Not far from the Bund district in Shanghai, with its hordes of tourists and view of the city’s famous skyscrapers across the Huangpu River, is a quiet neighborhood called Hongkou.
Walk here along Zhoushan Road and you’ll stumble on a sign that signifies an otherwise unremarkable building at No. 59 as a landmark.
“During the World War II,” the sign reads in imperfect English, “a number of Jewish refugees lived in this house, among whom is Michael Blumenthal, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury of the Carter Government.”
The marker offers a clue to the hidden Jewish history of Shanghai and the incredible story of thousands of Jews who fled the Nazis and found refuge here in what was the Far East’s only Jewish ghetto. Among them was Blumenthal, who fled Europe with his family, spent part of his youth in Shanghai, then moved to the U.S. and served in the late 1970s under U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
The best way to learn about this unusual slice of Jewish and Shanghai history is on a tour with an Israeli expat named Dvir Bar-Gal. But be warned: This is no superficial glance at the highlights; this is a five-hour, $60 mini-course with Bar-Gal as professor. With his encyclopedic knowledge and intense passion, he brings to life a vanished world, attracting visitors from every continent, many of them descended from the Jews who only survived the Second World War because they found refuge in Shanghai.
“No other place in the whole world saved so many Jewish lives,” Bar-Gal said, adding that “there is no anti-Semitism in China.”
Bar-Gal begins the tour on the bustling Bund, explaining how Jewish merchants from Baghdad helped build Nanjing Road into the neighborhood’s commercial centre in the 19th century. The landmark Peace Hotel, now owned by the Fairmont chain, was built in the 1920s by Victor Sassoon, part of a famous and wealthy Sephardic Jewish family.
Among the community’s rags-to-riches tales was that of Silas Hardoon, who started as a night watchman for the Sassoons and became a powerful real estate developer, helping to turn Nanjing Road into the “Fifth Avenue of China” in the early 20th century.
“Eventually he became the richest Jew in Asia, the real estate king of Shanghai,” Bar-Gal said.
The Kadoorie family, which founded the China Light & Power Company and today owns the Peninsula Hotel Group, is also descended from Sephardic Jews who got their start with the Sassoons.
A second layer was added to Shanghai’s Jewish community when several thousand Jews fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia arrived here at the turn of the 20th century. Many settled in Shanghai’s French Concession district and opened small businesses.
The third layer of Shanghai’s Jews consisted of European refugees fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s. Walking past small shops and tenements in Hongkou today, past street vendors and bicyclists, all of them Chinese, Bar-Gal said: “Imagine here a deli, a bakery, a grocery, a restaurant, a pharmacy,” run by Jews trying to recreate familiar rhythms of European life in their new city.
So many of the residents were Austrian that the area was known as Little Vienna. A Chinese diplomat who worked in Austria during the Second World War, Feng Shan Ho, is part of the story. Defying orders from his superiors, Ho issued lifesaving visas that allowed Jews to leave, most of them traveling by boat from Italy to Shanghai.
“Everyone else rejected them,” Bar-Gal said, referring to the limits other countries — including the U.S. — placed on admitting Jewish refugees. “In the late 1930s, Shanghai was the only option.”
Shanghai was open to Jewish arrivals despite the fact that the city was under control of the Japanese, who were Nazi allies. A Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, also issued thousands of visas that allowed Jews to escape Europe for Japan or China.
But eventually Japanese officials forced all “stateless” people living in Shanghai to move to Hongkou, and turned it into a ghetto. Some 20,000 Jews were crammed into the neighborhood, living as many as 30 to a room, Bar-Gal said. Disease and starvation were rampant, though the Jews tried to help themselves by setting up clinics, soup kitchens, schools and shelters.
“Where we walk today, we are in the heart of the ghetto,” Bar-Gal said.
A stone monument in Huoshan Park, a peaceful place with trees and benches, offers a description of the neighbourhood in Chinese, Hebrew and English as a “designated area for stateless refugees” bordered by Gongping, Tongbei, Huimin and Zhoujiazui roads. But many buildings that once housed the refugees have been torn down, and more are slated for demolition. (Chinese: 霍山公园，原名汇山公园，仅二千平方米不到，是犹太难民主要的游憩地，1947年4月22日，八千名犹太人曾在这里举行集会，抗议英国当局将四名“伊尔贡”（犹太复国主义军事组织）成员处死，是当时上海犹太人组织的规模最大的一次政治活动。现在霍山公园里竖立着一块纪念碑，用中、英和希伯来文介绍了当时 “犹太隔离区”的具体位置).
Bar-Gal’s tour also stops at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum (Chinese: 上海犹太难民纪念馆) and Ohel Moshe synagogue (Moxi Huitang, Chinese: 摩西会堂), where artifacts like passports, photos and a newspaper produced by the refugees are on display. The tour ends inside a tiny, dark apartment that once housed Jews and is now inhabited by several Chinese families. Here Bar-Gal, who is writing a book, describes another of his projects — an effort to find “the lost Jewish cemeteries of Shanghai” and create a memorial. He has found tombstones from the destroyed graveyards in towns and villages, in one case being used as a washboard.
His tour attracts visitors from around the world — Europe, Australia, North America — many of whom had family members living in Shanghai during the war. “They talked about the poverty, the starvation, the sickness,” said Chaya Medalie of Johannesburg, South Africa, who took Bar-Gal’s tour last year. “When you stand in it, you see it from a different perspective. It’s unbelievable.”
If You Go…
SHANGHAI TOUR OF JEWISH HISTORY: http://www.shanghai-jews.com. Four to five hours, usually starting at 9:30 a.m., $61 (400 RMB), offered daily depending on demand. Reservations: Dvir Bar-Gal, 011-86-1300-214-6702, or contact via email through the website.
SHANGHAI JEWISH REFUGEES MUSEUM: 62 Changyang Road, Shanghai; open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $7.60 (50 RMB). Admission to the museum and the Ohel Moshe synagogue onsite is included in Bar-Gal’s tour.
HUOSHAN PARK: Located in Hongkou neighbourhood of Shanghai, on Huoshan Road. Stone monument commemorates the area’s history as a Jewish ghetto for refugees fleeing the Nazis in Europe during the Second World War.
沙逊家族是英籍犹太人，祖居巴格达，1532年大卫.沙逊在印度孟买设立沙逊洋行，以后将英国的棉纺品和印度的鸦片运销中国，成为印度地区的首富加入英国国籍。鸦片战争后，其后代定居伦敦。沙逊家族可称是上海最早、最大、最久的帝国主义冒险家。通过几代人的经营，企业遍布远东各地，组后掌权的维克多.沙逊，他在第一次世界大战负伤致残。上海人给特起个外号“跷脚沙逊”。中山东一路20号（原华懋饭店，华懋公司是新沙逊洋行下属房地产公司，沙逊家族是华懋饭店的投资者，故又名沙逊大厦。）－－现为和平饭店北楼于1926年4月动工建造，请英商公和洋行设计，华商新仁记营造厂承建，总造价土建费为 248万两银元，装修费为312万两银元，1928年9月5日建成。大厦占地面积为4622平方米，建筑面积为36317平方米。钢框架结构，钢材采用英国伦敦道门钢厂产品。建筑平面呈A字形，前部13层，后部9层，其中地下1层。建筑造型具有美国芝加哥学派高层建筑风格，建筑外部用花岗石饰面，通过建筑线条显示简洁明朗的特点，建筑重点处理面向黄浦江的屋顶19余米高的墨绿色方锥体，其表面覆盖的材料为瓦楞紫铜皮（这就是十分著名的金字塔尖顶）。大厦建成后，底层和一、二层辟为出租商场，三层为沙逊洋行写字间，四至九层为华懋饭店客房、餐厅和舞厅，十层以上沙逊家族自用。六至七层华懋饭店客房分三等，其中一等客房9套，分别以中国式、英国式、美国式、法国式、意大利式、西班牙式、德国式、印度式和日本式等不同国家风格的装潢和家具布置。繁华的南京路建成豪华的大厦，吸引着上海滩的地主富商、政客、军阀，使沙逊“身价百倍”。维克多.沙逊是个“跷脚”，有些英国绅士歧视他，大厦落成后他成了上海滩炙手可热的“红人”，沙逊大厦被誉为”远东第一楼“，从此，沙逊将房地产作为赚钱的又一条路子，陆续盖起了汉弥尔顿大厦（今福州大楼）、都城饭店（今新城饭店）、河滨大楼和华懋公寓（今锦江饭店）等，在旧上海38幢十层以上高楼大厦中，沙逊就占了6幢。沙逊的房地产业拥有大小房屋1900幢，占地40多万平方米，仅这些房地产租金，沙逊每年即可收入350万元，成为上海滩房地产巨头。（注意屋顶上两只狮子的图案即为沙逊家族的Coat of arms）