Tag Archive | Jewish refugees in WWII

Shànghǎi Heroes–Are we our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers?

Jewish children rounded up for the Chelmno extermination camp http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89vian_Conference

A book and a recent visit to a Shànghǎi  museum have changed the way I see the Holocaust.  I’ve also been reminded about the necessity for each of us to do what can be done.

Because I’ve read books, seen movies, been to Anne Frank’s house, went to Horton Watkins–a public high school where 96% of the students were Jewish, had a Jewish stepmother, and married a Jewish man,  I  felt I knew about the Holocaust.   I blamed only the Nazis and Germans.

However, a young adult novel, The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak helped me understand how the German people allowed the Holocaust to happen–not only to Jews, but also to Communists, gypsies, and others.   I recommend you read the book too. http://www.amazon.com/The-Book-Thief-Markus-Zusak/dp/0739337270

Then the Ohel Moshe Synagogue/Jewish Refugee Museum  in Shànghǎi has also had a big impact on my perception of the Holocaust. 

When almost no place in the world would take Jewish refugees during WWII, over 20,000 people were given safe haven in Shànghǎi.

Intersection in front of museum

One of the Jewish refugees in Shànghǎi explained:

“We were alive, and we kids could play with each other among us or with the Chinese kids.  The amazing thing I can’t forget is that though the people of Hongkou [pronounced “hong koh”– a district of Shànghǎi] were even suffering more than us, they still showed a lot of sympathy for us.  I think that is the most amazing thing in my life.  How can somebody who is worse off than I am, still feel sorry for me and be kind to me[?]  That’s the reason why my childhood’s heart will always remain in Shànghǎi . . I will forever be full of gratitude for …  China and my gratitude will remain for future generations.  Being kind and good to people in need is a victory for the human race” [my emphasis].

Where was help from other countries?  According to the Holocaust Musuem website:

“Between 1933 and 1941, the Nazis aimed to make Germany ‘judenrein’ (cleansed of Jews) by making life so difficult for them that they would be forced to leave the country. By 1938, about 150,000 German Jews, one in four, had already fled the country. After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, however, an additional 185,000 Jews were brought under Nazi rule. Many Jews were unable to find countries willing to take them in.

Many German and Austrian Jews tried to go to the United States but could not obtain the visas needed to enter. Even though news of the violent pogroms of November 1938 was widely reported, Americans remained reluctant to welcome Jewish refugees. In the midst of the Great Depression, many Americans believed that refugees would compete with them for jobs and overburden social programs set up to assist the needy.

Congress had set up immigration quotas in 1924 that limited the number of immigrants and discriminated against groups considered racially and ethnically undesirable. These quotas remained in place even after President Franklin D. Roosevelt, responding to mounting political pressure, called for an international conference to address the refugee problem.

In the summer of 1938, delegates from thirty-two countries met at the French resort of Evian. Roosevelt chose not to send a high-level official, such as the secretary of state, to Evian; instead, Myron C. Taylor, a businessman and close friend of Roosevelt’s, represented the US at the conference. During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees.

Responding to Evian, the German government was able to state with great pleasure how “astounding” it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when “the opportunity [was] offer[ed].”

Even efforts by some Americans to rescue children failed: the Wagner-Rogers bill, an effort to admit 20,000 endangered Jewish refugee children, was not supported by the Senate in 1939 and 1940. Widespread racial prejudices among Americans–including antisemitic attitudes held by the US State Department officials–played a part in the failure to admit more refugees.”  …With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic, no country [wa]s willing to accept more refugees.” (http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007698).

Barry, me, Danny, and Ruth in front of the Ohel Moshe Synagogue/ Jewish Refugee Museum menorah  

The most damning information about the complacency and complicity for the Holocaust comes from Wikipedia [I know this is not the best source, but here it is]:

“Hitler responded to the news of the conference by saying essentially that if the other nations would agree to take the Jews, he would help them leave.

[Hitler wrote]’I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews-Wikipedia note], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.’  [3 ]

With both the United States and Britain refusing to take in substantial numbers of Jews, the conference was ultimately seen as a failure by Jews and their sympathizers. Most of the countries at the conference followed suit, the result being that the Jews had no escape and were ultimately subject to what was known as Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. The conference was seen by some as “an exercise in Anglo-American collaborative hypocrisy.”[3]–^ a b Ronnie S. Landau (2006). The Nazi Holocaust. I.B.Tauris. pp. 137–140. ISBN 978-1-84511-201-1. Retrieved 24 March 2011.

In a July 1979 article in Time magazine, U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, explained:

“At stake at Evian were both human lives – and the decency and self-respect of the civilized world. If each nation at Evian had agreed on that day to take in 17,000 Jews at once, every Jew in the Reich could have been saved.[my emphasis]. As one American observer wrote, ‘It is heartbreaking to think of the …desperate human beings … waiting in suspense for what happens at Evian. But the question they underline is not simply humanitarian … it is a test of civilization.'”[12]


OMG–it’s simplistic to blame only Hitler and the Nazis for the Holocaust!

So how could I not know?  On one level, I did know.  I’d read about the S.S. St. Louis with its 937 German Jewish passengers seeking asylum and how it had to return to Europe; over a quarter of  its passengers were killed by the Nazis.  I knew there were U.S. quotas for immigration.  But I assumed those facts were aberrations.  I want to be proud of the U.S. and see it as a generous, wise country.  Also, my basic personality is to see the best—and if I can’t do anything personally to make a difference, ignore the rest.  My outlook is supported by the fact that I’m white, and although I was raised in a lower-middle class family, I never worried about eating or being able to go to school.     My experience is that if I smile and greet people, they will respond in positive ways to me.  It’s reassuring to have this basically Pollyanna point of view.

However, Ms. Eleanor, my son’s 8th grade teacher, says about the U.S. that “With great light comes great darkness.”  We have much freedom to make choices—good and bad.  People who cannot take good care of their children have them anyway.  Without too much trouble, people can choose to drink (and drive), use crystal meth, shoot up heroin, join gangs, eat junk food, spend much of their lives playing video games . …

Many of us don’t want to see the dark side of the U.S. especially if we feel there is nothing we can do or have any power to change.  When I taught history at Wells High School in Chicago, some of my 9th graders were shocked to learn that we had dropped atom bombs on Japan.  So I can understand how some Americans believe that if minority people in ghettos just work hard, they will be successful.  But tell that to a young black male on the South side of Chicago, which has escalating murders and many hundreds of  gang members warring over turf. The best job from their angle must look like drug pushing.

We  must see the suffering—and know something to do about it.  To see what those in the U.S. and other countries did not do during WWII,  it took me learning what the people of Shànghǎi did for Jewish refugees.

However, even with this insight, there isn’t much I can do about the Holocaust now except know as much of the truth as possible.  There isn’t much I can do about Assad and what he is now doing to his own people in Syria (except give money to relief organizations) since I’m not going to go to Syria and kill anyone.

So how can we avoid despair over the state of the world and the anguish we see when we look?  For me, the answer is –

  1. Look for the light of God within each person.  It is there.
  2. Work to become the best you can be.  Develop your potential.  Find your passions.  Work on improving your skills.  If you love glass blowing, become the best glass blower possible and keep improving.  There’s a need for everyone’s talent.
  3. Take care of your body; it’s the only one you are likely to get.  Live long enough actually to learn something and to contribute to the world.  Exercise, eat healthy food; educate yourself about healthy life styles and nutrition.
  4. Share your talents and your assets. In theU.S.,   most of us are blessed with opportunities and safety.  Use those opportunities well.
  5. Share. I can try to do something for my neighbor in Maui who is constantly screaming at her kids; she does not see them as valuable treasures in her life.  It’s likely she was never treated as a treasure either.   I can befriend the family.  And I can use what I’m trained for and be the best possible teacher for my students.  I can write, send letters to politicians, send checks to Free the Slaves, World Wildlife Fund, East Maui Animal Refugee, . . .   I can look around me and see how I can help.  I can volunteer for voter registration and work on the campaign of an excellent candidate.
  6.  I can keep my eyes open and do what I can.  The people of Shànghǎi did that—we can too.

Looking at what the Shànghǎise did can be a model for us today.  Other sources confirm the generosity of the Shànghǎise.  Travel China Guide reports that  between 1937 and 1941 in great contrast to the reaction of other countries, Shànghǎi  received 25,000 Jewish refugees and became the only metropolis in the world which did not refuse Jews…. “Ohel Moshe Synagogue” became a synonym for “rescue” and “refuge.” [http://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/shanghai/jewish-refugees-museum.htm]

The invading Japanese also insisted the Jewish refugees in China be sent along with a Jewish community that had been established in Harbin in the north of China to the Hongkou section of Shànghǎi.  Conditions were terrible– with 10 to a room, gross sanitation, disease, and little food. Hongkou quickly became a ghetto.  But the local Shanghaiese did not leave.  They did not isolate the Jewish refugees. 


Inside the synagogue, Lulu, our friendly, knowledgeable  guide, with our Israeli friends Ruth and Danny

Door to the museum

“Tomorrow we would be starting a new life in a strange city in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar language, climate, and people, where we would be safe and free”

Street near the synagogue

Entrance to the Ohel Moshe Synagogue

Inside the synagogue

History of the synagogue

From the synagogue courtyard

Important dates of the Jewish oppression

From the 2nd floor

Of the 32 participating countries at the Evian Conference in July 1938, only the tiny Dominican Republic agreed to take Jewish refugees

Menorah with message from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin

Photo of Jewish refugees who found safety in Shànghǎi

With help from the Shànghǎi Jewish community and American Jewish charities, the refugees did get help.  They soon had schools, newspapers, and small businesses.  The local Chinese accepted the Jewish refugees and helped them.  Hongkou residents became their brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers.

Danny and our wonderful guide, Lulu

Why did the Jewish refugees go to Shànghǎi?  A Jewish community had already established itself  in Shànghǎi for about a 100 years before WWII.

According to “A Walk through Shanghai’s Hongkou Jewish Quarter” by  Sara Nauman in About.com Guide:  “In the 1840s, Iraqi Jews who’d made fortunes in India increased them in Shanghai and laid a foundation that catapulted the sleepy Huangpu River town to the forefront of trade. In the beginning of the twentieth century Russian Jews fled anti-semitism, founding new working-class communities in Harbin and further south in Shanghai. Finally, between 1937 and 1941, . . . more Jews found sanctuary in China than in any other country in the world. . . . [my emphasis].  While not imprisoned, over 20,000 men, women and children were thrust into an already over-crowded neighborhood and blocked from leaving without proper papers. What had once been called “Little Vienna” for its thriving community became known as the Jewish Ghetto” (http://gochina.about.com/od/whattoseeinshanghai/ss/SH_HonkouWalk.htm)

Today high-end tourists stay on the Bund at the Peace Hotel, the former Cathay Hotel founded by Sir Victor Sassoon of Iraqi Jewish descent.  Sassoon and other important Jewish residents were instrumental in opening  Shànghǎi to those Europeans fleeing Nazis.

The Peace Hotel – founded by Sir Victor Sassoon.  He worked tirelessly in getting a safe-haven for the fleeing European Jews .  Today, it is still a beautiful hotel–where you can hear great American jazz.


The apartment in the Hongkou ghetto where former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President Carter, Michael Blumenthal, lived during WWII as one of the rescued Shànghǎi refugees

Another now famous person rescued is artist Peter Max.

Peter Max with a drawing of his Chinese nanny   

Max credits his Chinese nanny for his early love of drawing.

Ruth gave me this link to a recent article: http://www.whatsonxiamen.com/news27618.html

Apartments near the Ohel Moshe Synagogue where the refugees found safety

Hongkou apartments today

A game of pool on the street in Hongkou district

Laundry on the electric wires – Hongkou district

Hongkou people today

As children, did these people in the park near the synagogue play with Jewish refugee children?

Kids in the park near the synagogue

Although the Ohel Moshe Synagogue is not in use now except as a museum, a small but active Jewish community is in Shànghǎi today.  Go to http://www.chinajewish.org/ for more information.

Another link tells about the settlement of Jews in Shanghai:  http://www.dangoor.com/71page18.html

Taking clothes from the electric wires

The area still looks grey and poor, but the Shànghǎiese  here showed love and compassion to Jewish refugees when others just looked away

Of course, Hitler and the Nazis are to blame for the Holocaust, but if everyone had been like the Shànghǎiese who opened their hearts and lives to the fleeing refugees, the Holocaust would not have claimed the lives of six million Jewish people.

For me, it’s much easier to see what friends, family members, neighbors, politicians, countries . . . should have done or should be doing than what it is to see what I could be doing.  For most of us who are affluent enough in money and time to be able to read blogs, it’s pretty easy to write a check to a favorite charity.  However, whether it’s Hitler and the Nazis, who killed 6,000,000 Jews and other civilians, or today, with Assad and his army, who have killed an estimated 17,000 of their own people or gang members in Chicago killing each other and bystanders, or neighbors who are neglecting their children, evil and suffering of all sorts are in the world.

Those of us who are white, with jobs, and American or from other affluent countries are often sheltered from seeing the anguish of others. But the Shanghaiese in Hongkou during WWII showed  through their actions that were not convenient, popular, nor without personal consequences a real way to make a difference in the lives of others.  They truly are good examples for us of being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

Look around; do what you can do.  Much help is needed.  Let’s be like the Chinese who welcomed the Jewish refugees.  What each of us does (or doesn’t do) matters.

from – Fallston Animal Rescue Movement

Do something; help someone.  Be a mench, a truly good person.

Zài Jiàn, Renée

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