(This article is based on a longer article published under this title appearing in the journal B’shvil Hazikaron, Vol. 13 (November 2012), pp. 18-25.)
The 1938 pogrom in Germany known as Kristallnacht, the peak of the Nazi regime’s radical anti-Jewish program, was an existential turning point for German Jewry. Immediately following the pogrom, about 30,000 Jewish males were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps, released only upon producing a visa for foreign travel. The Nazi regime moved, in practice, from a policy of segregation of Jews from the general German population to a policy of complete severing of Jews from society and economic life, intended to force them to emigrate, leading to Jewish refugees in Shanghai.
These new circumstances brought about a shift from gradual emigration to an urgent, mass flight of refugees who could no longer afford to be particular about their destination. Many were forced into decisions that split their families, especially in cases in which children and youth were sent to places looking for young people (mainly to the Land of Israel through youth movements and to the U.K. through the Kindertransport), or in cases where men went ahead of their wives.
In Germany in the late 1930s, the name Shanghai was associated with crime, prostitution, corruption and illness. It was considered the ends of the earth, the worst possible option for émigrés. Nonetheless, under the harsh conditions that arose, between 18,000 and 20,000 Jews from Germany and Austria were bound for the Chinese city. This wave of emigration started in the summer of 1938, in the wake of Adolf Eichmann’s policy of forced emigration of Viennese Jews. Beginning in November 1938, large groups of German Jews joined the flow. The largest number of Jews – between 14,000 and 15,000 – arrived in Shanghai from central Europe between December 1938 and June 1939. Both the Japanese who occupied the city and the city council recoiled from this large Jewish influx, especially once World War II started, resulting in a significant drop in Jewish immigration to the city. The last group of Jewish refugees in Shanghai to arrive came from Eastern Europe and numbered about 1,500. Among them were rabbis and students from the Mir Yeshiva, who had been in Japan and were sent to Shanghai in 1941.
The Jewish community of refugees in Shanghai was characterized by its relatively older age and predominance of men over women. Young people, even those whose families went to Shanghai, tended towards other destinations. Only about 10% were below the age of 15. Most immigrants thus found it difficult to adjust to their new surroundings, both professionally and in learning new languages, mainly English, which was essential. The preponderance of males among the Jewish immigrants had resulted from the apparently greater urgency of rescuing men, given the mass arrests of Jewish males during Kristallnacht. The female minority adapted more successfully to the harsh life in Shanghai; the males experienced a greater blow to their social and professional standing, and the city’s widespread unemployment made it difficult for them to find work. The women, on the other hand, found more options for employment and some even re-invented themselves professionally.
What were the international conditions that enabled this large immigration of Jewish refugees in Shanghai? The city’s unique international status in the late 1930s derived from the combination of a colonial legacy and the Japanese conquest of the city in 1937. None of those involved in Shanghai’s international arrangement recognized the Chinese puppet ruler installed by the Japanese. As a result, from 1938 the city was under no jurisdiction, and until 1940 no passport control was enforced upon those entering it.
Prior to the influx of Jewish immigrants from Central Europe, there already existed two veteran Jewish communities in Shanghai: a long-established community of Baghdad origin, numbering 600-800 people, and a Russian community numbering 3,000-4,000. On October 19, 1938, as the flow of refugees increased, the Committee for the Assistance of European Jewish Refugees in Shanghai (CFA) was established. The CFA provided refugees with vital assistance, first and foremost in housing and food, and eventually also in health and education. It was run by the Baghdadi Jews with help from the Joint Distribution Committee(JDC) in America.
The Jewish refugees in Shanghai had to cope with basic difficulties. The harsh weather, with the high humidity and heat of summer and powerful rainstorms in winter, was compounded by a poor sewage infrastructure, which led to high rates of illness and death. Added to this daily struggle were impoverished living and employment conditions. Many refugees lived in hastily rebuilt structures that had been destroyed in the Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese occupation and isolation of the city also had wreaked vast damage to its economy, severely limiting employment opportunities.
Beyond the material hardship caused by economic woes, the prolonged stay in Shanghai presented a significant challenge to the spirit. Most refugees expected to spend weeks, or at most months, in China, and were not mentally prepared to accept Shanghai as a permanent home. As the war continued and broadened, their future looked bleaker and less clear. They were cut off from family left behind as well as from relatives who had reached other shores. Their interaction with the local Chinese population, themselves oppressed by the Japanese occupation, was made difficult by the language barrier. Most of the Jewish refugees had been respectable, middle class wage earners in their old homeland and given charity to the needy; now, many were forced into a passive life, and in the daily struggle for survival had become dependent upon charitable organizations and individuals.
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and its entry into World War II brought a tragic turning point for the Jewish refugees in Shanghai, who became increasingly isolated from the world. Worse, this isolation meant the cessation of the flow of aid from America, which crippled the city’s charitable organizations.
On February 18, 1943, the Japanese military rule ordered the concentration of all landless refugees who had arrived since the Japanese takeover in 1937. Ostensibly a general security measure, and devoid of the terms “Jewish” or “ghetto,” it was nonetheless an obvious anti-Jewish act of German influence. The ghetto was not hermetically sealed but the development had a disastrous effect – in one fell swoop, half of the Jewish refugees lost their livelihood and their dwelling.
The most tragic moment in the ghetto occurred ironically near the end of the war in the East, on July 17, 1945. The Japanese radio station in Shanghai was bombed by the Americans, and several stray bombs hit the ghetto, killing 31 Jews and wounding another 250, in addition to killing hundreds of local Chinese.
Following the American liberation of Shanghai and the renewal of communications with the free world, the refugees’ situation improved significantly. Within two years, several thousand made their way to the United States, Australia and other countries. Others, in particular older people, returned to Germany. Shortly after the State of Israel was established, an Israeli mission opened in the city and within a short period, about 10,000 Jews, including some from the veteran Sephardi and Russian Jewish communities, arrived in Israel.
Prof. Guy Miron teaches Jewish History at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. His new book The Waning of Emancipation: Jewish History, Memory and the Rise of Fascism in Germany, France and Hungary is published by Wayne State University Press.
English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.
Image: “Matan Torah” from Sefer Minhagim, author unknown, 1723, woodcut. Courtesy of the TALI Education Fund website, Visual Midrash, a digitalized collection of artwork on biblical and Judaic subjects.