Finding refuge in Shanghai | German-Jewish cultural heritage in China | DW | 29.11.2012
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Finding refuge in Shanghai

As more and more Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria desperately tried to escape Nazi terror at the end of the 1930s, there were few places for them to find refuge. But Shanghai remained an option.

Neighboring European countries had imposed de facto bans on immigration and the United States capped their entry quota to 25,000 people per year. Other expatriate nations such as Australia and New Zealand also accepted hardly any refugees. For Jews from Nazi Germany, which then included Austria, it had become almost impossible to emigrate.

One of the last places of refuge was Shanghai, a traditionally open city. Since the Opium Wars of the 19th century, parts of the city were ruled by foreign colonial powers. There was the French Concession and the "International Settlement" - a product of the British and American leasehold territory which was run by local business people.

Anyone could travel and reside there. The city lived from trade. Political dissidents from other parts of China also came to Shanghai, and the Communist Party of China was founded there in 1921. After the October Revolution, Russians loyal to the tsar also settled in the city.

Shanghaialso attracted adventurers and criminals from around the world. Organized crime, the opium trade and prostitution flourished. A sentence passed down from an American missionary reads: "If God allows Shanghai to enjoy, he'll owe Sodom and Gomorra an apology."

A war-time house in Shanghai with an outdoor kitchen

War-time houses in Shanghai often had no indoor kitchen

A diplomatic hero

By the end of the 1930s, the unique metropolis was the last place in the world Jewish refugees could still reach without a visa. However there was one hurdle: In order to gain permission to leave, the German authorities requested confirmation that émigrés could enter their country of destination. Some Chinese consulates produced such confirmation papers.

The Chinese consul in Vienna, Ho Feng Shang, particularly excelled at issuing the "visas" and the lives of thousands of Jews were saved as a result. Between 15,000 and 20,000 German and Austrian Jews were able to immigrate to Shanghai after the outbreak of war in 1939.

The Jewish refugees, the majority of which entered the country penniless and without possessions, went to the north-western area of the International Settlement. The Japanese, who had taken control of the International Settlement since 1941, announced in 1943 that Jewish refugees could only live in a certain designated area of Hongkou.

The Designated Area for Stateless Refugees was regularly labeled the "ghetto" of Shanghai. However, the ruling did not apply to all Jews in the city; only the "stateless" Jews - those that had fled from Europe - were forced to move there.

Unlike in European ghettos, Jewish refugees in Hongkou lived side-by-side with other nationalities. But in order to leave the ghetto they needed permission. It was only after the end of the war that Jews could move freely in the city.

After 1945, most Jewish refugees immigrated to the US, Palestine and Australia. Only a few hundred returned to Germany.

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