Jewish Museum Exhibit Tells Story of Shanghai’s Hongkou Ghetto

A photograph of Hongkou in the 1930s, which served as a sanctuary for 20,000 Jewish refugees for a decade. (Provided)

A new exhibit coming to the Jewish Museum of Maryland showcases the unlikely and lesser-known story of an East China Jewish refuge during World War II.

“It seemed an opportunity for us to share a rarely heard story that affected a fairly large community,” JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert said. “In fact, the single largest city to host Jewish refugees during World War II was not New York or London, it was Shanghai. That was because Shanghai did not require a visa to enter.”

On Sunday, just a week after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, JMM unveils “Jewish Refugees and Shanghai,” which runs until March 10.

The exhibit is based on the Hongkou Ghetto in Shanghai, which provided sanctuary for a decade beginning in the late 1930s for more than 20,000 Jews fleeing Europe during pogroms.

It is on loan from the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum, which is housed in the renovated Ohel Moshe Synagogue in the former Hongkou Ghetto. Presented in both English and Chinese, the exhibit consists of 52 panels featuring photos and documents from the Hongkou Ghetto. The exhibit will also display an item from JMM’s collection, the marriage certificate and ketubah of William and Selma Kurz, a young couple from Cologne, Germany, who were married in Shanghai before moving to Baltimore in 1947.

The history of Jewry in Shanghai is a multifaceted tale spanning close to a century. Years before refugees settled in Hongkou, Shanghai had established Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish communities. As far back as the mid-1800s, Mizrahi Jews from Iraq and India made their way to Shanghai to pursue business opportunities, and in the early 1900s Russian Jews came to escape pogroms and the Russian Revolution. Still, another wave of Jewish refugees settled in Shanghai during World War II, after the United States and much of the western world shut its doors to Jews from Europe after the Evian Conference in France in 1938.

“That’s what left people in desperation to make their way to Shanghai,” Pinkert said. “Most of the people who made it Shanghai gave up everything to get there.”

Many took long and indirect journeys to arrive in China. Pinkert said the Kurzes settled in Shanghai after traveling by boat through the Suez Canal around Saudi Arabia to India, then Malaysia, and finally to Shanghai. It was not uncommon for those arriving in Shanghai to be destitute.

“Many arrived penniless and had to make their way,” he said. “The exhibit explains how they were able to survive the war. Some were able to go back to their professions. There was a Shanghai Dentists Association, for example, but other professions needed to find whatever labor they could.”

Selma Kurz worked as a dressmaker, a profession she continued once she arrived in Baltimore. But for the Jewish communities outside the Hongkou Ghetto, life wasn’t so different from the lives the Jewish community in Baltimore enjoys today. That is, according to Pikesville resident Jack Jacob.

Born to a Russian mother and Iraqi father, Jacob and his family lived in Shanghai until 1949. He called his Jewish community outside of the ghetto in Shanghai a normal, beautiful Jewish community.

“One of the most fascinating things I can remember is that the Chinese people … left the 10,000 person Jewish enclave alone,” said Jacob of the Jewish community outside of the ghetto. “Never bothered us, never harassed us, there was zero anti-Semitism, and we were completely left in peace. We just a lived a normal life. It was like living in Baltimore.”

Jacob said he cannot speak specifically to the life and education of Jews in the ghetto, since he did not live there and was only a child at the time. He does, however, recognize its historic importance. Without the sanctuary provided by the Hongkou Ghetto, he said, Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, one of the only Eastern European Talmudic academies to survive the Holocaust, might not have persevered. In the early 1940s, about 1,000 Polish Jews arrived to Shanghai from Japan, almost half of whom were students and teachers from Mir Yeshiva who previously fled to Japan to escape the Nazis.

“One of the synagogues in Shanghai was given over to the Mir Yeshiva for them to do their studies,” said Jacob. “Today it’s the biggest yeshiva in the world, and it’s all because Shanghai saved those boys.”

One thing Jacob’s family did have in common with the Jews from the ghetto was that once Mao Zedong, the chairman of the Communist Party of China, proclaimed the land as the People’s Republic of China in 1949, they were no longer welcome. Despite his memories of an undisrupted, peaceful Jewish community, Jacob’s family was forced to move to the then-Portuguese colony of Macau. Most Jews living in Shanghai, however, relocated and rebuilt their lives in the United States like the Kurzes, or in Israel like teachers and students of Mir Yeshiva.

The arrival of the exhibit allows JMM to host its first Winter Teachers Institute, a partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools and professional development opportunity for educators from other local school districts. On Feb. 10, educators will take a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the Chinese Embassy and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to see the “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibit. On Feb. 17, the teachers will see the “Jewish Refugees and Shanghai” exhibit and take part in a facilitated conversation with a Holocaust scholar.

“Over the years we’ve offered a Summer Teachers Institute, but I thought that teachers want to learn during the school year too, and this exhibit lent itself to that opportunity,” said Ilene Dackmon-Alon, JMM’s director of learning and visitor experience.

Like Pinkert, Dackmon-Alon believes current events regarding refugees and immigration make the “Jewish Refugees and Shanghai” exhibit especially poignant. Providing educators with access to exhibits like it and “Americans and the Holocaust,” she said, is very important.

“There are parallels to current events in the United States and what was going on in World War II,” Dackmon-Alon said. “The idea of news and fake news. What does all that mean? There was a refugee problem 75 years ago and today we still hear that same rhetoric.”

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