Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Back to Opinion

How Jews Built New Life in ‘Shanghai Ghetto’

(JTA) — The neighborhood in Shanghai that was home to approximately 20,000 Jewish refugees during World War II may be added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.

While the Nazi-fleeing refugees who settled in Shanghai certainly fared better than the family and friends they left behind in Europe, life in the so-called “Pearl of the Orient” was nonetheless turbulent.

Things in Shanghai looked bright initially, when the first German Jewish refugees, many of them doctors and dentists, arrived soon after Hitler’s rise to power.

The local community was apparently so grateful for the professional skills these refugees brought that JTA headlined a 1934 article “German Jewish doctors cause China to be grateful to the Nazis.”

In that article, JTA reported that an American journalist working in China said approximately 100 Jewish doctors had set up practices in Shanghai: … during the short time they have lived in the city they have come to be regarded as “Hitler’s gift to the Far East” by virtue of the medical skill they have contributed to a territory which has long suffered from inadequate medical attention.

“German Jewish doctors,” said the newspaperman, “have already established themselves as being among the most expert surgeons and general practitioners of Shanghai. None of them seems to be suffering from lack of patronage, while most of them have already established themselves as commanding figures in the city’s public health service.”

In 1937, Japan’s occupation of China, brought both good and bad news for Jews there. On the bad side, its conquest of Shanghai was preceded by months of fighting, and during that period, which JTA described as “undeclared war,” Shanghai rabbis reporting the situation of the Jews was “desperate.”

Jewish quarters of this stricken city were patrolled by a Jewish regiment of the Shanghai volunteer corps protecting property of the inhabitants, extinguishing fires and evacuating Jews from danger zones…

On the plus side, under Japanese occupation, Shanghai became an “open city,” providing a haven for thousands of Jews with nowhere else to go. Many who had difficulty obtaining the initial visas necessary to leave Europe, were helped by Ho Feng Shan, a Chinese consul general in Vienna from 1938-1939 who was later nicknamed the “Chinese Schindler” and who risked his life to issue visas to thousands of Jews.

Once in Shanghai, Jews attempted to create new, albeit temporary, lives for themselves. A Jewish daily newspaper, the Shanghai Jewish Chronicle, was founded in 1939. That same year, Benjamin Wylie, the director and general manager of the South China Morning Post and Hong Kong Telegraph, expressed high hopes for the future of Jews in China:

“Shanghai is crowded with Jewish refugees from Central Europe,” Wylie said. “They are professional men and industrialists who have sought refuge there. And I believe that they will do tremendous things for China. I believe that they will properly industrialize the country; that they will teach the Chinese any number of skilled manufacturing processes.”

But not all the Jews in Shanghai were doing well. A JTA report from 1939 said:

About 20 per cent of all the Jewish refugees in Shanghai have succeeded in obtaining employment of one kind or another. The rest depend on the relief granted to them by the three refugee committees in Shanghai. There have been several cases of suicide among the Jewish refugees.

In 1943, at the urging of Germany, the Japanese forced Jews into a small section of the Hongkou District. The area, known as the “Shanghai Ghetto,” was overcrowded and unsanitary, although conditions were not dramatically better in the rest of the city. Diseases such as typhus spread and starvation was rampant for years. Half of the Jewish population survived on donations from charity or other private funds, JTA reported in 1944.

In the months following Japan’s defeat in 1945, thousands of the Shanghai Jews left. Some returned to Germany and Austria to reclaim property, while others went to Palestine, the United States, Australia and various countries in South America.

Those still in China by late 1948 faced a new problem: the Chinese Revolution.

On Dec. 22, 1948, JTA reported that Nationalist soldiers had “looted homes” of Shanghai Jews:

The fear that a pogrom will occur in Shanghai in the interval following the Chinese Nationalists’ withdrawal and the restoration of order by the pursuing armed forces of the Chinese Communists is growing among the Jewish refugees here. The transition period is said to hold very dangerous possibilities for Jewish and other displaced persons in the city.

Through the efforts of various Jewish relief organizations, most of the Jewish refugees were able to leave the chaos. Several Israel-bound groups virtually circumnavigated the world to get there: sailing to San Francisco, riding in a train across the United States (the trains were “guarded” so that they would not try to get off and illegally stay in the country), then boarding another ship for Italy and then, from there, a last ship to Israel.

In 2006, when 108 former Shanghai residents returned to the city for what they called a “Rickshaw Reunion,” Rene Willdorff, the 78-year-old organizer, told JTA of his experiences after arriving from Berlin in 1939:

“My father died of an illness in 1942, so my mother and I lived in near-starvation conditions.”

Even so, said Willdorff, “the Chinese are very nice and gentle people, and they never bothered us. They didn’t care that we were Westerners or Jewish. They left us alone. To a large extent, so did the Japanese, who occupied Shanghai and also had respect for the Jews when we were living in their midst.”

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.