Find Jewish history in Shanghai China including Ohel Moshe synagogue and Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

Exploring Shanghai China's Jewish History

His name was Dr. Feng Shan Ho, and he was the rescuer of thousands and thousands of Austrian Jews who fled the Nazis, finding a haven in Shanghai, China. No movie has been made of his life, so few people even in China know of his good deeds. But both before and after the influx of Eastern European Jews in China, there was a thriving community in the city. And the remnants are still there to explore

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Ohel Moshe and Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

Although few people associate Shanghai with Jewish history, in fact there has been a Jewish population in the city for well over 100 years. There are sites associated with that part of Shanghai's past, but the most fascinating is the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum and the story of Dr. Ho.

In 1938 Hitler entered Vienna, and was met with cheering crowds. Dr. Ho had become Chinese Consul General to Vienna and reported being horrified. “Since the annexation of Austria by Germany, the persecution of the Jews by Hitler's "devils" became increasingly fierce, Dr. Ho is quoted as recalling.

Austria's 185,000 Jews needed a place of safety. Shanghai was an open city. No one needed a visa to enter. Many Jews were able to escape by simply booking passage. But in order to escape Hitler's death camps, Jews often needed to provide proof that another country would take them. Dr. Ho started handing out his life-saving visas.

In 1939 the Nazis confiscated the Chinese Consulate building, but Dr. Ho simply moved to smaller quarters, and kept handing out those visas.

He later served as the Republic of China's ambassador to other countries, including Egypt, Mexico, Bolivia, and Colombia, retiring in 1973. He lived the remainder of his life, until his death at age 96, in San Francisco.

Ohel Moshe Synagogue

The congregation started in 1907 by Russian Jews who fled the pogroms of Europe. The synagogue was built in 1927. Over the years the building had deteriorated but in 1988 it was renovated back to its original appearance. Exhibit halls have been added and the expanded complex was re-opened in 2008, as the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum at 62 Changyang Road in Shanghai's Hongkou district.

February 1943 the Japanese forces nearly 20,000 Jewish refugees to live in small area in the over- crowded Hong Kou district. The place became a ghetto where both Jews and Chinese shared years of hardship.

The interior of the original synagogue area has been preserved--even a replica ark, seating, and even stairs up to what would have been the women's area. The second floor exhibit area sports little Judaica, but there is a collection of donated artifacts that might have been used at the time-- a breakfront, wooden chairs, tobacco tins, a bed, and a Singer sewing machine.

Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum Exhibitions

There's a fascinating video that gives the Chinese a chance to highlight their openness to Jewish immigration over the decades. In particular, that while most other countries restricted immigration of Jews trying to escape from the Nazi holocaust, China had open borders. There are also numerous exhibits about Jewish life in China around the 1930s through 1940s.

There is no website, but you can visit the Museum at 62 Changyang Road in the Hongkou District. Taxis are inexpensive and your hotel can provide the address in Chinese.

Architectural Heritage

The first real influx of Jewish settlers came from the opening of Shanghai as a result of the Opium Wars. It's quite a sordid story involving the British forcing the Chinese to participate in the opium trade and open their port cities. When the conflict was over in 1842, the Chinese were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking. Among its provisions--it opened five ports for British trade, including Shanghai. This effectively removed them from the influence and government of China, Shanghai became an open port.

People from all over the world came for the business opportunities. Shanghai became a very cosmopolitan city with British, and French coming and constructing homes and commercial buildings.

Among the groups who came to make Shanghai home were Sephardic Jews with British citizenship from British-controlled Baghdad and Bombay. Slowly they opened shops, grew businesses, and eventually several families became economic titans, responsible for some of the city's landmark buildings.

Two prominent Jewish families were the Sassoons and the Kadoories. Today's Shanghai Children's Palace (an educational and recreational center) was built in 1924 by Elly Kadoorie, from Baghdad, as the family home. Built of marble and lavish enough to be a palace, today it offers children a wide range of extracurricular activities including music, dance, art, model making, science, technology and computer science.

The Ohel Rachel Synagogue was built by tycoon Jacob Sassoon in 1920 in memory of his wife, Rachel, to provide a place of worship for the community (which at its peak numbered 700). It opened in March 1920. Today, it is part of the Shanghai Education Commission compound and has been granted protected status. Although it had been reopened for a short time, there is currently no programs available.

On The Bund, Shanghai's riverside promenade, the Sassoon Building became the Peace Hotel which has reopened as a Fairmont Hotel.

Other Jewish-Related Sites

Zhoushan Road, formerly known as Chushan is one of the small lanes that was part of the Jewish Ghetto. Nearby Huoshan Park is the location of the only memorial to Shanghai's European Jewish refugees.

If You Go

Getting Around Taxis are definitely the best form of transportation around the city. They are easily found, honest, and inexpensive. The only caveat is that the drivers do not speak English.

Before you leave home to even travel to China and Shanghai, make sure you have the name and address of your hotel printed in Chinese. Once in the city, you can take a business card from the hotel and carry it with you. Also, before you leave for the day, ask someone at the desk to write out the name of the places you will be going. I have seen tourists stranded because the taxi driver didn't speak English and they couldn't produce the name of the hotel in Chinese.

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 23, 2016

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