to accept any job, and that caused the white men to lose face.

Fortunately for the refugees, Sephardic Jews like the Sassoons, the Abrahams, the Khardoons and the Kadoories, all British citizens residing in Iraq, were less sensitive to the social class distinctions and played a critical role in assisting and financing the refugees. Often the refugees needed small loans to set up some sort of business or shops. Their assistance financed about two-thirds of the refugee enterprises who eventually became independent. Out of rubble in Hongkew, the refugees built their homes and businesses.

A former Jewish refugee visits Tilanqiao area on April 27, 2006 in Shanghai, China. About 120 former Jewish refugees and their descendants from the United States, Germany, Australia and other countries are in town for the ‘2006 Shanghai Reunion’, aims to call on the United Nations to list Shanghai’s Tilanqiao Area as a world heritage site. Image by Getty Images

Drastic changes occurred after Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, the day war was declared between the U.S. and Japan. The Japanese started to confiscate the property of enemy nationals and the refugee employees were put out of work. The flow of commerce and financing also came to a halt; only small amounts of funds reached the refugees. Japanese authorities who for so long did not interfere in the affairs of the International Settlement now became hostile. One way to disrupt the life in the Settlement was to “buy” up property and evict the tenants. Jewish refugees were forced to move to the camps. Despite the aggravated conditions, one venue was left open to the refugees, the flow of information from Europe, continued uninterrupted.

Further deterioration of the situation came in 1942, when the Nazis exerted more influence on the Japanese and anti Semitic articles became more pointed and indiscriminate. It culminated with a Proclamation of Restriction of Residence on Businesses of “stateless refugees” on February 18, 1943, ordering all refugees who had arrived in 1937, to relocate to the Wayside district within 3 months. Some 8,000 refugees were forced to vacate their homes, businesses, cafes and leave the premises. Strict economic restrictions forbade them to sell their property without permission from the Japanese. Breaking the regulations carried severe repercussions, often from the loss of meager privileges to the loss of freedom. The refugees were left without means of survival, without food and shelter and depended to solely of aid from the local Jewish Refugee Committee.

The architect of this policy was a Japanese named Ghoya, who like Eichmann in Germany, liked to be photographed in front of lines of Jews. He called himself “King of the Jews.” He wanted to be feared and at the same time to be popular, He played with refugees’ children and at the same time tyrannized the refugees with conflicting orders. He ordered families to break up and be segregated, imposed new and severe economic difficulties, brought rigorous curtailment of freedom and security, and infused a feeling of fear and terror into the group.

The Japanese military also instituted a somewhat controversial initiative to organize the Jews in the foreign Pao Chia system. This system organized Chinese cities in groups of ten households with a team leader and they were responsible for their internal affairs and protection. The refugees were required to do “guard duty” for three hours every day and report any unusual activities. Refusal or delays in carrying out this duty was followed up with extra duties, or in more severe cases disciplinary action.

On August 10, 1945 the news of the end of the war spread like wildfire in the camp and the refugees celebrated. Japanese authorities kept out of sight and the feeling of freedom was restored to “Little Tokyo.” Then the horrors of the Holocaust started to sink in.

__Jewish history is one long story of seeking refuge. From Hitler’s Berlin to Soviet Moscow, from fundamentalist Teheran to chaos-ridden Addis-Ababa — read more of Jewish refugees’ stories here._

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