While in Shanghai we visited the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum which commemorates the lives of the Jews who fled to Shanghai during the Holocaust. The history of the Jews in China predate World War II.
Jewish History in China
Jewish history in China dates back to the 7th and 8th century when the first immigrants arrived. They remained a small and shrinking minority due to assimilation and intermarriage with the Han Chinese. The original Jewish immigrants were Sephardic Jews known as the Kaifeng Jews who traveled from Persia to India before settling in the Gansu area of China.
Mizrahi Jewish merchants from the Middle East began trading in China starting on the 19th and 20th century via the Hong Kong port after it became part of the British colony. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, large numbers of Russian Jews fled to northern China to the border cities like Harbin.
History of Jews in Shanghai
After World War I, many Ashkenazi Jews resettled in Shanghai. Another wave of Ashkenazi Jewish refugees came to China during World War II. An estimated 23,000 Jewish refugees came between 1933-1941
Upon arrival to the Shanghai port they were put on the back of an open truck and set up with housing near Suzhou Creek. The first few families found apartments but as more came it became harder to find work and apartments. Approximately 3,000 of the 18,000 refugees never found their own place.
Jewish History Museum of Shanghai
The Jewish History Museum of Shanghai is located at the site of the former Ohel Moshe or Moishe Synagogue in the Hongkou district.
If you plan to go by taxi, below are the Chinese characters for the address. Just show the below to your taxi driver. It is also possible to reach the museum via the metro on line 1 at the Tilanqiao stop. It is a one block walk from the station.
请带我去 长阳路62号, 近舟山路
The former synagogue is no longer intact, but was rebuilt in the model of the original temple. The Chinese government even rebuilt an ark and found a Torah to place within, though we were told that the Torah is not kosher.
The exhibit itself is fascinating simply because it mixes Jewish history with Chinese propaganda. The upstairs of the temple has been converted into an exhibition area including a screening room. There is an area dedicated to He Feng Shan who received the Medal of the Righteous due to his role in providing passports to thousands of escaping Jews.
We spent quite a while in the screening room watching a documentary (in Chinese) of the Chinese and Jewish families who grew close during this period of time and detailed the reunion of these families in recent years.
Perhaps the most interesting section of the museum is in the annex behind the schul. In there is yet another screening room with a movie detailing the history of the Jewish migration to China (there is a very favorable light placed on the Chinese government in this video). Next to the screening room are replicas of store fronts and signage of the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai. Today there is a very small Jewish population left in Shanghai as most left after 1945, so this was a very interesting walk into the past.
Ohel Rachel Synagogue
While Ohel Moshe is the site of the Shanghai Jewish Museum, it is not the only (or largest) synagogue in Shanghai. The Ohel Rachel Synagogue in the French concession was the biggest and largest synagogue built in China. Famed architect Jacob Sassoon who also built the Peace Hotel as well as another Synagogue in Hong Kong built Ohel Rachel and named it after his wife. Today the building is the Shanghai Ministry building. It was restored during Bill Clinton’s visit to Shanghai (though he never went) and was visited by Hillary Clinton, Madeline Albright and Chelsea Clinton. Today the Jewish community in Shanghai are able to enter for Rosh Hoshanah, Yom Kippur, Chanahkah and Holocaust Memorial Day.
As a final note, before the construction of these temples, Jewish refugees rented theaters in Shanghai for service, and public parks were used for Passover dinners.