Escape to Shanghai
There is a red and white brick building not far from my grandparents’ home in the Hongkou district of Shanghai. The faded colors and colonial architecture make it an odd presence among cheap barber shops and neighborhood vendors, and behind irons gates, the foyer leads into darkness. Most locals know it as a publishing company, but its real origin is near mythical, disappearing in the mist of history. Yet sometimes a cab pulls up, and visitors take a tour of the building, indicating this place used to be something special, perhaps in another era. Indeed, the building on 62 Changyang Road was the Ohel Moishe Synagogue, the center of a flourishing Jewish community among millions of Chinese. The former place of worship is now a museum; its relics include dark wood furniture and a couple of ancient chamber pots, legacies of the “ghosts of Shanghai” who once came here to escape Hitler and the Holocaust (Gluckman).
Throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, Ohel Moishe Synagogue was where Jews fleeing Nazi persecution turned to first. Over 20,000 Jews from Germany, Austria, and Poland arrived in Shanghai because it was the only place on earth that required no visa and had no quotas. The Synagogue later served as the hub of infamous “Hongkou” Ghetto, to which the Japanese, wilting under German pressure, confined Jews for the duration of WWII.
At their peak, Jews numbered over 30,000 in Shanghai, establishing their own Kosher butcher shops, Yiddish newspapers, schools, hospitals, music circles, and with the financing of Shanghai’s richest men -- the Kadoories, Sassoons, and Hardoons -- a total of seven synagogues. Despite widespread disease and food shortages, a vibrant corner of Shanghai’s patchwork history emerged. But after the WWII as Mao’s PLA closed in on the city, Jews quickly departed for the US, Canada, Australia, or fledging Israel. By the late 1950s, the Jewish “ghetto” had completely vanished.
For these so called Shanghai Jews, the city was a safe refuge when there was no where else to turn to. Shanghai saved more Jews from the Holocaust than any country in the world, more than all Commonwealth states put together (Gluckman). The Chinese, too, suffered tremendously in WWII. 35 million people were killed, countless others tortured, wounded, and raped by the Japanese. Yet in spite of their own plight, they showed immeasurable kindness and generosity towards the Jewish refugees. A common fate had bound two ancient peoples together.
Jerry Moses, a Shanghai Jew, recalled during his trip to Hongkou in 2006 “If we were thirsty, they [the Chinese] gave us water. If we were hungry, they gave us rice cakes. As bad as we had it, they had it worse. And they felt bad for us.” (Minter)
Shanghai, my hometown, a city of immigrants and refugees, is special in its inclusiveness, its tolerance and its willingness to embrace those who are most vulnerable. Long before European Jews showed up on its shore, Shanghai was home for thousands of Russian Jews fleeting the pogroms and the Communist Revolution.
The hospitality of the Shanghai people, the support of the established Sephardic and Zionist community, and the fact that Jewish money was in Japanese imperial coffers ultimately resulted in the survival of nearly all Jews. But besides these factors, there was the empathy of one extraordinary man – Feng-Shan Ho, whose story is still told in the pages of 2,000 visas.
From November 1938, immediately following Kristallnacht, until 1940 when diplomatic relations broke down between the Nazis and the Nationalists, Feng-Shan Ho, then Chinese consul general in Vienna, practiced a “liberal” visa procedure, issuing the entrance documents to Shanghai to all who requested them. Ho was one of the first diplomats to use such means to keep Jews away from the concentration camps. While a visa was not required to enter Shanghai, it was a safe pass necessary to leave the Austria.
Nazi policy at the time refrained from deporting those Jews who had visas to foreign nations. But as the 120,000 Jews of Vienna scrambled to various western embassies, most found shuttered doors and indifferent ears. Quotas were shrunk; Jews were marked on their passports and then barred from receiving papers. Shanghai soon became not only a viable option, but the only option (Falk).
Ho would risk his career, disobeying the orders of his superior, Chinese ambassador to Berlin, who wanted to keep on good terms with Hitler. Ho would disregard “the prevailing attitude of his fellow diplomats, most of whom showed official and personal indifference to the fate of Europe’s Jews” (Jerusalem). Ho rescued perhaps 2,000 lives that would have otherwise perished. Among those saved were the parents of Secretary-General of the World Jewish Congress, Dr. Israel Singer, who escaped to Cuba with visas issued by Ho.
In October 2000, two years after his death, Feng-Shan Ho was named a Righteous Among the Nations for his humanitarian courage. Always modest about his actions, Ho once said “I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help. From the standpoint of humanity, that is the way it should be.” (Poy)
As a Chinese American girl from Shanghai, I was intrigued by the little known history of the Shanghai Jews, why they came, and how they survived. My research led me to believe that as students, we must reach out across the boundaries of race and religion, join hands to struggle against the discrimination and violence in today’s world. We must see the Holocaust as not only a tragedy of Jews, Jehovah Witnesses and Gypsies, but as a tragedy of mankind. For those of us who have never experienced the Holocaust, whose families have not suffered from the horrific events, we must listen and we must comprehend. The task of passing on the knowledge of the Holocaust doesn’t just belong to the descendents of the survivors; adding our voices makes it much more powerful. The events in Rwanda, Sudan and Bosnia prove that hatred, brutality and racism are far from dead. We can choose to fight these evils alone, or we can choose to fight them together.
Ultimately, the Holocaust must be remembered because it not only brought out the worst of humanity, but it also brought out the best. The heroic actions of the Danish resistance, the French underground, church leaders, diplomats, and the countless gentiles who risked themselves so others might live represented the finest ethical examples of mankind. In a way, the Holocaust reminds us of what we are capable of, good and bad, so that we never again trespass across the limits of humanity and so we always remember the great escape of Jews to Shanghai -- a touching testimony to the power of compassion and unity.
• Holocaust Survivors''
Network. Exhibit Document in the Feng Shan Ho Case. 2004
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