Shanghai Jews and the Chinese Schindler

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 June, 2006, 12:00am

The strongest bond between Jews and Shanghai was forged when up to 30,000 found refuge there from Nazi persecution in the second world war.

It required an extraordinary series of circumstances for Jews to reach the city.

First, although most countries in the world refused to accept Jewish refugees, China did not require visas or travel documents.

Secondly, the Jews found diplomats such as He Fengshan of China and Chiune Sugihara of Japan who were willing to give them visas, in defiance of their host governments.

For example, 1,000 Polish Jews received visas from Sugihara, then consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, enabling them to travel through Soviet Russia to Shanghai. He (left), Chinese consul in Vienna from 1938-1941, also issued thousands of visas for China.

Thirdly, although Japan was an ally of Nazi Germany, it refused to implement requests from Berlin to set up concentration camps in Shanghai and kill the Jews living there. Under pressure to do something, the Japanese authorities set up a ghetto area in the Hongkou district in 1943 for so-called stateless persons, into which those who had arrived from Europe after 1937 had to move. This didn't apply to Jews resident in the city before 1937, who had freedom of movement and were able to help those in the ghetto.

Unlike the Nazis, the Japanese regarded the Jews quite well, as holders of wealth and power - which they wanted to tap for the benefit of the Japanese empire. Jewish banks had provided loans to Japan during its war with tsarist Russia in 1904-1905 - whereas many banks in Europe refused to provide such finance, for fear of upsetting the tsar.

Conditions in the ghetto deteriorated as the war went on and the Japanese issued passes to work outside only on an arbitrary basis.

Jews who lived in Shanghai during this period recalled with fondness and gratitude the treatment they received from the Chinese people.

Many settled in a particular suburb of Tel Aviv, where in 1958 they built a synagogue and museum devoted to those who lived there.